WASHINGTON– When he thinks about the future and evolution of the U.S. military, characteristics of special operations forces comes to mind, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here last night.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told an audience attending the 20th Annual Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict symposium banquet that the lethality, precision and small footprint that makes Special Forces lighter, faster and more agile is the direction in which the U.S. military is heading.

“All of our military has to adapt those of kinds of qualities and characteristics,” Mullen said. “That’s where [the military] is, and that’s where we’re going.”

The qualities special operations forces bring to the table are consistent with the reasons Iraq has made such a turnaround over the past year, the admiral said.

Success isn’t always delivered through combat alone, Mullen explained. Adapting, learning and understanding the culture makes the mission more than simply executing combat operations. Enabling the Iraqis to help themselves by training their security forces as well as assisting them in their governance and infrastructure needs brought the country back on its feet, he said.

“It’s not just about warfighting,” he continued. “It’s engagements and relationships and presence … as opposed to waiting until something happens [resulting] in conflict.”

Though much of the Defense Department’s resources and manpower are focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, the military continues to allocate special operations efforts globally, such as in Paraguay and the Philippines, to stay one step ahead of terrorism. Mullen said that continuing to engage persistent conflicts around the world by supporting nation-building and military training may prevent future warfare.

“While we see things improve in Iraq and see things get tougher in Afghanistan, we need to keep our heads up over the horizon and look down the road at what’s next,” he said. “Persistent conflict has been with us in various ways – it causes us to be engaged. ‘What’s next?’ is the question we all need to be asking.”

The world’s financial crisis has to be taken into consideration as well, Mullen said, noting that poor economic states may become future targets for terrorism. Also, U.S. defense may be affected by budget cuts, possibly shifting mission focuses, he added.

But Mullen reassured the audience that the Special Forces community would continue to grow in numbers regardless of increasing budget pressures on the Defense Department for reduced spending. The demands for their skills are too high to trim down those assets, especially in the midst of economic crisis, he said.

“I think [the financial crisis] will generate more instability in the world,” he said. “I think we need to be mindful of that and have our antennas up in places that we know and places that we don’t know [are unstable] with respect to the future.”

But as the Defense Department anticipates future threats and enduring conflicts, Mullen stressed the importance of experience. Military members and special operators have gained a wealth of knowledge during the past seven years as the military has adapted from conventional to irregular warfare. The junior leaders, he said, are on track to become the next generation of great decision makers.

“Our most important resource is our people,” he said. “We have the best military we’ve ever had. We have the most combat-hardened military force we’ve ever had, and it is in that wisdom of youth that we must listen, capture and keep.”

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