Gen. Richard D. Clarke, commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, speaks during a Memorial Day observation at the Special Operations Memorial on MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., May 27, 2021. (Barry Loo/US Air Force)
SOFIC 2022: As videos of Ukrainian military successes, Russia’s battlefield failures and humanitarian atrocities committed by Russian forces flood out of Ukraine online, US special operations leaders worry that the US military needs to quickly build up its information warfare capabilities.
“I still don’t think that we have all the tools that we need and we need to continue to develop at speed how we push back inside the information space,” Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of US Special Operations Command, said at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference Tuesday.
For the last three months, Clarke said, Ukrainian leadership has used the information space to boost morale and expose the truth about the Russian military’s actions in Ukraine, effectively swaying the world against Russia. But now, the US needs to start thinking about what authorities, tools and capabilities it will use in the information space against a more difficult adversary, Clarke said.
“Ukraine is relatively easy because everybody can see it,” Clarke said. “How are we going to do this against the near-peer adversary who may not be as open or the whole world may not be pointing [at]?”
Information operations are a powerful tool that can disrupt an enemy’s decision-making process, influence the sentiments of locals, or shape the international narrative. As special forces — and the broader US military — fight terrorists across the globe or operate in countries around China, top SOCOM commanders said they need to better understand the information arena.
One area SOCOM is looking to invest in is “sentiment analysis” tools to better understand if information operations are used effectively. Sentiment analysis tools use artificial intelligence and automation to identify if data is positive, negative or neutral. Clarke said sentiment analysis is something “we’re working on very hard” to give information warfare specialists the ability to “sense that and then we can react to that and send targeted messages.”
“If we can apply big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, I think it will give our people that are working in this space an advantage,” Clarke said.
That’s a critical piece in understanding the broader information environment and will ultimately guide how the information warfare operations are made, said Rear Adm. Frank Bradley, commander of US Special Operations Command Central at the conference.
“We have to know the environment before we can appreciate where the vulnerabilities and gaps in knowledge base are,” Bradley said. “And then that will help us to better shape our messages to illuminate and highlight the coercive and malign actions of the adversaries.”
However, several commanders also added that it’s critical that the messaging come from the right mouths — meaning not always the US.
In Africa, for example, US partner forces fighting al-Shabab send tweets during firefights to inform area civilians of violent extremist activities. It’s “very, very effective,” said Navy Rear Adm. Milton Sands III, the commander of US Special Operations Command Africa. But the critical lessons there is who the messaging is coming from.
“It carries … really remarkable credibility when it’s coming from them, much more so than if it’s coming from us,” Sands said at the SOFIC conference on Wednesday.
It’s a similar story for messaging in the Southern Command region, an area that both Russia and China consider strategically important.
“What I found in the SOUTHCOM AOR is if it comes from the United States and it looks like it’s a counter-PRC [People’s Republic of China] message, sometimes that falls on deaf ears,” said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, commander of US Special Operations Command South. “So what’s been really effective is working with our foreign partners to give them the intelligence, the information, and then they become the voice.
“One, they have credibility. Two, it’s a local message. And so that’s really been the most, I think, effective approach,” he said.
Davids said speed in information operations is also lacking for the US government as a whole. The two-star called Russia “the mass” in the information space in Latin America, and the command would like to counter with videos of Russian military shortfalls in Ukraine.
“We’re slow to kind of get those messages out there — not as SOF, but as a intergovernmental team,” Davids said.