Special Operations Leaders Seeking Technologies for Ground, Maritime Forces
One of the toughest challenges that U.S. Army Special Operations Command faces is meeting the ground mobility requirements, said its commanding officer, Lt. Gen. John Mulholland. Speaking on a panel at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, Mulholland said that the service will continue to fill its very light mobility requirements with commercial vehicles, and that it will continue to depend upon the conventional Army for its heavy truck needs, currently being fulfilled by fleets of mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) trucks and the smaller all-terrain variants, or M-ATVs. But in the middle of that spectrum resides a special operations-modified Humvee fleet that will have to be replaced. The command typically would look to the Army for help. However, the conventional force is looking to replace the Humvee with a next-generation truck called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV. Current prototypes of the vehicle are much heavier than special operations forces would like.
“There is still going to be a need for that light mobility special operations vehicle that we suspect will be different than the evolving models of JLTV,” Mulholland said. “We will struggle with finding that solution.”
He also is interested in technology that will allow his troops to conceal themselves and their actions and movements. That “signature management” will continue to be a challenge as adversaries develop greater capabilities to detect troops, he said.
Commandos have a keen interest in unmanned systems to help them understand that environment. They will increasingly look for small technologies that can carry suites of imagery sensors and even lethal munitions, Mulholland said.
Echoing the concerns of his boss, Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Mulholland said there is “an enduring shortfall in the ground combat community of simulations that allow us to train and rehearse our soldiers in collective formations for environments we operate in.” He expressed “massive frustration” at the inability to develop a simulation that will allow special operations forces to simulate “complex scenarios, unconventional warfare, direct action, a spectrum of engagements, and allow us to better understand how we can respond to certain circumstances,” he told industry.
As troops become more networked and carry more communication and sensing equipment, there is also a need for lightweight power.
“We can’t impede that soldier’s mobility in the course of doing that,” Mulholland warned.
Troops increasingly will depend upon remote sensors to understand the environment. These left-behind devices will have to transmit coherent video from targets and areas of interest for extended periods of time.
“There’s a power requirement there as well,” he said.
In addition, USASOC seeks nonlethal weapons and fused night vision goggles that can be incorporated into SOF helmets as face shields or other heads-up systems similar to the displays that aviators wear.
For Marine special operators, intelligence fusion is the priority, Maj. Gen. Paul Lefebvre, commander of Marine Corps Special Operations Command, told National Defense.
“That’s what allows you to operate faster and more collaboratively, through better sharing of information,” he said. In Afghanistan, MARSOC troops have built up relationships with their military peers and other governmental agency representatives because they have no other choice in the austere environment. “We rely on each other because we have to out there. We readily share, because we built that relationship out of necessity. But now it’s time to make the tools and the pictures work together,” he said.
In Afghanistan, the ability to input that information into a holistic picture is important because the situation on the ground shifts rapidly between peaceful moments and violent actions.
“When it shifts back to kinetic, you want all partners to know what that is, to get it back over to the other side quickly. It’s all about fusion. It’s all about the cloud, the sharing of information,” he said. “I think everybody has the system. I just don’t think we have the fusion and the ability to be interoperable from that.”
For its ground mobility needs, Naval Special Warfare Command depends largely on the conventional Army and Marine Corps forces to field those technologies. But when it comes to maritime vessels for SEALs, the boats are a unique requirement that the command has to fill on its own, said Rear Adm. Edward Winters, commander of NavSpecWarCom.
The command operates two surface vessels, the Mark-V special operations craft and the rigid hull inflatable boat, or RHIB.
“Both boats are old technology. They have no signature reduction capability,” he said. “It’ll become harder and harder to sneak up on anybody’s coasts. Those boats cannot do that on any major countries out there today. They’re not good war boats.”
Both boats are aging and need to be replaced. The command is developing a surface transport technology that will accomplish most of what those two boats can today. But it will be too big to airdrop, so the delivery of it will become more difficult for SEALs. It also lacks the same payload, speed and range of the Mark-V, but for the mid-term future, it will suffice, he said.
On the undersea side, the command is still dependent upon the SEAL Delivery Vehicle that has been in commission for more than 30 years.
“We need to go a lot further in future with these,” Winters said. SEALs need increased range, and the next generation system needs to increase the capability of a man to stay inside one of those boats for longer duration. The replacement vessel, the Advanced SEAL Delivery System, was canceled. So the command is building a family of boats: the dry combat submersible-light, and the dry combat submersible-medium.
The initial light system will be a smaller boat that will have improved range and increased capability for the crew by keeping them out of the cold water. As part of that effort, the Navy will have to modify the dry-deck shelters on its submarines so that they can house the forthcoming dry combat submersible-medium, which will not be as big as ASDS, but it will have similar speed, range and duration of that system.
Because SEAL teams are more dispersed than before and are out operating and staying close to their counterparts—and their enemies—in potentially hostile locations, communication networks will be key to winning the current and future conflicts.
“We have to build up that network to have quicker responses and so that we can communicate and also have the sensors out there to detect when somebody is making a move against them,” Winters said.
Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said that improving communication is critical. Air commandos utilize military secure communication networks that are vulnerable to future enemy attacks.
“We spend a lot of money to maintain a NIPRNET that we’re convinced the enemy is going to be all over anyway,” he said. Why not move into the direction of handheld, portable technology that troops can use with an encryption app, he suggested.