Watch, Read: Special Operations in the Peer Fight—What’s Changing and What’s Staying the Same

Stuart Pettis, the Air Force Association’s director of aerospace education programs, hosts Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind, vice commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and Lt. Gen. James C. “Jim” Slife, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, in a discussion about “Special Operations in the Peer Fight at the AFA Warfare Symposium on March 3, 2022. Watch the video or read the transcript below. This transcript is made possible through the sponsorship of JobsOhio.

Stuart Pettis: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Stuart Pettis on behalf of the Air Force Association. It is my very distinct pleasure to host today’s panel on Special Operations in the Peer Fight. We are very privileged to have two outstanding Airmen with us here for our discussion. Lt. Gen. Jim Slife is a 1989 graduate of Auburn University. He has over 3,100 flight hours in multiple aircraft. Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind is the vice commander, Air Force Special Operations Command. The general is a 1991 distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and has 3,500 hours in multiple aircraft. Gentlemen, to get started, are there going to be any significant changes in SOCOM and AFSOC now that the nation has shifted its focus from counter-VEO to great power competition?

Lt. Gen. James C. Jim Slife: Thanks. So let me start by saying two things. First of all, you people need to get a life. I brought a major with me, so I would have an audience of one, and I can’t believe all of you think that this is the most exciting thing going on here right now. So I would just tell you, you probably need to get life. No. 2, joint all-domain multicapable AI. Just want to get that out of the way right up front, so we can move on with talking about all the other things.

So your question, Stuart, was, do we see any changes as we you know, move to the next operating environment? I would tell you, the answer is absolutely yes in some ways. What’s not going to change is that at the center of our value proposition—and I think Gen. Bauernfeind would say the same on behalf of all of U.S. SOCOM, but certainly for AFSOC—the center of our value proposition is the Airmen in AFSOC. That is not going to change. That has been the thing that has been our competitive advantage since the very first Air Force special operations were conducted back in the 1940s. And none of that is going to change going forward. Now, are the ways that we do it going to change? Absolutely, yes. You know, AFSOC is blessed, from a hardware perspective, to operate the newest fleet of airplanes of any MAJCOM in the Air Force. I mean, essentially, every platform in AFSOC is a post-9/11 acquisition for AFSOC. And so we’ve got some great tools.

The analogy that I would sometimes use is, you know, sometimes when you are going to dinner, you go to the grocery store, and you get the buggy, and you walk down the aisles, and you say, you know, ‘ribeye, potato, asparagus, key lime pie, bottle of wine,’ and you go ring it up, and then you go make the dinner you want. Sometimes, what you do is you go home, and you open the refrigerator, and you stand there and stare at it. And then you open the cabinet, and you stand there and stare, and you try and figure out, ‘What am I going to make with the ingredients that I have?’ And I would tell you that this is a place and time where AFSOC is looking at what is in the kitchen and figuring out new recipes to make with the ingredients we have because we’ve got great ingredients. We’ve got capable platforms. We have the best Airmen that I could ever ask for. We just need to think about the recipes we make a little bit differently. So yeah, there’s going to be a lot that changes as we think about our value proposition going forward. But what’s not going to change is at the heart of it; it’s all about the Airmen.

Lt. Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind: “Thank you, Gen. Slife. From SOCOM’s perspective, I want to double down. On behalf of Gen. Clarke, absolutely. The No. 1 priority is always our teammates—Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines—that are out there making the mission happen every single day. And there’s a little bit of this concept that great power competition or strategic competition is new to SOCOM. But we have to remember that SOF was born in great power competition. That was really when we saw our growth come about. And yes, the last two decades have been laser focused on counter-VEO operations. But I would offer that since 2018, when Secretary Mattis put the NDS out to start focusing again on great power competition, strategic competition, now integrated deterrence, that that is when we started pivoting.

And in SOCOM alone in an operational perspective, in FY 22, over 30% of our operations will be against great power competitors to assure allies, to make sure we’re out preparing the environment, to make sure we are forward where we need to be to have the effects to provide the options that the nation needs. And I will tell you as we go into ’23 and ’24, that needle is going to continue to swing for all of our legislative missions. As an example, of one of our missions that has been a big point lately in great power competition is information operations. Last year alone, over 40% of our information operations were end missions against great power competitors. So from an operational perspective, not only is change going to happen, but change has been happening since 2018.

Now, let me talk to you about where we’re going with modernization. On a modernization front, that change has also been happening. Since 2018 to ’21, SOCOM has spent about $13.2 billion modernizing our force across the enterprise for great power competition, which equates to about 20%, excuse me, 26% of our annual budget. And I will tell you, without getting into the details, but ’22 is going to get us well north of 26, and ’23 is going to be even more. Because we realize that there are capabilities that we have to invest in now to make sure that the great Airmen that we have—Sailors, Soldiers, Marines—when they’re conducting missions in the future, they’re going to have the modernized capabilities they need in the future, whether that be 25, 26, 27, but the needle’s moving.

Slife: Can I, let me just follow up, you know, one thing that is definitely going to change, I think, across probably all the components again—I’ll speak specifically for AFSOC—because you know, historically SOF has played a role as a supporting element to the joint force. SOF opens windows of opportunity for the broader joint force. SOF brings unique capabilities, sometimes exquisite capabilities that don’t exist elsewhere in the department in support of the broader joint force. Over the last 20 years, in many ways, SOCOM SOF has become the supported force in the counter-VEO campaigns that we’ve been fighting. And so part of what is changing inside of AFSOC is this mentality that we need to be thinking about not how do we as AFSOC, not how do we be the Air Force component of SOCOM—we’ve done that for 20 years, and we’ve been fantastic at it—but how do we be the SOF component of the Air Force? You know, how do we go from being the Air Force component of SOCOM to being the SOF component of the Air Force, opening windows of advantage for the joint force? And, for us, that’s our Department of the Air Force teammates in the Air and Space Forces.

Pettis: So, gentlemen, when we look to the future, the security challenges posed by violent extremists will remain constant. How does SOF intend to sustainably address that security challenge as well?”

Bauernfeind: Well, from SOCOM’s perspective, as the coordinating authority for counter-VEO for the Department of Defense—countering violent extremist organizations—that is still one of our top priority areas. And even though we’re going to have 30, 40% of our operations focused on great power competition, that means 60, 70%, it’s going to sustain counter-VEO. What it does mean, though, is we’re going to stay focused on counter-VEO. But we’re also going to make sure that we’re using our existing resources against those prioritized threats. Those threats that have the capability and the intent to attack our homeland—our national interest. And so we have been laser focused and making sure that we have the right capabilities, the right force structure and the right partnerships forward. Because this is not only a United States mission, but it’s also making sure—or a DOD mission—but it’s also making sure that we have all the right partners with us moving forward as we target and disable and disrupt those VEO organizations. And two key partners in that I would highlight are our interagency partners, and SOCOM is blessed to have an outstanding liaison network through the entire governmental—excuse me, the entire governmental agencies—to make sure that we are tightly lashed with our key teammates that are also focused on VEO.

And then the second set of teammates that we’re tightly lashed with are our allies and partners. Because many of these VEOs are not just attacking U.S. interests and the U.S. homeland, but they’re also going after other nations’ interests as well. And again, SOCOM is blessed with wonderful allies and partners in our J3I—our international division of our SOCOM headquarters—we have 28 international partners that live with us, work with us, is on our staff, working closely to make sure that all of our VEO operations are closely coordinated and aligned with their national interest as it moves forward.

“And we also have a wonderful organization forward-based called Operation Gallant Phoenix, where we forward have international partners and interagency partners forward, enabling that key intel sharing for primarily legal finishes. Because at the end of the day, SOCOM’s perspective is ‘we’re agnostic on the finish.’ It could be a kinetic finish, but it can be just as effective being a legal finish by another nation holding their personnel accountable for the actions that they’re moving forward.

Slife: I would tell you from an AFSOC perspective—really an Air Force perspective—in the aftermath of 9/11, you know, we did not have, we the Department of Defense, did not have a network targeting methodology. This was something we built in the, you know, early 2000s. You know, it really was hitting full stride by 2006, 2007, where we built this very effective—what some have called ‘surveillance strike complex’—where, you know, we’re able to action intelligence on tactically relevant timelines. And that entire surveillance strike methodology that we built after 9/11 was heavily, heavily dependent on airpower. And so we would have a, you know, a target that we would surveil with airpower. And when we brought the assault force to bear on those targets, there would be an entire stack of airplanes over the top of that target, you know, close air support, reconnaissance, ISR, jamming. I mean, you name it, there would be a stack of airplanes 10,000 feet high over the top of these targets.

“And in the future operating environment—which frankly, I would tell you is the current operating environment—that stack of airpower is not going to be there. We’re not going to be able to rely on having a stack of airpower over every single target that needs to be actioned. And so, for us, as we think about how are we going to prosecute counter-VEO targeting methodologies in the future, from Airmen’s perspective, it’s all about collapsing that stack. You know, fewer airplanes that are multirole, that have the ability to execute those missions in multiples. That’s really a centerpiece of how we envision ourselves prosecuting counter-VEO campaigns from an Airman’s perspective in the future operating environment.”

Bauernfeind: I’d like to riff off of that, if I could. And that takes us to some of the efforts in SOCOM that we’re focusing on our modernization aspect. And I’d bring up three major programs that we’re focusing on that have direct ties to counter-VEO but have collateral effects to the great power competition. The first is, as Gen. Slife said, you know, how we are approaching the ISR perspective. We have realized, after two decades that we became very air-focused—that the sensor had to be in the air. And we’re realizing with the explosion of other means to collect information, that it’s less about the platform and more about the information. So one of Gen. Clarke’s top acquisition priorities is what we’re calling next-generation ISR. And there will be airborne platforms to support this. But it’ll also be how do we weave in the information we’re getting from the space environment? How are we getting information from the human environment? How are we getting information from the publicly available information environment? And that, that’s great, but that’s a flood of information that our great intel professionals have to work with.

And that takes us to our second focus area. And this, we’re investing heavily in making sure that we’re moving forward in the world of data—our data advantage, data networks—to make sure that we are postured, whether it be in the cloud or whether it be the right algorithms of how do we bring automation—AI, ML—with the flood of data that’s coming forward to give that information in a timely perspective for the operators to make timely decisions as it goes forward?

And then the third one, I want to highlight to Gen. Slife’s great point about, you know, combining platforms is Gen. Clarke’s top acquisition priority is Armed Overwatch. As we move forward with Armed Overwatch, it’s realizing that we will still have forces on the field that need that ISR to support that ground-scheme maneuver, that need that cast when they need that ability as it moves forward. And so we realized that as the services are girding up to focus more heavily for great power competition, that we have an imperative to make sure that we still have aviation platforms that support that need for those isolated teams that may be in West Africa, East Africa, somewhere in the Middle East where we won’t have large arrays of aircraft overhead.”

Pettis: Gentlemen, the term “special operations” encompasses a large group of professionals with a variety of backgrounds. What is special operations airpower to you, and what options will provide the joint force in the peer fight?

Slife: Well, so this is something we’re actually putting a fair amount of thought into at AFSOC, and I would, you know, if—I don’t have a dry erase board up here, otherwise, I’d put my Professor Slife hat on—but I would draw a two-circle Venn diagram, you know, in two overlapping circles. In one of those circles would be airpower supporting special operations. So if you think of all the things that could fall into a circle that you might describe as airpower supporting special operations, you could think of 1,000 things, right? It might be a C-17 carrying a rapid response force around the globe. It could be a KC-135 refueling a gunship trying to get across the ocean. It could be an A-10 providing close air support to a team on the ground. There’s a whole host of things that could fall into this category of airpower supporting special operations.

But that other circle is what I would describe as ‘special operations airpower’ and that’s different. Special operations airpower is what AFSOC is all about. And so there is a piece in the middle where these two circles overlap. And that piece in the middle is special operations airpower supporting special operations. Right? That’s the overlap. And that’s what we have been exclusively focused on for the last 20 years. And so we have a force that nobody beneath the rank of colonel or chief master sergeant has lived in an AFSOC that has done anything other than that piece in the middle: special operations airpower supporting special operations.

But I would suggest there’s more to special operations airpower than supporting somebody on the ground that has a mission they need to do. That’s critically important. And we can’t ever walk away from that. Gen. Bauernfeind talked about this Armed Overwatch platform. It is tied directly to our need to support our teammates on the ground. But there are special operations that don’t have anything to do with somebody on the ground that are entirely airpower-centric. That is the rest of that circle that exists outside that piece in the middle. And so this is something that we’re spending a lot of time focused on.

You know, I have a number of examples of things that might look like. I would take you back: Here’s an early example of what a special operations mission from the air would be. In early 1942, Jimmy Doolittle had the mission of flying 16 B-25 bombers off the deck of the USS Hornet. Right? And so you think about how this mission developed and how this was briefed. ‘OK, here’s the plan, Jimmy. We have 16 bombers that we’re going to put on an aircraft carrier. Now we are pretty sure they’ll be able to take off — not completely sure, but we’re pretty sure that they’ll be able to take off. And we’re going to drive this aircraft carrier west. And when we get as close as we can get to Japan, you are going to lead these 16 bombers off the end of the USS Hornet. And assuming that we were right, and you can actually take off, you will fly west. Now you can’t come back because we have no ability to land on the aircraft carrier. And so you’re going to fly west until you get to Tokyo. When you get to Tokyo, you’re going to drop your bombs. But now we don’t have enough gas to get you anywhere. So you just keep flying west until you get into Japanese-occupied China. When you get into Japanese-occupied China, Jimmy, your airplanes are going to run out of gas. When your airplane runs out of gas, you all are to bail out of your airplanes and land in occupied China. And then you’re to link up with the Chinese resistance movement and ENE your way across China until you get back to United States hands. Do you have any questions about this mission, Jimmy?’

Right? I mean, you think about that, that is a special operations mission. It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t have to have an AFSOC patch on. That is a mission that you know is completely nonstandard. You know, the first missions of Desert Storm were led by AFSOC helicopters. Those AFSOC helicopters led a package of Army Apaches into Iraq to destroy the early warning radar sites that allowed the air armada to flow north. This is what I’m talking about when I say we play a supporting role to the broader joint force. That was in support of the air component commander. We didn’t buy those helicopters to go destroy early warning radar sites; we just used them for that. Right? That’s an application of special operations from the air, independent of somebody moving around on the ground needing examples, needing support.

In December, AFSOC launched a JASSM-ER, a long-range stealthy cruise missile, out of the back of a C-130, flew a long navigation route over the Gulf of Mexico, killed a barge in the Gulf of Mexico. Why in the world would AFSOC be launching cruise missiles out of the back of C-130s? Because if our adversaries have to look at every C-130 and every C-17 and wonder what’s in the back and whether that C-17 is in fact a long-range fires platform, changes their calculus —that’s deterrence. That’s deterrent. That is an application of special operations airpower. And so I guess, you know, that’s a long way of saying that we are thinking about airpower in AFSOC more broadly than purely in what we have done for the last 20 years, which is the necessary but insufficient role of in support of a mission on the ground.”

Bauernfeind: From SOCOM’s perspective, I would offer, I’m going to take the conversation up a little bit. As we look at our operations, as we look at our programming, we bend our operations into four major areas. First is crisis response—[unintelligible] crisis response—as we have the capability to respond when the president needs to a wide variety of missions, of which air commandos and many other Airmen are involved in and respond perfectly every time because it is so well exercised and so well sequenced. And that is a key part of where our SOF Airmen are involved.

The second aspect that we’ve already talked about is counter-VEO. We’re not walking away from counter-VEO. We are the coordinating authority. We know that we will be still conducting a major part of counter-VEO operations along with the joint force in support of those geographic combatant commanders who owned the mission, whether it be in AFRICOM, CENTCOM, INDOPACOM as we move forward. But the other two I want to delve into a little bit.

The third one is competition. And that is that irregular warfare—that unconventional warfare—where special operations provides very unique capabilities for the nation. And as to Gen. Slife’s great point on the JASSMs, we provide low-cost, low-escalatory options for national leaders because we have the ability with our special operations forces to hold adversary systems at risk. We get after their strategic decision-making. And through that capability, there is a wide scope of opportunity for SOF Airmen to be involved.

And then the final case, which is pure to the entire joint force, is conflict. And to that supporting role, we realize at SOCOM that we are in support of the joint force when we go to conflict as it goes forward. But we also know that for us to be prepared, we have to be on the battlefield early, we have to be preparing the environment, and we have to make sure that we are providing those options—whether it be on the ground, in the sea, in the air, in other domains, to hold those adversary systems at risk. Because we’re seeing it right now in real time in Europe, where this dance amongst nuclear powers is a very careful dance. And so from the Department of Defense, we owe our national leaders very nuanced options so they can start to have those strategic decisions. And from Gen. Clarke’s perspective, my perspective at SOCOM, SOF Airmen absolutely are a part of all of those options moving forward.

Pettis: Gen. Slife, picking up something that Gen. Bauernfeind mentioned, last year AFSOC personnel deployed to more than 60 countries. We also held a building partner aviation capacity seminar at Hurlburt. How do these frequent appointments and partnership seminars build value, and how do … these actions align with a larger effort to build our reach in informal networks that we can leverage later?

Slife: So I’m going to answer the question kind of broadly about building partner aviation capacity. So there is, you know, first of all, Gen. Bauernfeind highlighted the point that one of SOCOM’s competitive advantages—as what I would describe it—is a vast set of international relationships. And, you know, SOF is deployed around the globe, AFSOC’s certainly no different, deployed around the globe, engaged with various partners. And a portion of that is built around the idea of building partner capacity. We’re helping them develop the capabilities that they need to be most effective in their security environment—whatever, you know, whatever part of the world they’re in. But the other part of that is the access and the influence that those engagements provide. Right? If we are in 60 places around the globe, that’s 60 places where the United States has some level of access and some level of influence, has the ability to understand the environment, you know. Those are really, really valuable opportunities. And what we, in AFSOC, have been limited by over time is our limited density of aviation advisers. We haven’t had enough capacity to engage meaningfully in as many places as we want to engage around the globe. And so one of the things that we’re working through pretty diligently is how do we expand that capacity across AFSOC and provide more access vectors to all of our operating forces all around the globe? So I think the access and influence around the globe is the critical part of that, and we’re expanding our investment in that.

You know, that’s one of the value propositions of SOF, certainly, but AFSOC inside the Air Force, is the ability to operate across the spectrum of visibility and attribution. The ability to operate across a spectrum of visibility and attribution. So there are some things that we do that are very visible and highly attributable. Right? When a C-130 with 105 mm cannon sticking out of the side shows up, it’s pretty attributable. Right? There are other things that we do that are much less visible and much less attributable. And the ability to operate across that whole spectrum, to gain and leverage access and influence around the globe, is a central part of our value proposition for the future. And so those, you know, those forces inside of AFSOC that provide access and influence around the globe—at whatever level of attribution—are important investment areas for us.

Bauernfeind: If I may, I’d like to join in on that one. And I want to tie this to the SecDef ‘s No. 3 priority: Succeed through teamwork. And you know, what Secretary Austin has meant by that is, you know, teamwork amongst services, teamwork amongst the interagency but most importantly, teamwork with our allies and partners. And we have learned that at SOCOM, as I already mentioned, our great J3I teammates are great. The folks that we have forward, at many, many locations. But it comes to a kind of a bumper sticker statement that you can’t search trust. And that is what we talk about is how you have to be on the field to compete. You have to be forward. You have to be preparing the environment. It doesn’t mean you have to be for 24/7, 365, but you have to be developing those relationships globally with those allies and partners that are like-minded in the international world order. And SOCOM has been highly successful of that, mostly, not mostly—across all of our services, but especially in AFSOC.

I will tell you just right now, you know, when the Ukrainian operation there, the phones are lighting up with many of our Ukrainian teammates, who served with many of our Army teammates. Some are in PME now, and the connections are going very strongly as we maintain those relationships as we go forward. But it’s just in our history at AFSOC, I would point out that it was relationships that was maintained with nations to the north of Afghanistan that were critical to opening up that northern airbridge when we needed those mobility forces to flow from the north early in the war on Afghanistan. And there are literally dozens of examples—whether it be from small teams being forward conducting training with partner air forces, or whether it be teammates back in PME or at foreign PME, that those relationships last a lifetime. And you just never know when you’re going to need those relationships. So it’s important that we continue on those, and the efforts of AFSOC in building those is critical to SOCOM’s success.

Pettis: Gen. Bauernfeind, what areas of SOCOM need support from Congress and industry as it shifts to this focus on the near-peer fight and while obviously sustaining pressure on VEOs as well?

Bauernfeind: Well, from SOCOM’s perspective, we just want to thank Congress. I will tell you that we have been receiving amazing support from Congress across the board. And primarily, we work, just like everyone else, with the six committees—the HASC, the SASC, the HAC, the SAC, HPSCI, SISC—those members and those professional staff members have been exceptionally supportive of all of SOCOM’s efforts. So we just want to say thank you for that. Yes, they hold their oversight role tight. And they ask us the hard questions, which is their responsibility to do, and we welcome those questions. And we appreciate that going forward. But at the end of the day, we know it’s because they’re taking such good support for us.

As an example, we have benefited greatly from specialized authorities in SOCOM, whether it be our 1202 or our 127 Echo authorities—just numbers and a Title 10 U.S. Code—but really what that gives us the authority on SecDef approval is to develop partner irregular forces around the world, so it’s not just U.S. forces as we’re going forward. We also have been given through our specialized acquisition capabilities special authorities for small businesses. And I just want to pull up a quick stat there is I had in my head, that, you know, during that specialized business, excuse me, that specialized acquisition authority, we were able to quadruple the amount of money we were spending with small businesses. So we went from $5 million to $20 million. And we increased the capabilities for many of those small businesses by over 240%. Much faster deliveries because what we’re finding is in the data world, in the software world and where a lot of innovation lives are in these small businesses. And we’re seeing great results of specialized authorities like that that we’re getting from Congress. So as long as we continue getting that support, we’re, you know, no additional ask, at least for my position. I’m sure Gen. Clarke will have more when he testifies here in about six weeks.

And then for industry, I just wanted to also say thanks for everything that industry’s doing because industry’s pushing us forward. Industry’s continuing to come to the table with great ideas. They’re continuing to challenge us—whether it be our great acquisition executive, Mr. Jim Smith and his amazing PEOs—but we have a whole host of wonderful industry partners that when we’re putting requests for proposals out there, great concepts are coming forward, and we’re tying them with the warfighters, and we’re getting great capabilities as we move forward. So that’s all we’d ask is that for industry to keep pushing on that.”

Pettis: Gen. Slife, do you have a thought on this as well?

Slife: Not specifically on the what Congress can do. I mean, we obviously, we rely on Congress for, you know, support of all these programs we’re talking about. I look forward to continuing that conversation. But as Gen. Bauernfeind said, you know, while, you know, Congress asks us more questions than we would like sometimes, they’re never the wrong questions. And so I, you know, I wouldn’t ask for anything other than what they’re doing, which is exercising their oversight role and, where warranted, supporting our programs.

On the industry side, you know, I would say AFSOC benefits from living at the intersection of the U.S. Air Force as a MAJCOM and U.S. SOCOM as a service component. We are able to leverage our, you know, kind of vast service acquisition architecture while also leveraging the rapid pace at which SOCOM acquisition can turn. And we can blend those things together. And most of the programs that we execute inside of AFSOC are a combination of SOCOM and Air Force acquisition authorities coming forward to help us go pretty quickly. You know, the cruise missile out of the back of the C-130, that example, that happened because of the partnership of AFRL and the SOCOM acquisition team that were able to make that happen in a remarkably short period of time. So that’s, I think, that’s where I would stand on that.

Pettis: Gentlemen, on behalf of AFA and our standing-room-only audience participants, I want to thank you so much for the time you’ve given us and the insights. Thank you very much.

Slife: Thank you all.