USSOCOM Commander Seeks Real-Time Data Fusion

Gen. Thomas shares how the story of USSOCOM’s future has roots in the past


Two epiphanies tell the story of how Gen. Raymond A. Thomas sees the future of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), which he leads. The first involved a Defense Innovation Group that visited USSOCOM two years ago, Thomas said Tuesday during his GEOINT 2018 keynote address. That group included Erik Schmidt, former executive chairman of Google parent company Alphabet, who lauded USSOCOM for its people and ability to create prototypes.

“But it was [another] comment that really stuck with me,” Thomas continued. “[Schmidt] said, ‘General, you are terrible at deep learning.’ He went on to say, ‘I know you live in a world of wicked problems, but I bet if I spent a moment, a bit of time under your tent, I can solve every one of your wicked problems through simple up-down switches and application of advanced algorithms and mathematics.’ He was absolutely certain he was right. And I was absolutely certain I was about to bounce him out of the car here on Bayshore [Boulevard].”

The audience chuckled while Thomas explained that he restrained his impulse and paused to think.

“It struck me that he was absolutely right. Most of our critical processes across the domains of processing, exploitation, and dissemination of publicly available information, and captured enemy material, to name a few, would be drastically improved by leveraging the methods that industry is already putting to very effective use.”

The second epiphany came two weeks ago during a tour of a data fusion center in New York City. Thomas watched as data was gathered from around the city by sensors that capture five to eight million license plates each day, along with vectors of shots fired, domestic disputes, and more. The data was fused with historical perspective and threat assessment information then assimilated and disseminated to 36,000 officers on patrol through a secure communications network.

“Think of it as the cop on the beat—or the soldier on patrol—who has all the information that he or she needs ahead of time, or as much information as we can provide them,” Thomas said. “[That, combined] with the most aggressive machine learning approach possible to discern and figure out what they need to know. And the ability to real-time see what they aren’t seeing in a crowded room or a crowded space with the help of these sensors.”

After witnessing the art of the possible, Thomas said he hopes to steer USSOCOM in a similar direction.

In a way, the NYC data fusion center brings to reality what an Army master sergeant told then Gen. Stanley McChrystal during a 2003 after-action review in Iraq attended by Thomas.

The soldier drew a battle sketch on a white board, Thomas said. It included what he believed were sensors on hand, and those he also believed should have been on hand.

“We’re good, but you need to make us so much better,” Thomas recalled the master sergeant telling the general. “His demand was, ‘I want it all, and I want it on a 3-by-3 screen on my watch. I also want a local-access network so I can operate no matter where I am.’”

The master sergeant was a visionary, Thomas said, and his vision extends to today in Syria, where 2,000 mostly Special Operations Forces withstand interdiction designed to disrupt communications on a regular basis. Both sides of the conflict understand the value of intelligence.

“So what does it take to get there?” Thomas said of New York City’s capability and the master sergeant’s demand. “It takes a boldness that, arguably, we aren’t quite approaching. It takes getting over our fears. We have the people. We have the opportunity right now. If that’s not compelling enough, our adversaries are already clipping along at an extraordinary rate to be there. Taking it one step further, how far do you think it will take for a totalitarian regime to take the applications of machine learning and cross them over into security approaches. … We have to compete.”

He drove the message home for the audience.

“The people to solve this problem are in this room,” he said with a challenge. “There’s one missing link, and I ask you to think obsessively about it: the customer.”

Thomas leads a combatant command that involves about 8,000 special operators in 90 countries, along with thousands of support personnel, including 75 detailed from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

USSOCOM is a voracious consumer of GEOINT data, but also a strong contributor.

“In fiscal year 2017, we collected 127 terabytes of data in captured enemy material alone,” Thomas said. “Every year the number increases exponentially.”

That doesn’t include full-motion video and publicly available intelligence, he added.

“To put it in perspective, the Osama Bin Laden raid resulted in only 2.7 terabytes of data,” Thomas said.

As many other GEOINT 2018 speakers have already done, Thomas pointed to a need to share intelligence data more freely. It’s becoming a litany in an Intelligence Community adapting to multilateral operations.

“As we seek solutions, we have to get over our fear of sharing information,” Thomas said. “Right now, information sharing is the coin of the realm of my force. As much, or as important, as being man-to-man with people out in the field is our ability to share information with them.”


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