TAMPA — For nearly 18 years, commandos have been the go-to force against violent extremists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Philippines and throughout Africa. They make up just about 2 percent of the entire military but have suffered 6 percent of all combat deaths since 9/11. Those operations are taking a toll: Last year 22 commandos died by suicide, the highest number in seven years, according to U.S. Special Operations Command.
But as the nation's defense strategy shifts to a greater emphasis on countering China and Russia, the future of SOCom is in flux as well.
The command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, must still lead the fight against groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida and adapting to new challenges. That is the reality Army Gen. Richard Clarke will face after assuming command of SOCom during a ceremony Friday at the Tampa Downtown Hilton hotel.
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Clarke, 56, who takes over from retiring Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, represents a change because he comes straight from the Pentagon and brings that big-picture view to the job. The past three SOCom commanders — Navy SEAL Adm. William McRaven, Army Gen. Joseph Votel and Thomas — were promoted after leading Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees missions like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Before taking over SOCom, Clarke served as director for strategic plans and policy with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And he has led soldiers at all levels in airborne, ranger, mechanized and light infantry units in five different divisions.
His most recent assignments include director of operations in the Joint Special Operations Command from 2009 to 2011; deputy commanding general for operations with the 10th Mountain Division 2011 to 2013; commandant of cadets with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 2013 to 2014; and commander of the 82nd Airborne Division. He has also led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and led operations against the so-called Islamic State.
Those who know Clarke say he is the right leader at the right time to manage change at a command responsible for training and equipping Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force, Green Berets and Rangers, Marine Raiders and Air Force special operators. It also spends billions to buy and sustain special operations-specific good and services and coordinates the military's counter-messaging campaign as well as its efforts against violent extremists and weapons of mass destruction.
"I think Rich Clarke is absolutely the right guy to take over for Tony Thomas," McRaven told the Tampa Bay Times. "Rich has got great conventional and special operations experience. He's got combat experience. He's got Pentagon experience. He understands the interagency.
"So that's what you have to have for a commander of SOCom, somebody that is deep and steeped in all aspects of conventional, work unconventional, special operations and interagency work and Rich has got that."
Clarke said he adapt to the new realities by maintaining a "laser focus on the current terrorism fight" while also making "continued efforts on the longer term threats … and setting conditions on the edges that make our adversaries wary."
Under Thomas, commandos led partners in Iraq and Syria that helped defeat the Islamic State's physical caliphate. He developed the command's efforts to harness artificial intelligence and machine learning and he bolstered efforts to care for the force, reduce time deployed and led the effort to bring the Defense Department's Warrior Games to Tampa this summer.
Before the change of command ceremony, Thomas, 60, retired after nearly 39 years of service. He and his wife Barbara will stay in Tampa.
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.