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SOCOM Chief: Get Tech in People’s Hands to Innovate Faster

The workforce has a prominent focus in Gen. Richard Clarke’s modernization priorities as data efforts gain speed.

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U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Richard D. Clarke is seen at his promotion ceremony, Tampa, Florida, March 29, 2019.
Special Operations Command Commanding Gen. Richard Clarke as pictured in March 2019. Photo Credit: Defense Department/DVIDS

Technology innovation requires getting it in the hands of the operators to experiment with it, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Commander Gen. Richard Clarke told attendees Tuesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.

It’s a sentiment that reflects the first of SOCOM’s commanding truths — that “people, not equipment, make the critical difference,” and the first of Clarke’s three key takeaways for this year’s conference.

“While it’s humans who fight, it’s also those humans who will innovate. People create new technologies. People use tools in new ways,” Clarke said in his keynote address. “Our people are problem solvers. … They are combat credible, battle tested and culturally astute. Every investment we make at SOCOM must enhance the effectiveness of our personnel.”

This focus on personnel led to Clarke’s two other takeaways: the power of partnerships and strategic investments.

Clarke described the current defense climate as one where data and technology innovation will be critical to combatting cybersecurity threats and disinformation campaigns like those coming from Russia with the Ukraine conflict. He also cited the rapid development from China as our “pacing threat.”

“Our adversaries must be convinced that we can and will prevail,” Clarke said. “In the coming years, China will become our most capable adversary, and they are rapidly modernizing. The Department of Defense dubs [China] our ‘pacing threat.’”

Part of this will necessitate getting rid of what’s not working, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with only a single purpose, and focusing more on getting the most “bang for the buck.”

“We need to look hard at all the systems, which ones within our confines are the biggest bang for the buck?” he said. Take the past 20 years of innovation around aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), for example, “we need to layer in space, layer open-source data with that.”

“We’re not going to buy our way with overhead UAVs,” Clarke said. “There are so many capabilities that have to come together.”

This prioritization in strategic investments also means aligning the program executive offices accordingly with industry capabilities and being in sync with SOCOM’s Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) arm.

“Data will play a significant role in modernization efforts,” Clarke said, adding that the service hired its first chief data officer in 2018. “Our data is so important that many of the components are also hiring data officers. … But is our CDO a chief data officer or a chief digital officer? We still need to suss that out.”

Tools and technology are still a challenge, even in the face of less obvious threats.

“I still don’t think that we have all the tools that we need and to continue to develop that at speed, and how do we push back inside the information space?” Clarke said. “We have to look at how we are going to operate in other places. [The war in Ukraine] is relatively easy because everybody can see it.”

Moving forward, Clarke noted that there are still challenges in how the military and specifically SOCOM hires and retains the talent Clarke envisions as critical for keeping pace with technological innovation. One of those is the security clearance process.

“It’s something that the Department of Defense has been saying we’re going to solve for years and we still have not,” Clarke said. “We got to be able to adapt our practices to be able to bring someone in faster.”

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