When two dozen Navy SEALs stormed Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound in May 2011, each was wearing a $65,000, state-of-the-art set of night-vision goggles unavailable to any other fighting force.
It is one of many examples of how U.S. special operators have access to the most technologically advanced weapons and gear on the market. Still, they are always looking for improvements.
Special Operations Command constantly solicits industry for technologies that improve upon existing gear or that can perform a desired function that is beyond the reach of current equipment.
Lisa Sanders, SOCOM’s science and technology chief, in May ran down a wish list of gadgets and capabilities at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla.
Topping the list are lighter and more flexible body armor, advanced night-vision goggles and portable infrared sensors. Operators also need improved forensic devices to gather information from “sensitive sites” in the field, and biometric tools that can identify combatants that hide among civilian populations.
Through broad agency announcements (BAA), the directorate is able to gain access to off-the-shelf technologies and engineering breakthroughs.
The directorate hosts an experimentation event three times a year to allow industry, academia and other government agencies to see how certain technologies work in an operational environment.
The latest BAA, which called for proposals for a tactical assault light operator suit (TALOS), was released the day of Sanders’ SOFIC speech and has drawn proposals from industry and government agencies.
The suit is seen as an infantry uniform that can provide enhanced strength and improved ballistic protection while preserving the wearer’s fluid movement. Using wide-area networking and sensors attached to their bodies, operators will have more situational awareness of the action around them and of their own vital signs.
SOCOM has no patience for drawn-out development programs. Only gear that is ready for fielding is given serious consideration, Sanders and other SOF officials said. The idea behind the BAAs and subsequent technical experimentation events is to find out what is on the market, identify items that work for SOF and field them in as little time as possible.
Participants had to submit a summary of their proposal describing how each would achieve the desired characteristics with current and emerging technologies — just two weeks after the BAA was issued. Demonstrations are scheduled for early July at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. Envisioned as a hybrid of body armor and battle uniform, the initial TALOS capability should be ready within a year, and SOCOM would like to field the suit within three years.
Sanders described four main areas in which SOCOM wants to advance its technological capabilities: Comprehensive signature management to conceal the purpose and origin of communication signals in the field; human performance, which includes gear like the TALOS suit and lethal and non-lethal weapons; weapons and gear for use in anti-access, area denial situations; and improvement of battlespace awareness to include biometric devices and other portable sensors.
SOCOM also wants to improve what it calls “small-unit dominance” — allowing a handful of operators to infiltrate a contested environment and, through a combination of technology and training, have the capabilities of a much larger force.
On a micro-scale, SOCOM is also interested in addressing anti-access, area-denial scenarios or A2/AD. While the parent services are concerned with nations like Iran and North Korea and their abilities to deny access to certain areas of the globe, SOF operators don’t worry about countering ballistic missiles and the like.
“We might not be dealing with a large, technically advanced threat, but we might also be outside the theater of declared, active conflict,” Sanders explained. At issue for small teams of two or three operators is “not standing out in the environment that [they are] in.”
That calls for communication devices that don’t look like military radios, tactical vehicles that look more like beat-up old trucks than Humvees or aircraft that are not immediately identifiable as military.
SOF operators are called to perform policing duties and intelligence gathering as often as direct-action operations. They need improved technologies that can identify enemies hiding among civilian populations and that can accomplish that task in short order under different circumstances, said Mike Fitz, program manager for SOCOM sensitive site exploitation.
“We can’t seem to find technologies out there that are meeting our requirements at this time,” Fitz said at SOFIC. “We have a lot of interest in biometrics capabilities — it’s been very successful, we’ve captured a lot of bad guys. Sometimes half the battle is finding out who the enemy is.”
Desired items include digital fingerprint imaging devices and remote facial recognition tools. Where DNA matching currently takes several days in a conventional lab, SOCOM wants a device that can complete the task in under an hour. Fitz said several vendors are currently undertaking the latter challenge
“We need these to be portable and very accurate,” Fitz said. “On the forensic side of the house — people hide stuff from us, and we need to be able to find out where it is and what it is.”
The requirement for detection technologies extends past explosives and booby traps — though they remain a top concern — to sensitive information and intelligence, as well.
“Our capability to identify explosives is presumptive. It works, but it’s not 100 percent accurate so we’re always looking for a better way to do that,” Fitz said.
Other biometric tools work well in some situations, but not in others — day versus night or when a subject is being cooperative versus being combative toward submitting a DNA sample for example. SOCOM needs tools that can perform in as many scenarios as possible, Fitz said.
“Sometimes, for instance, technologies work better on a live person than a dead person and we’re interested in knowing who that enemy KIA is,” he said.
Companies with proposals for these capabilities can submit their technologies to any of a series of rolling technological experiments where SOCOM puts commercial technology in the hands of operators. Two experiments have been held in Indiana and Florida this year. A third will take place before the year’s end at Camp Roberts, Calif., focusing on maritime technologies.
“It is not intended to be a show and tell,” Sanders said. “It is not intended to necessarily result in a contract. … It is intended to help determine how to make your product better,” and for SOCOM to learn what is available on the market.