Special operations forces are already prepared for possible action against China in defense in Taiwan, but the role of special operators in the Indo-Pacific, in competition with China, would differ substantially from the fast-paced, kinetic counter-terrorism performed in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Army Lt. Gen. Bryan Fenton, the nominee to lead Special Operations Command, testified Thursday.
Responding to a question from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Fenton declined to speculate on when China might make a military play for Taiwan, but acknowledged that Indo-PACOM leaders have said the window is within this decade, and could be within the next five years. Regardless of when, Fenton said, special operations forces are ready, “will remain ready, competing, contesting, and developing a range of options if needed for the joint force in high-end conflict.”
But ready to do what?
Much of the counterterrorism fight of the last two decades in the Middle East and Afghanistan had special operations forces—like the famous SEAL Team 6 that killed Osama bin Laden compound and the Army “horse soldiers” advanced teams who launched operations against the Taliban—engaged in combat.
Responding to a different question from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Tenn., Fenton acknowledged that the role of special operators in the context of the Pacific is different, with a greater emphasis on building partnerships and developing unconventional, or “asymmetric” warfare capabilities—the sort that can give a small, outgunned force a fighting chance against a much larger, better-armed adversary.
“I would start with the role in concert with the [combatant commands], developing asymmetric, scalable options for the Co-Coms via our special operators’ placement, access, and influence.”
That looks much more like what special operations teams were doing with the Ukrainian military prior to this February, conducting advanced training and helping them to develop tactics and techniques with drones, satellite intelligence, and other emerging technologies to better compete against massive columns of Russian armor.
In the Indo-Pacific, he said, the challenge is much less about hunting down specific high-value targets (as it was in other recent wars) and much more about “presenting multiple dilemmas to the Chinese…and also developing and strengthening the partner and ally piece that’s a comparative and competitive advantage for this nation.”
While Washington is moving its focus toward China and Russia, today’s nomination hearing, which also featured Lt. Gen. Michael Langley, the nominee to head U.S. Africa Command, showcased how China and Russia are challenging the United States in Africa and how violent extremist organizations on the continent continue to gain power, even if the world and Washington are paying less attention to them.
Several senators asked about Russian influence efforts in Africa, and particularly the recent push to blame Western sanctions for recent grain shortages that have hit African populations hard—rather than blaming Russia for launching a war on one of the world’s top grain producing countries. Langley testified that diplomatic outreach to counter both Russian and Chinese narratives would be “a top priority” as the head of the combatant command.
He was later asked about violent extremist groups in the region, such as al-Shabab. Langley’s outgoing predecessor Gen. Townsend has described them as “the largest and most kinetically active al Qaeda network in the world.”
They, too, would be “a top priority,” Langley said.