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Air Force Special Operations Command competition solicits airmen’s ideas for U.S. security

A Special Tactics operator guards an F-22 Raptor with the 3rd Wing as it refuels during Emerald Warrior at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Jan. 30, 2020. This was the first-ever simulated Forward Area Refueling Point for F-22 Raptors in an extreme cold weather environment. Emerald Warrior 20-1 provides annual, realistic pre-deployment training encompassing multiple joint operating areas to prepare special operations forces, conventional force enablers, partner nations, and interagency elements to integrate with and execute full spectrum special operations in an arctic climate, sharpening U.S. forces’ abilities to operate around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ridge Shan)

Many airmen within the ranks of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) are “evil geniuses” who are demonstrating the capability to improve the Hurlburt Field-headquartered special operations arm, their commander told a U.S. Senate subcommittee last week.

Lt. Gen. James Slife made the lighthearted but serious remark during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

The hearing was convened largely to give the subcommittee’s members a sense of how the nation’s special operations forces are pivoting from the counterterrorism work that has dominated their mission for the past 20 years to the “great power competition” outlined in the latest national defense strategy. That strategic shift sees peer and near-peer adversaries like Russia and China as the dominant threats to U.S. security.

In addition to Slife, the subcommittee also heard from Lt. Gen. Francis Beaudette, commander of the Army Special Operations Command, Rear Adm. Hugh Howard, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, and Maj. Gen. James Glynn, commander of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

Slife’s “evil geniuses” comment came in response to a question from Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, about the “Evil Genius” competition mentioned in Slife’s written remarks to the subcommittee. The aim of the classified competition initiated last year, Slife said, was to get ideas from across the command on how AFSOC could “create dilemmas and uncertainty for our pacing threats.”

“Pacing threats” references competitors making significant progress toward challenging U.S. defense strategy.

The Evil Genius initiative generated hundreds of responses, all of which, Slife said, “truly were reflective of a force of 20,000 ‘evil geniuses’ that I get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. Those hundreds of responses — “some of them were quite intriguing,” Slife told the subcommittee — were subsequently whittled down by Slife and another high-ranking Air Force official to under a dozen of what were deemed the best ideas.

The airmen who came up with those ideas were invited to make pitches to Slife and the Air Force official, “and we decided with five of them to put some money behind them and fund those,” the AFSOC commander said. Because of the classified nature of the ideas, Slife did not share them with the subcommittee in the open session, but offered to go into detail with Peters and other interested members of the subcommittee behind closed doors.

AFSOC will hold another Evil Genius solicitation of ideas this year, Slife added. In his written remarks, Slife said that programs like Evil Genius “enable our Airmen to bring their most innovative ideas forward to provide solutions to the joint forces’ most complex problems.”

In other comments to the subcommittee, Slife noted that the hearing came as U.S. special forces are entering a third “inflection point” in terms of defining and meeting the responsibilities of their mission.

The first inflection point, he said, came in the failed Iranian hostage rescue of 1980, in which the U.S. military realized that it was not prepared for that kind of operation. The second inflection point, Slife said, came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States when U.S. special operations forces, which had incorporated lessons learned from the failed hostage rescue into subsequent operations, realized they weren’t necessarily prepared for long-term deployment as opposed to the quick operations at which they had become proficient.

The shift in U.S. defense strategy toward a “great power” mindset, with additional anticipated work in countering violent extremism across the globe and in “crisis response actions,” represents a third inflection point, Slife said.

“But,” Slife added, this time, AFSOC is changing “in anticipation of the future, not in response to the past.”

There is some challenge to that transition for AFSOC, Slife told the subcommittee.

“Our force has been spectacularly successful at the tactical level for 20 years (in the battle against terrorism in places like Afghanistan),” Slife said, “and to tell that force, ‘Yeah, that’s all great, but what we need to do now is different,’ obviously comes as a bit of a shock to the system.

“But what I have found is that our airmen aren’t motivated necessarily by killing and capturing terrorists. They’re motivated by relevance. And so if the thing that makes them relevant is pursuing great power competition, then you better believe that they’re all in on moving in that direction. … They’re ready to get after it because they want to be relevant to the nation.”

One thing that AFSOC brings to U.S. special forces operations in connection with the pivot to a “great power” focus is its placement in and access to a variety of places around the globe, Slife said. AFSOC had a presence last year in more than 60 countries and had overflight, landing and other operational advantages in a couple of dozen more countries, he said.

“With our unparalleled access and placement around the globe, we can use that access and placement to set the conditions for the broader joint force (of combined U.S. military services) to be successful in conflict,” Slife said.


(c) 2021 the Northwest Florida Daily News 

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