Special Ops Command Tells Industry: Invest More Money in R&D

7/19/2010
By Eric Beidel
A change in spending priorities at the U.S. Special Operations Command may alter the traditional customer-contractor relationship, a senior official said last week. As more money flows into personnel and procurement accounts, less funding will be available for research and development. The upshot is that SOCOM will increasingly be seeking off-the-shelf equipment and will partner with companies that are interested in investing their own money in new technology.
 
Of particular interest to SOCOM is advanced communications technology and sensors — specifically small, portable devices that don't weigh troops down. The command's communications division has begun work on a series of cooperative research-and-development agreements that allow the government to give industry access to people, facilities and test ranges — pretty much anything but cash.
 
“We’ve got as much money as we need ... but we’ve been spending a lot more money buying stuff and a lot less money investing in [research and development]," said SOCOM Communications Systems Deputy Director Anthony “Tony” Davis at a conference hosted by the Northern Virginia chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.
 
The communications division recently began a project to develop handheld blue-force tracking devices, for example. “We’re looking for industry to help us do more of that, especially with sensors,” Davis said. “We’ve got missions in triple-canopy jungles and mountains and caves. There are a lot of places where we have a lot of difficulty getting signal to our friendly force tracking devices.”
 
SOCOM wants to deliver situational awareness to all troops in the field, Davis explained. That means giving each individual access to full-motion video, with the least amount of equipment possible.
 
“We’re talking with companies to develop radios / censors / video receivers / blue-force tracking - whatever other capabilities we can put into those devices,” Davis said.
 
Industry leaders listening to that pitch wondered if SOCOM’s required security levels on tactical communication devices would limit what the private sector could do. Most special operations communication tools demand the highest level of encryption, Type 1. This hinders efforts to acquire products, Davis acknowledged, but there are ongoing discussions to find out where a lower-level or commercial-grade encryption could be used without too much risk.
 
“Obviously, we like our data as secure as we can make it,” he said, “but in some cases we’re willing to trade off some of that security for operational flexibility.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Infotech

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