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Special Operations 

Special Operators Want Lighter, User-Friendly Equipment — And Fast 


By Grace V. Jean 

The U.S. Special Operations Command doesn’t care whether industry has the latest and greatest technology if it can’t put it quickly into the hands of troops.

“Innovation and responsiveness are keys to our success. Agility is essential,” said Navy Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, in a speech to the 2010 Special Operations Industry Conference, in Tampa, Fla.

If the speed of acquisition is throttle that determines the speed of war, then fielding new technologies “as rapidly as possible is a primary method of shortening conflicts and saving lives,” Olson said.

Since 9/11, SOCOM’s equipment budget has more than doubled from $900 million to $2 billion in 2010 — $1.5 billion in procurement and about $500 million in research and development.

Next year, however, R&D funding will drop by 26 percent, which means that SOCOM will be doing less of its own development and will be searching for new technology in the private sector, said James Cluck, SOCOM’s acquisition executive.

“We would never have enough money to pay for it all ourselves,” said Cluck in an interview with National Defense. Another challenge is the slow pace of the military acquisition process. “We try to do it as rapidly as we can, but it’s tough to match up science and technology with the way we do budgeting and programming in the department,” he said.

“We have to wring every bit of capability out of the technologies that are available,” said Cluck. “Sometimes we just need to figure out how to use current technologies better.”

Cluck praised the competitive prototyping approach to developing weapon systems. “That gives industry a fair shot at having a prototype opportunity … and it gives the users a fair opportunity to evaluate the range of options that industry may be providing.

“If we write a full specification before we award, we’re just taking an educated guess that it’s going to work as we expect it to work. If it doesn’t, it’s either going to cost us more money to repair that in a different direction, or we start over and we lose time,” Cluck added.

“I think we do best when we look at mature technologies and rapidly apply them and insert them into existing programs,” said Cluck.

Special operators want lighter gear that requires little to no training time.

“The key to success is being light, nimble and fast. Anything weighing you down is going to kill you,” said Navy Lt. John Wiedmann of SEAL Team One. Operators typically pick through their gear and leave bulky items behind.

“If you can imagine being an operator climbing ladders, running on target, think about what you’d want on your back,” he said.

They also prefer communication systems with high-power wattage that can punch signals through steel roofs, said Wiedmann, who recently returned from his third tour in Iraq. There, his team encountered problems with radio equipment. Low hanging electrical wires interfered with their signals. In sandstorms, radios would not work, even inside tactical operations centers, he said. Systems need to be waterproof, sand- and dirt-resistant and run on long-lasting batteries.

Army Lt. Col. Dean Franks, commander of 1st Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, said another item on the SOF wish list is small unmanned aerial vehicles. “We’re looking for smaller platforms that can be employed by smaller tactical elements,” he said in an interview. At the company level, troops have access to Shadow UAVs. Operational detachments carry man-portable systems such as the Raven. But troops would like more options when they are in remote areas where they lack access to current unmanned aircraft.

Maj. Steve Hayden, a company commander, said troops need forensic systems to help identify suspected terrorists. Some of the data may be used to prosecute criminals in the Iraqi judicial system, Franks noted.

SOF units also need faster vehicles. The mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) trucks are effective thwarting roadside bombs, but they’re too hard to maneuver, said Franks. “We find ourselves in situations where we’re buttoned up in a big blast-protected vehicle and yet they’re riding in a pick-up truck.”

SOF systems need more efficient power sources, so that fewer cables and batteries are required, said Lt. Col. Brett Bourne, executive officer of the Marine Corps Special Operations Regiment. “We have a lot of gear and not all of it works with each other,” he added. Consolidating items, such as a bullet plate carrier that provides ballistic protection and also has a built-in antenna that works with handheld radios, would be useful, he said.

In an interview, Bourne pulled out his BlackBerry and held it up. “I can run my calendar. I can run my email. I can run Internet, and I can talk on the phone,” he said. The communication devices that the military takes to war are not as user friendly. Operators carry a rugged waterproof briefcase that contains a satellite system to access classified emails, phone lines and video teleconferencing. It’s a wonderful piece of gear, Bourne said, but only highly trained operators are able to use it.

“Given the operational tempo, we don’t have any more training time,” he said.

Lighter and easier-to-use equipment is critical in disaster-relief operations. Following the January earthquake that struck Haiti, airmen from the 720th Special Tactics Group were among the first on the ground to help open up the airfield in Port-au-Prince.

Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Travis, senior enlisted manager at the Air Force Special Operations Training Center, directed paratroopers and rescue teams into collapsed structures to search for survivors. The team rescued a female who survived in the rubble for eight days. Much of the equipment was too bulky to fit in crawl spaces. Fuel generators were not always readily available.

“The longer we can run without burning fuel in generators, the more successful we can be,” he said.

Valerie Schuey, program manager for intelligence, said SOCOM is interested in data collection and dissemination, as well as target identification tools.

The goal is to better exploit full motion video. Analysts usually work with multiple chat windows and video streams. Tools to automate processes would be useful, Schuey said. “We’re never going to cut their workload, but do want to give them time to do actual analysis,” she said.

Another pressing need is multilevel-security systems so analysts can work across a spectrum of classification levels.

The deputy for the maritime systems program executive office, Steve Armstrong, said his organization is looking for advanced energy storage for submersibles, full Internet interoperability for boats and wireless intercom systems.

SOCOM will tap industry for advanced batteries, Armstrong said.

SEAL teams need better antennas to beef up reception, as commercial networks often don’t work away from shore. Wireless intercom systems that are small and encrypted also are required, Armstrong said.  

Source selection is ongoing for the first block of a shallow water combat submersible, which is the replacement for the troubled SEAL delivery vehicle. SOCOM spent years developing the SEAL mini-submarine but the program suffered huge cost overruns and technical failures. The plan now is to develop a family of submersibles that would have common electronic suites and could operate from Navy submarines — either from dry deck shelters or vertical launching systems.

SOCOM recently canceled the request for proposals for a new medium combatant craft, Armstrong said. Officials are now working out a new requirement and they plan to publish a solicitation before the end of the year. The original requirement was for 36 craft, and the number is being reconsidered. The command wants a commercial boat that crews can operate in low-threat environments when they are training with allied security forces.

Units also are interested in sensors to help see outside when they ride in mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, which have tiny windows.

Improved and lighter body armor always is a priority, said Smith. “The enemy is getting proficient at finding places lacking coverage,” he said. A request for proposals for soft armor, including the smaller plates that troops wear to protect their arms, will come out in November.

Other upcoming procurements include a replacement for the MK 13 flash-bang grenade and an enhanced carbine optical system for use in close quarter combat. Troops want a variable powered sight, Smith said.

Douglas Richardson, program executive officer for special reconnaissance, surveillance and exploitation, said much of his portfolio is classified. He acquires spying equipment, such as hidden sensors, to help units collect data. Richardson is interested in reducing the size, weight and power demands of the devices, as well as their signatures, “because the enemy knows we have these devices. We have to make them harder to find,” he said.

Of interest are unattended ground sensors, he said. Power for these devices is always a problem, and amplifying signals so that they go through triple canopy jungles and urban canyons remains a challenge, said Richardson. Biometrics systems are also sought with greater standoff capabilities.                   

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