The U.S. Special Operations Command is shifting its focus from battling terrorists to fighting Chinese disinformation and preparing for a covert role in any future conflict with Beijing.
The new focus was disclosed in recent Senate testimony by SOCOM commander Army Gen. Richard D. Clarke, who discussed the creation of a Joint Task Force-Indo-Pacific.
The task force is the first counter-disinformation commando group of its kind operating west of the international dateline, Gen. Clarke told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week.
“Part and parcel of that is that that element is focused on information operations so that China, who works very well in this space of creating false narratives and not always being upfront with the messages that they’ve sent, that we actually are able to tamp down some of the disinformation that they continuously sow,” the four-star commander said.
China has engaged in sophisticated propaganda and disinformation operations that have been given little exposure by commercial news media or the government. For example, Chinese officials have tried to deflect criticism of their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by spreading the lie that the coronavirus was brought to the country by the U.S. Army.
Gen. Clarke said information operations are one part of a major modernization program, which will also include new weapons and capabilities. A significant portion of the command’s annual budget of around $16 billion will go for new precision-strike missiles and better intelligence capabilities, along with high-technology artificial intelligence systems.
“In order for us to compete effectively in the future, we have to modernize both our precision-strike and [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance abilities] so that [troops] can quickly see and sense the battlefield that they may have to be fighting in the time of crisis,” he said.
Other new systems will include encrypted communications and electronic warfare weapons.
Countering terrorists has been the main effort of SOCOM until recently and will continue to be a focus of commandos. But a major new emphasis will be on competing with “great powers” such as China and Russia as strategic adversaries.
Gen. Clarke said both states are targeting the United States below the level of armed conflict in “gray zone” conflict. Thus, “working in the information space is absolutely critical,” he said.
After nine combatant commanders, including Gen. Clarke, wrote to the director of national intelligence in January seeking more support to expose malign activities by China and Russia, the Pentagon responded by lifting some restrictions.
“SOCOM, with the other combatant commanders, continues to look specifically in the information space and where we can best provide capacity against our adversaries,” Gen. Clarke said.
Commando forces since 2001 have been trained in culture and language skills needed for battling Middle East terrorists. Now they are getting trained to deal with China as a main focus.
In his prepared testimony, Gen. Clarke said many of the military’s current challenges take place in the information domain, “with disinformation employed as a political weapon at unimaginable speed and scale without regard for geopolitical boundaries.”
The force of nearly 5,000 special operations troops is at its lowest deployment level since 2001, and the shift in focus on the Chinese and Russian threats will consume nearly 40% of deployed commandos. The activities involve bolstering alliances to counter China, Russia and other powers, and training and other measures to fight below the level of armed conflict.
SOCOM is the lead command for what the Pentagon calls military information support operations, or MISO, and conducts psychological warfare. The command also operates the MISO WebOps Center, described as the flagship effort for military internet operations to expose and counter foreign propaganda and disinformation online.
This year, SOCOM will add its first foreign partners and interagency liaison officials to the center.
SOCOM has spent $9 billion in the past five years on modernized weapons and systems, which include the AC-130 and MC-130 gunships and prototypes of precision-strike missiles. SOCOM has also acquired hundreds of AGM-176 Griffin air-to-ground missiles and small-glide munitions, as well as small-diameter bombs and precision-guided munitions maritime systems, according to budget documents.
Navy weapons on the drawing board for secret commando operations include wet and dry submersibles, drone submarines and vessels for clandestine insertion operations.
Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said during last week’s hearing that both China and Russia are expanding their use of irregular warfare involving cyberattacks, disinformation, proxy forces and economic blackmail globally.
“They’ve proven these tactics are effective in places like Ukraine, Syria and the South China Sea, and now they’re exporting them to Africa and to the Western Hemisphere,” said Mr. Inhofe.
CYBERCOM STYMIED ON DOMESTIC ATTACKS
Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command, recently disclosed how sophisticated hackers from China and Russia are exploiting American privacy laws to prevent the command and the National Security Agency from monitoring and thwarting cyberattacks.
Gen. Nakasone said the command has been working to counter the Russian-origin SolarWinds cyberattack and the Chinese-linked Microsoft cyberattack.
Asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing how the level of hostile cyberattacks can be curtailed, Gen. Nakasone said: “I think the first lesson is that we should all take this as a wake-up call, that this is not business as usual. These are adversaries that are operating with increased sophistication, scope, scale of what they’re doing.”
Cybercom and the NSA are legally mandated to focus their activities and attention overseas based on privacy laws under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.
“We truly need to look at the ability for us to see ourselves, and right now it’s difficult for us to see ourselves because we have adversaries that are coming into our nation and being able to utilize our infrastructure very timely and very effectively against us,” Gen. Nakasone said.
The general noted reports of foreign interference in the U.S. elections and the need to better understand what the foreign adversaries are doing inside the country.
Cybercom and the NSA can detect foreign cyberactivities and attacks. But advanced cyberattack actors are moving quickly and understand U.S. laws and policies that prevent the military and intelligence agencies from operating inside the United States.
In the past, electronic attacks were launched from different parts of the world. But in recent years, hackers are operating inside the United States. The practice created a “blind spot” for the NSA and Cybercom, a problem the commander compared to pouring water into a bucket with a hole.
Cybercom has around 6,000 troops and has formed 133 teams for defensive and offensive cyberoperations. NSA has as many as 40,000 employees.
“We can have all the capabilities that we want, all the teams that we want, but if there’s a hole in the bucket we’re filling [with] water and the water is coming out faster than we can fill it in, there’s a problem,” he said. “And that’s the analogy I would use in terms of resiliency right now. We have to be able to see what’s happening in terms of the broad depth of our nation.”
The Biden administration is seeking to address the problem, although the commander did not elaborate.
Cybercom and the NSA operate outside the United States as a matter of policy and law. The FBI and other agencies have authority to operate domestically but lack the range of technical skills provided by the command and the agency.
“What I’m identifying right now, though, is our adversaries understand that they can come into the United States and rapidly utilize an internet service provider, come up and do their activities and then take that down before a warrant can be issued, before we can actually have surveillance by a civilian authority here in the United States,” he said. “That’s the challenge that we have right now.”
One solution is to build a greater partnership between the government and private sector, he said.
In addition to the domestic-foreign legal divide, the general said, information-sharing needs to be improved to counter cyberattacks.
The SolarWinds and Microsoft attacks took place in the United States, and legal barriers and disincentives prevented private-sector companies from sharing information about the attacks with the government.
“We have a difficulty as a government understanding the totality of the actual intrusion. So that’s being worked,” the four-star general said.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.