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Special Operations Gear Development Often Funded By Others
By Dan Parsons

Lisa Sanders, head of SOCOM’s Science and Technology Directorate,
speaking at
the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference

TAMPA, Fla. — Special Operations Command outfits its troops with some of the most technologically advanced gear in the military, but pays very little for its development.

SOCOM instead field tests incrementally improved devices to demonstrate their operational relevance, then relies on its parent services to foot the bill for development and acquisition, said Lisa Sanders, who heads SOCOM’s Science and Technology Directorate.

“I say often, we are not going to invent anything in my four walls,” Sanders said May 15 at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. “I don’t have the skill set for it. I don’t have the budget for it. That’s not our charter.”

Most of the directorate’s budget — which is less than 1 percent of what the Army spends on science and technology development — is spent on “revolutionary leap-ahead” technologies like advanced night vision devices. The programs undertaken by SOCOM often are funded at less than $1 million apiece, she said.

“I’m interested in something that’s 10 percent better, but I’m probably not going to invest in [developing] things that are 10 percent better” than what special operators already use, Sanders said.

While many contracts might not flow directly from SOCOM, they do provide a series of avenues to put products in the hands of operators for evaluation. Those that successfully fill a gap in SOF troops’ capabilities could get referred to other services to undergo rapid acquisition. Instead of funding massive technology development projects, SOCOM instead helps industry and other government agencies how to make their systems better suited to U.S. commandos.

“What we want to do is collaborate with folks who do have ideas,” Sanders said. “We want to connect technology providers to the user community to figure out how to actually take your technology and [create] something that becomes deliverable.”

There are several ways the directorate becomes aware of a technology that could be useful or improve upon an existing capability. If a technology is already available, the SOCOM directorate becomes a “matchmaker” between industry and the large services, Sanders said.

“It’s available today but never been used for this purpose. … I’m not inventing anything. I’m not discovering anything. I’m not doing deliberate technology. I’m simply taking something and implementing it,” she said.

The directorate conveys its interest in the commercially available technology and its operational value to programs like the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and the Defense Department’s Rapid Innovation Fund to encourage rapid acquisition.

“What I cannot do is spend SOCOM S&T resources on them because it’s near-term systems integration and that’s not science and technology,” she said.

Other times one of Sanders’ engineers will come up with an idea for a useful technology that either does not exist or is not yet possible. In that case, the directorate informs academia and the services research laboratories, like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, of SOCOM’s strategic interest in a particular technology, Sanders said.

What Sanders will spend money on are technologies that have near-term potential to advance SOF-specific capabilities but “need solid science and technology development.”

The directorate looks at SOF mission areas, and then polls operators on what their gear can and can’t do to accomplish those missions. The assessments result in “derived capability gaps” engineers than ask industry and other government agencies if they can fill.

Through broad agency announcements the directorate is able to gain access to commercially available technologies that could provide improved performance for SOF troops but inherently require fewer development and acquisition dollars, she said. The directorate received 900 submissions to its last BAA and is in the process of awarding contracts to 30 of the companies that responded, Sanders said.

Three times a year the directorate hosts an experimentation event to allow industry, academia and other government agencies to see how certain technologies work in an operational environment.

“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.

“We need you as technology providers to have the opportunity to get your products out in front of the best operators,” Sanders added. “And they are more than happy to give you their feedback.”

Photo Credit: Scott Rekdal/NDIA


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