Special Ops Modernization $500M Short Non-conventional warfare threats boost demand for specialized skills

By Sandra I. Erwin

Trained to fight behind the scenes-in tropical jungles, arid deserts and arctic oceans-U.S. special operations forces often are called upon to diffuse crises quietly and expeditiously.

But as the United States becomes increasingly involved in non-conventional warfare and low-intensity military operations, it is likely that special operations units will take on a much more visible role in the next century, officials said.

About 30 so-called low-intensity conflicts are ongoing throughout the world, according to a Defense Department study.

Emerging threats to this nation's security, predict Pentagon planners, will challenge military leaders to introduce into the conventional forces many of the combat skills that so far have been unique to the special operations units. These Žlite troops currently include 47,000 soldiers, aviators, and naval specialists who train and operate under the umbrella of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) in Tampa, Florida.

The Army branch of SOCOM is headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the Navy's in Coronado, California; and the Air Force special operations forces are based at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

Much like the conventional military services, special operations forces have seen their rate of deployment skyrocket during the past decade. Since 1991, that pace, or "optempo," has jumped threefold, said Rear Adm. Ralph E. Suggs, USN, deputy commander in chief of U.S. SOCOM.

Suggs addressed the recent Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association.

The troops, he stressed, are "maxed-out." About one-third of SOCOM forces are from the National Guard and Reserves.

In addition to combat assignments worldwide, SOCOM units conduct peacekeeping actions, humanitarian assistance such as demining operations, counterterrorism, drug-interdiction and monitoring of enemy arsenals.

Special operations forces, essentially, are charged with "numerous challenges that are not easily overcome through traditional military means," said Raymond Dominguez, deputy assistant defense secretary, forces and resources for special operations. He cited duties ranging from preventing the proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction, averting attacks against critical U.S. infrastructure, enhancing international stability and combating international terrorism.

Dominguez boasted that "key leaders within the Pentagon are increasingly cognizant of the important capabilities special operations forces have to meet and overcome these challenges."

High praise from the Pentagon notwithstanding, U.S. SOCOM is falling short financially in a number of areas, Dominguez said. "This era of tight fiscal constraints has been a formidable obstacle, preventing [U.S. SOCOM] from doing all the things it would like to do to maintain and modernize itself.

"We've fallen about $300 million to $500 million a year short for research, development and modernization," he said.

During the next six years, SOCOM will receive about 1.3 percent of the Pentagon's budget. Funding for special operations forces is expected to grow from $3.5 billion in Fiscal Year 1999 to nearly $4 billion in 2005.

The increase, however, "is not going to get us out of this [modernization] dilemma," said Dominguez, because the funding boost is earmarked for salaries and operational expenses.

SOCOM officials are not hopeful about the chances of getting the additional $300 million to $500 million for technology and new equipment. Given the current budget, said Dominguez, "I am fairly comfortable in predicting that special operations forces will continue to have unfunded requirements of at least this magnitude for the foreseeable future."

This fiscal year, about 20 percent of SOCOM's budget, or $650 million, will be spent on research and new equipment purchases.

Much of the funding is devoted to the command's "flagship programs," explained Harry E. Schulte, SOCOM's acquisition executive. These programs are the CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft, the advanced SEAL delivery system and a submarine conversion project.

The CV-22 is a special operations variant of the Marine Corps' MV-22 aircraft-which can take off and land like a helicopter but flies like a turboprop plane. The CV model is designed to facilitate long-range insertions and extraction missions. It has a third seat in the cockpit for a flight engineer and 900-gallon internal fuel tanks that double the MV-22's fuel carrying capacity. It also features a multimode terrain avoidance/terrain following radar and enhanced electronic warfare suites.

SOCOM plans to buy 50 aircraft from prime contractors Bell Helicopter and Boeing, based in Philadelphia. Deployment begins in 2004.

By 2005, the command will have invested nearly $800 million in CV-22. That funding only pays for the modifications to the Marine Corps' version.

The 50 tiltrotors will replace 89 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft-a combination of MH53J and MH60K helicopters and C-130 planes, explained Brig. Gen. Ed LaFontaine, USAF, vice commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

The average age of AFSOC aircraft is 30, he said.

LaFontaine said aviators at the command are anxious to have CV-22s in the fleet. Compared to the MH-53s and the C-130s, he said, the tiltrotor is "way ahead in capability." He conceded, however, that there are still some aspects of the aircraft that need further improvement, but "we can't get there yet."

Clandestine Operations
The advanced SEAL delivery system (ASDS) is a battery-powered, clandestine mini-submarine designed to transport Navy sea-air-land (SEAL) forces in and out of the battle zone. The idea is to be able to move SEALs in a dry, warm environment. The system's prime contractor is Northrop Grumman, Annapolis, Maryland. A company spokeswoman declined to comment on this program.

Under SOCOM's third major modernization project, the command will take advantage of a Navy program to upgrade Trident submarines to meet SEAL-unique demands. Schulte explained the boomers offer significant advantages to commandos because they can carry up to 102 SEALs. The Tridents, which are being retired from their nuclear mission, still have about 20 years of operational life left. The converted subs will offer precision fire and land attack capabilities with up to 154 strike missiles.

Between 2000 and 2006, SOCOM will invest $519 million to convert four submarines. Two will be operational in 2003 and the other two in 2004.

But, although the submarines "would be a great asset for SOCOM and the commander-in-chief would very much like to see it happen, the Trident conversion program is still a Navy program," said SOCOM spokeswoman Edie Rosenthal in response to written questions from National Defense.

The submarines will be launching platforms for SEAL delivery vehicles such as ASDS.

"Converted boomers are the answer if you don't want to be detected," said David Murphy, a military expert based in Vienna, Virginia. These platforms are among the quietest currently in existence, he said in an interview. That is clearly an advantage in covert missions that SEALs likely will conduct, such as tracking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Even though the Trident will be configured to host more than one hundred SEALs, said Murphy, it would be unusual to send that many of them, at one time, in one boat.

Capt. John McTighe, USN, chief of staff at the Navy Special Warfare Command, said SEALs expect to see increasing involvement worldwide because they are the most capable force for water-based clandestine operations.

"When a rogue state such as North Korea wants to transport weapons of mass destruction to Iraq or Iran, chances are high they will go by sea," said McTighe. "That's where we think we provide the most important capability," giving U.S. officials valuable intelligence.

He noted, however, that one of the most daunting challenges for SEALs is surviving in frigid water environments. That is because they do not have adequate garments. "We need an active thermal protection suit. It's hard to believe but we don't have one," said McTigue.

SEALs also are seeking improved stealth technology for their suits so they can move furtively in areas close to the enemy.

Another item on their wish-list is a portable communications suite "that can be worn as a belt, covering the whole spectrum of communications," he added.

Special operations forces in the field expect to receive new gear later this year under a modernization program called SPEAR, or special operations forces equipment advanced requirements. SOCOM is investing about $11 million through Fiscal Year 2000 on more than 10,000 SPEAR systems, said John Harrison, who manages the project at the Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg. The equipment will be shared by all special operations branches, he said in an interview.

Recent enhancements to the program include body armor and load carriage. The improved body armor protects against fragmentation from handgun and rifle rounds. It has a soft armor vest, front and back interchangeable armor plates, and modular neck and groin protection. A new backpack allows troops to carry up to 120 pounds.

Aircraft Upgrades
Officials at the conference, meanwhile, readily agreed that air mobility is a top priority for future SOCOM investments.

LaFontaine outlined plans to build new generations of aircraft. The follow-on to the AC-130 gunship is called ACX, a future MC-130 Combat Talon is known as MCX, and an ECX would be the next generation to the EC-130 Command Solo broadcast aircraft used for psychological warfare.

Details are sketchy, however, as to how SOCOM will develop and acquire these new systems. AFSOC's chief of plans and strategy, Lt. Col. Dan Baradon, said the EC-130, for example, has "significant limitations" and the command may consider a commercial platform for the future.

Emerging requirements notwithstanding, experts said, it is clear that SOCOM will face an uphill battle to get funding for new platforms.

Tim Davidson, a former AFSOC official and now a consultant in Potomac, Maryland, said in an interview that buying new aircraft in the current budgetary environment is almost impossible.

"With other Air Force procurement priorities such as the F-22 [air superiority fighter] and the joint strike fighter, who's going to be able to afford three new aircraft for special operations forces?" he said.

He suggested SOCOM work with a common airframe that can be tailored for various functions and to make the procurement of these aircraft part of a large Air Force acquisition project-in order to secure funding.

Topics: Special Operations, Weapons of Mass Destruction, Budget, Aviation, Maritime Security

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