January 12, 2021
In January, the Pallas Foundation for National Security Leadership hosted a conversation with Vice Admiral (VADM) Tim Szymanski, Deputy Commander of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM). As part of the Foundation’s goal to promote the education and development of emerging leaders in national security, VADM Szymanski discussed the integration of emerging technologies into Special Operations Forces and lessons learned in leadership over the course of his career.
Future threats may not mirror those seen since 9/11. VADM Szymanski noted that two things underpin the core mission of SOCOM: they will always be prepared to respond and they will be heavily involved in warfare of the future. However, how and where SOCOM will respond may change. Technology will impact how wars are fought and blur the line of what is and isn’t combat. This “gray zone” emphasizes the importance of speed to onboarding new technology and employing it effectively for a future fight – especially when those gray-zone acts don’t fit the 20th century definition of “armed combat.”
Technology’s place in conflict is only going to grow. Over the course of VADM Szymanski’s career, he has witnessed the growing strategic importance of utilizing advanced technology in conflict. The use of data and emerging technologies will impact the role of special operations forces in the coming years, “as the human interface with technology increases and the lines between the physical world and the virtual world disappear,” he said. The advancements that have the potential to make the most impact on future SOCOM missions will likely be improvements in cryptography and other aspects of nonstandard communication.
A good teammate is willing to jump in on any task. As he shared his advice for young professionals, VADM Szymanski described a lesson he learned from his father on the importance of hard work. “In a room where there are three people and two brooms, make sure you’re on a broom and you’ll never be in need of a job.” He also revealed that his outlook on the concept of leadership has evolved over the course of his career. He now describes it as a “contact sport.” Regular, close engagement with your teammates and willingness to listen are crucial for developing leadership skills. Ultimately, he noted, “leadership is about making a difference and inspiring others to make a difference.”
Vice Admiral Szymanski is the Deputy Commander of USSOCOM. He previously commanded Special Boat Unit 26, SEAL Team 2, 06-level Joint Task Force in Afghanistan, Naval Special Warfare Group 2, and served on the Joint Staff as the J3 Deputy Directorate for Special Operations. Additionally, he served as Deputy Commanding General sustainment to Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan/NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan and as assistant commanding general to Joint Special Operations Command. VADM Szymanski commanded Naval Special Warfare Command before assuming his duties as the USSOCOM Deputy Commander.