War on the Rocks asks whether emerging technologies threaten the mission of Special Forces.
What happens when the capabilities that we give to special operators can instead be deployed by amateurs? How will the special operations community respond?
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To complete its missions in an increasingly chaotic world, U.S. special operations forces (SOF) must learn to rapidly adopt technologies that may only be months old. Just as machine intelligence transformed the professional chess circuit — today’s top chess teams are human-machine hybrids — so too must SOF evolve and drive emerging capabilities more deeply into its operational elements.
Fortunately for those involved in planning, training, and executing sensitive and special operations, no nuanced actor has yet synthesized all of these new tools into a precise instrument. But there are signs of experimentation by America’s potential adversaries, most notably in the special operations campaign run by the Russian government during its annexation of Ukraine.
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For years we’ve been seeing an exponential increase in computer and communication capabilities. Exponential growth looks linear until it hits an inflection point. Are we there? Perhaps. The iPad 2, released in 2011, was more powerful than the 1985 Cray-2 Supercomputer, which cost $35 million in today’s dollars.
This comparison illustrates the commoditization of so-called “national technical means.” What was once the sole provenance of nation states can now be purchased at the corner store, and the downward price pressure on these capabilities is not limited to the digital spectrum. Unmanned aerial vehicles with cutting-edge optics, built and used by nation states for over half a century, are now available for the cost of a meal at a modest restaurant.
Combining sensors, actuators, transducers, and other analog and digital components hereto unknown provide a potential generational leap in asymmetric capability by non-state actors and non-elite units of potential competitor nations. How can we continue to man, train, and equip the best special operations forces in the world when the same capabilities they employ, which cost us billions of dollars to acquire and train up, are available to a weekend hobbyist for a few hundred dollars?
There's much more at the link. Thought-provoking reading.
I suggest one place to start would be with Israel. It's a highly technological society, reflected in the training and equipment of its defense forces. It's facing terrorist opponents who are doing precisely as the above article postulates; using over-the-counter technology to aid their operations. Hezbollah has already deployed unmanned aerial vehicles operationally, and operates a drone base in Lebanon. It's also intercepted radio transmissions from Israeli drones and used that intelligence operationally. (The same was done more recently, in more sophisticated fashion, by US and British intelligence.)
Israel can probably teach us a lot about how to counter such dual-purpose technology. I agree with the article's premise; such technological overlap is going to make the life of our Special Forces troops - not to mention conventional forces - a lot more tricky.