A U.S. special operator scans Shah Mazar for enemy movement during an operation with Afghan Special Security Forces to clear the village of Taliban fighters in Logar province, Afghanistan on April 25, 2018. (Sgt. Paul Sale/U.S. Army)
TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Special operators have always been “enabled” with state-of-the-art capability, but now U.S. Special Operations Command is looking to “hyper-enable” operators by taking advantage of rapidly improving technology, according to SOCOM’s acquisition chief.
Special operators are currently supplied with such capability as the Tactical Assault Kit, an Android-based system that provides situational awareness and that is leaps and bounds ahead of what was available just a few years ago, Jim Smith told an audience at the Special Operations Command Industry Conference on May 22.
But now SOCOM is looking ahead at what its operators will need to maintain an edge and keep up with rapidly improving technology, which often out-sprints even the command’s relatively agile acquisition process.
Here’s a look at 12 areas in which SOCOM may invest:
“This is a multipronged process to take all the data that is available to that individual operator, whether it’s from partnered forces, whether it’s from a wide array of sensor networks, whether it’s from the communications channels,” Smith said. “Take that data, and then, so it doesn’t become the fog of war, turn it into information that is decision-quality information.”
SOCOM thinks that is a combination of using software and technology-aided, decision-aided tools and machine learning paired with a solid user interface.
2. Assured comms
Over the last 17 years, SOCOM and other services have had the luxury of operating in “benign environments,” Smith said.
But recent experiences have challenged the assumption of dominance in this area, particularly Russia displaying its ability to effectively use electronic warfare in Ukraine.
Assured comms for special operators includes radios with multiple channels. SOCOM has two-channel radios today that provide for data and voice, Smith said, but now it will need to maintain a primary means of communications while also ensuring there is an alternate means, a contingency means and an emergency means to maintain communications.
“Operators have to have confidence they can always connect,” Smith said, as well as confidence that the information is not being intercepted, spoofed or falsified.
“It’s going to be a dirty comms environment in the near future,” he added. And operators will need to be able to connect in the most difficult signal environments like the bowels of a ship with metallic passageways, caves and tunnel complexes.
3. Assured maneuver
SOCOM is also calling this “forward force maneuver” but has a desire to deploy, operate, regenerate and maneuver in a contested environment, according to Smith.
The operators need to have confidence they can get to where they need to go at the right time and will receive the fire support as well as exfiltration capabilities and resupply support that is required.
4. Cut the GPS cord
SOCOM is “world class at using GPS,” but operators “cannot let GPS be an Achilles tendon of SOF operations,” Smith said. So a solution to always maintain awareness and the ability to communicate in a GPS-denied environment is critical, he noted.
The command is looking for ways it can still shoot, move and communicate even when it has lost GPS.
5. Precision munitions
While all the services are looking for more precise munitions, SOCOM has a very high expectation for its munitions, Smith said, to include the ability to hit the target when it wants to, exactly where it wants to without damaging anything else in the area.
Additionally, SOCOM is “looking for a precision munition that can loiter so that I can have it in the area and bring it down on target when the fleeting opportunity presents itself,” Smith said.
A munition should also be able to be called off the target at the last second as the situation on the ground changes, Smith added.
And ideally, there would be one munition that could be employable from the air, maritime and ground domains, Smith said, but “if we have to have a family of munitions — we are interested in that as well.”
6. Countering the IED and UAS
Special operators think of countering unmanned aircraft systems as a variant of countering improvised explosive devices because both are viewed as means for the enemy to impact its formations in an asymmetric manner, Smith said.
The services are starting to think of counter-UAS as an air-defense artillery capability, but SOF sees it as “one more piece of that RF [radio frequency] environment or one more way that the enemy can try to get us in an asymmetric manner,” he said.
SOCOM is focused on both the individual operator and small teams, which need man-portable solutions that are lightweight and low-powered.
Additionally, while a system should be able to detect and defeat an enemy drone, it should also be able to intercept and exploit the enemy system. “If I can exploit that device, I can get after that network,” he said.
7. Next-gen ISR
SOCOM has a strong intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability but is looking at how it might maintain an edge in information gathering in a denied environment, according to Smith.
Additionally, the command is thinking about what other domains can be used for intel collection besides airborne ISR assets. “One is the space domain,” Smith said.
SOCOM already as a cube satellite program, having launched two satellites into low-Earth orbit, with plans to launch a few more later this summer, he said. The command is currently demonstrating communications by picking up sensor data and piping it down to an operations center.
“But we are starting to look at payloads that will give us or enable us to support the ‘find-and-fix’ mission” from a space domain, Smith said.
The command is also considering how it might use the cyber domain and the abundance of digital patterns of life on social media to support the ISR mission.
8. Expeditionary ISR
SOCOM is looking at how better to support individual operators and small teams with tactical assets for ISR and is in the beginning stages of fleshing out a requirements document calling for an expeditionary organic tactical airborne ISR capability — or EOTACS.
That translates to a UAS that could be anywhere from potentially nano-sized all the way to a Group 2 UAS — which is between 21 and 55 pounds — that can aid small team formations, Smith said.
9. Signature management
The command is looking at how better to ensure operators stay hidden when they want to, according to Smith. Special operators function in challenging domains where a thermal signature stands out like a sore thumb — such as a swimmer in a cold body of water.
“How do we manage the signature of an operator to ensure they remain undetected?” Smith asked; and likewise, how can an operator also keep a low profile in the digital domain?
10. Information operations
In the special ops world this is a core competency, Smith said, but “this is an area where any advantage that we have had is potentially eroded.”
There are near-peer competitors that are very good at manipulation in the social media domain and beating the U.S. to the punch with counterproductive and damaging messaging.
Special operators have to be just as good at getting messaging out at the tactical edge within communities and passing back intel about whether messaging is being heard by the general population and its effectiveness, Smith said.
It’s a known fact that casualty rates are lessened if higher-level care can be administered within an hour of injury. “SOF operations often take place outside that golden hour of survival,” Smith said.
So the command is looking at how to push primary care out to the tactical edge by providing biomedical sensors that send alerts when an operators is distressed, as well as providing a telemedicine capability.
Recently, downrange in Syria, a mobile technology shop-in-a-box ― complete with welding and drilling capabilities and a 3-D printer ― put together two sleeping containers and turned it into an emergency room on a flatbed truck that went out to a few hundred meters at the front line of operations in support of a partnered force.
That emergency room even had freeze-dried plasma because plasma is usually impossible to keep in conditions that are found at the front lines of operations.
There are also efforts to improve quality of life for operators, including sleep. “How can you make two hours of really crappy sleep feel like eight hours of sleep in your feather bed at home?” Smith asked.
12. Expeditionary logistics
It’s no secret that special operators conduct missions in small teams at the tactical edge in austere locations so “they can’t afford to have a long log tail trailing along behind them,” Smith said.
So SOCOM needs solutions for agile logistics support that gets to operators at the point of need at the right time with the right amount, he said.