Invisibility, Nighttime Sensing Top SOCOM’s Science and Technology Priorities
By Grace V. Jean
U.S. Special Operations Command is perhaps best known for grabbing technologies off the shelf and adapting them for challenging missions. But it is also committed to a steady investment in research and development, some of which will spin out as technologies to special operations forces within six to 18 months.
Current SOF research-and-development priorities fall into four areas, said Lisa Sanders, deputy director of science and technology at SOCOM.
One of the priorities is to help operators become invisible, or to hide in plain sight.
“We operate in environments where we just don’t want to stand out,” said Sanders. “Invisible doesn’t mean the Klingon cloaking device,” from Star Trek, she added. Rather, the command is seeking a broad range of technology, from camouflage and heat or visual signature concealing equipment to items that could mask an unattended sensor. Maintaining special operators’ status of “owning the night” is another priority. They want to beef up their ability to operate in the dark, and current night vision technology is not keeping pace with the demand. “We need to go to digital capability,” she said.
Another priority is “extended duration incapacitation” — an ability to disable people without permanently injuring them. It’s also referred to as the “15-minute kill.” Having a suspected enemy incapacitated without having to employ potentially lethal force would give special operators the time they need to determine whether they are a threat.
“That is important as we operate in environments with a mixed population,” where a person might be carrying something that looks like a baby, but could turn out to be a gun, said Sanders.
The command is partnering with the Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate to explore options in directed energy. One of its efforts is pursuing is a 40 mm Taser-capable weapon. “It’s not Taser, per se, but utilizing that kind of technology,” said Sanders. “One of the things we’re working on is the ability to fire at more of a standoff distance.”
There are also hailing and warning requirements for a family of loudspeakers, and biometric technology needs as well.
Finally, special operators want to understand and exploit the battlefield environment. “We are working to improve sensors. We’re working to improve processing algorithms to gather data out of those sensors,” said Sanders.
Along with better sensors, jammers and radar technology, troops want to see through the thick dense foliage of jungles. Everyone thinks of the triple canopy layer as a problem from the overhead “bird’s eye view” perspective, said Sanders. But it is also just as problematic from the ground. “There’s a lot of foliage around you that you can’t see through,” she said.
Along with the longer-term basic and applied research efforts, the command also has commenced a “rapid exploitation of innovative technology for SOF,” or REITS, project to fund development of special operations-specific solutions that can transition to a program of record in six to 18 months.
Last year, officials provided funds for five projects. Two of them — a power generation capability and a vehicle stability technology — will transition to units by this summer. Two others will proceed to testing and will be fielded next year. The final one will deliver later this year, 14 months after it went on contract, said Sanders.
The projects covered the gamut of technologies, but the poster child so far is the vehicle suspension improvement. The command supported a small business that adapted off-road racing technology for SOF vehicles that must travel over rugged terrain.
“This newer technology will double the life of our suspensions,” said Sanders. Once it transitions, program officials can include it as part of their planned vehicle upgrades.