DECEMBER 07: Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Army General Bryan Fenton speaks at the Aspen Security Forum on December 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. Fenton spoke on national security threats in the post cold war world

DECEMBER 07: Commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Army General Bryan Fenton speaks at the Aspen Security Forum on December 07, 2023 in Washington, DC. Fenton spoke on national security threats in the post cold war world Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

AI, new tech are creating a special-operations ‘renaissance’

U.S. SOCOM wants to use new tools to give small teams a big punch.

TAMPA–Our era of fast technological change is enabling “a bit of a special ops renaissance,” in which technologies such as distributed AI and autonomy can give smaller teams an edge against larger adversaries, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command said Tuesday.

But the era has also brought increasing coordination among China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea—and growing concern among U.S. SOCOM’s foreign partners, Gen. Bryan Fenton said at the SOF Week convention here.

The “shared sight picture amongst all of us in this decisive decade: autocrats and terrorists alike seek to up-end the free and open international system, from the PRC to Russia, from Iran to North Korea, and violent extremist organizations,” Fenton said.

Special operations forces will have a unique role in countering that threat—training Ukrainian forces, exercising with partner forces in the Philippines, countering Russian influence in Africa—even as they face planned and proposed cuts in aircraft and operations, including in critical areas like information and influence warfare.

Fenton didn’t address the cuts but he pointed out that demands for special operations forces are growing while resources are not. 

“Our national-level leadership told us SOCOM and our assigned missions…will be needed three times more in this decisive decade. In fact, the demand for [special operations forces] to support strategic competition has increased year over year by over 30% and crisis response events have increased 150%,” he said.

SOF elements are already leaning heavily into artificial intelligence, he said. 

“In some ways it could change the character of war in such a way where you know some smaller element will absolutely have what a larger element doesn't have [in] capability, knowledge, insight,” he said, adding that such an asymmetric advantage could, “maybe change the balance in a David-Goliath way that Malcolm Gladwell and others have talked about, and we would be able to see it in our personal lives.” 

SOCOM will use AI in many ways, said Lisa Sanders, the command’s director of science and technology. 

“You can use AI to understand when a warfighter is becoming cognitively overloaded, or prepare information in such a way that it's most effectively tailored to a particular person. So that's AI for warfighter performance. You can use AI to optimize your waveform to be able to work in a contested environment. You can use AI to help with precision information for targeting, which would get out space awareness. So when we use AI, it is a tool, not an end,” she said.

Lt. Col. Tosh Lancaster, the program manager for SOF Lethality, described several new capabilities that SOCOM is looking to procure in the near future. Some are simply more advanced versions of current weapons, such as a sniper rifle that can hit targets 2,500 meters away, or what is called a “tactical precision missile.”

“Think of this as a Javelin-like system” but much lighter and cheaper, Lancaster said. “We are right now in the market-research phase of this and we'll be moving forward with us in late FY 2024 or 2025.” 

But much of what SOCOM is looking for to make individual operators more deadly relies on autonomy, an AI subfield: things like weaponized drones in various sizes, down to small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and not just for air cover. 

“I used to describe this as ‘we're trying to achieve organic overhead fires or overhead precision fires at the tactical level controlled by the [operational detachment Alphas] commander and SEAL commander tactically on the ground…because we can't rely on air cover in contested environments,” he said. “However, the requirement has grown to include ground robotics as well.”

That also includes lethal versions of the sort that SOCOM is already using to gather tactical intelligence. 

“What we would be able to do is take some of the systems that another [program executive office] will be fielding…and be able to bolt on lethality to it,” Lancaster said. 

But the most important use for AI in SOCOM will be helping human operators better manage and improve their own performance, said Fenton. 

“They are a number-one priority. We love tech but we always keep the human in the loop,” he said.