The future of U.S. special operations may no longer involve a gaggle of commandos busting through a door, according to U.S. Special Operations Command's top general, but 'cyber operator' tasked with bringing their unique set of tools to bear on adversaries.

Speaking to thousands of members of the defense industrial base at the 2020 Virtual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, SOCOM commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke laid out his vision for the future of U.S. special operations around the globe, a future that, while still centered on violent extremism, will rely heavily on information warfare.

“We need coders,” Clarke said. “We've been having discussions internally that the most important person on the mission is no longer the operator kicking down the door, but the cyber operator who the team has to actually get to the environment so he or she can work their cyber tools into the fight.”

In Clarke's view, the U.S. military generally and SOCOM specifically must prepare for three wars: a war on extremism, a war of influence, and a war for talent.

The first war on extremism has been the target of SOCOM since well before the Twin Towers fell in New York, Clarke said, and despite the newfound focus on 'great power competition' with near-peer threats like Russia and China details in the 2017 National Defense Strategy, the U.S. military's war on violent extremist organizations (VEOs) will remain a top priority for the command for years to come.

“This is a generational fight that SOCOM is going to be involved in for the long haul,” Clarke said, adding counter-VEO operations are in fact a vehicle for countering adversarial nation states in the service of great power competition.

But great power competition “is about influence, and SOF has a unique and valuable role in this,” Clarke added, and not just through maintaining a physical presence in partner nations around the world — SOCOM “also has to think about the information space” in the interest of that war of influence.

Indeed, Clarke recalled that roughly 90 percent of his leadership during his deployments to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011 was focused on “the kinetic fight … the raid, the kill-capture mission, the destruction of enemy forces.”

But when he visited U.S. special operations forces deployed to Afghanistan in 2019, Clarke said, he realized that the commanders there spend 60 percent of this time “working in the information space.”

“He's thinking about how to influence the Taliban thought process, how he's involved with the Afghan population, because we're going to win this through their support for the Afghan government,” Clarke said. “The question is, how do we think about this not just locally, but also how do we think about this regionally?”

Which brings us back to Clarke's third war: the war for talent. While SOCOM may alway have a need for specially-trained door kickers to burst into enemy installations and throw themselves at danger, the era of influence requires a very particular set of skills — skills that, so far, SOCOM has faced challenges attracting. 

“We need data and tech to adopt to make sure the U.S. and partner message is getting out there and resonating,” Clarke said. “We need coders … we need leaders.”