U.S. Special Operations Command has a reputation for procuring technology out of left field and doing it fast.
So when a Navy SOCOM commander suggested that his operators could use the technology film director James Cameron employed on a historic dive to the deepest parts of the ocean, no one batted an eye.
If any part of the military is going to weather the budget storm and still be able to carry out ambitious, speedy acquisitions, experts say it will be SOCOM. But that doesn’t mean austerity won’t challenge the command or force it to change the way it has been doing things for the past decade.
During the National Defense Industrial Association’s recent Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla., SOCOM Acquisition Executive James W. Cluck said he was worried that dwindling research-and-development funding could threaten the command’s ability to maintain its fast-paced innovation cycle.
“You don’t need a lot of money to be innovative,” Cluck said. “But we’ve had a condition lately of declining R&D dollars squeezed out by the demand of operational tempo. My concern with that is we’re not able to turn and deploy and test things as quickly as we might be able to do if we had a little more research-and-development dollars.”
The pressure is on, because government leaders will expect a return on their heavy investment in special operations, officials said.
Additionally, tighter budgets could have an impact on an independent line of funding for acquisitions specific to special operations forces (SOF). The command has the ability to lean on the traditional military services when necessary but then go its own way to buy niche equipment and bypass lengthy procurement processes. As the defense budget decreases, the services may force SOCOM to dip more into its own funds and rely less on money directly from the military branches, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ homeland security and counterterrorism program. The debate about what is and isn’t SOF-specific gear could heat up under this scenario, he said. The competition for dollars may even threaten the strong bonds formed between general purpose and special forces during the past decade, he added.
SOCOM in recent years has mastered the art of the quick buy. Most of the command’s programs are small, have short acquisition cycles and use modified commercial off-the-shelf and non-developmental items. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of modifying existing equipment and assets.
“They don’t have a huge amount of funding, but they are able to use that to buy things the services are otherwise not buying,” said Todd Harrison, fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “If the Air Force is buying a cool drone, they can still buy off that contract. But if no one is buying that drone, they can start their own program.”
However, the requirements for SOF-specific equipment are much different. Special operators often take on riskier missions that require small footprints. They may be asked to dismantle a weapon of mass destruction or conduct a night raid to capture or kill a specific individual such as Osama bin Laden. They need the best technology money can buy, even though it may only be used just a few times, Nelson said.
When Cluck took over the Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center (SORDAC), he had three goals: push decision-making to the lowest level, improve communication with industry and accelerate the process.
“I can stand up here three years later and tell you I think we’ve accomplished all three of those,” he told the conference.
Managers are held accountable if they don’t carry out their programs within a 10 percent deviation of original plans, and his acquisition staffers must be in tune with what’s happening on the battlefield, Cluck said.
“Just like his operational maneuver element commander is advised by fires and logistics and intelligence and aviation to get the job done, the program manager is advised and counseled by folks across the gambit of tests, requirements and engineering [that is] blended into a program that delivers capabilities as quickly as possible,” he said.
There are other rapid acquisition efforts throughout the military, but none have been as successful as SOCOM’s, according to studies. Data from the more than 20 rapid acquisition channels throughout the Defense Department shows that SOCOM fulfilled urgent needs in the least amount of time — about 296 days on average, according to a paper written by Air Force Lt. Col. Carl E. Schaefer. That quick turnaround prompted Schaefer to suggest the command’s rapid acquisition process be the model across the services. It could help the Air Force acquire a limited major weapon system such as a light attack aircraft in less than two years, he wrote.
SOCOM is looking for a variety of new technologies, according to a broad agency announcement issued this spring. Some of what special forces need are: a variety of non-lethal weapons; fast amphibious, submersible and air vehicles that can deliver troops and equipment without being noticed; advanced transparent armor; sensors that help helicopter pilots land in swirling dust; the ability to detect and identify snipers at long range; and any technologies that enhance stealth, surprise and off-road mobility.
At the conference, commanders said they needed high-resolution sensors that could collect three-dimensional data through and around obstacles such as dense foliage. Officials said they also wanted smaller sensors that can be carried by operators and can see 360 degrees. Lisa Sanders, who leads SOCOM’s science and technology directorate, told industry that operators need to be able to go anywhere undetected and return safely, but that officials weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel to achieve their objectives.
“We’re not looking to develop a different kit or put them in a different vehicle or change a tactic,” she said. The broad agency announcement isn’t searching for the pie in the sky. SOCOM wants to see results, she said.
“We can and will award projects off this solicitation,” Sanders said.
True to its reputation, SOCOM has asked that industry be able to complete any effort that arises from the solicitation, which closed July 13, within 24 months and for less than $2 million.
But the less money SOCOM has to test new technologies, the more the burden shifts to industry where companies would have to spend more of their own money to deliver systems that are ready to go. It sounds like an optimal plan on the surface, it is anything but, Cluck said.
“As we have less money to give you to develop and modify and test the next capability, that means you’re probably going to have to develop it on your own and then bring it in as a capability when we ask for it,” he said. “Sounds nice for me, but I’m not sure each of you can afford the cost of entry to adopt that strategy.”
Cluck suggested implementing more cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) among the acquisition center, program executive offices and industry.
“If you’re going to invest your internal R&D dollars, you need to have a good basis to understand requirements, you need the ability to get formal feedback from government on what your ideas are,” he said. “CRADA allows you to do that.”
Despite declining R&D dollars, SOCOM is in a better position than any other part of the military to leverage private sector development to meet its needs, analysts said. The nature of SOF activities allows the command to grab a system off the shelf or go after non-traditional technology, even perhaps the capsule Cameron used in March to plummet more than 6 miles below the ocean surface, Nelson said.
Cameron’s “vertical torpedo” stretches about 25 feet. It was built in secret for the purpose of deep-sea research, but special operators could use something like it as well, Navy Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, said. “That’s great technology,” he said. “And he probably didn’t pay as much as the Navy would charge us to build that thing. But it’s truly advanced and there are applications for special operations.”
Pybus said that Navy special operators have to be prepared to operate and move in waters where it will become more difficult to hide.
“I expect the undersea environment 10 years from now to be just as cluttered as our aviation environment is today with all kinds of sensors and transportation and autonomous vehicles,” Pybus said. “We intend to have capability there . . . That’s our domain down there.”
But the White House and Pentagon have made it clear they will call on special operations forces to perform more indirect missions around the globe, training local militaries in some places and building relationships with local populations in others. These activities will require a different set of equipment than that used by special operators during kinetic missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The next administration must take advantage of SOF’s current political clout to ensure they evolve into a global, full-spectrum force capable of doing everything from advising host nations to confronting pirates, Nelson said. If capabilities, authorities and resources are mismanaged during this critical transition, “SOF may find themselves relegated to providing little more than support for general purpose forces.”