Companies Jockey for Share of Special Operations Market
The president has said a new defense strategy will put an emphasis on special operations, which grows in Obama's five-year budget proposal while the rest of the Defense Department shrinks. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton even delivered a keynote speech at the conference this year, which saw attendance by representatives from more than 90 other countries. What does all of this mean for the companies exhibiting on the show floor? A couple of industry representatives simply rubbed their fingers together to signify “money.”
“You have to go where the money is,” said Steve Graves, vice president of sales and marketing for Acumentrics, a small business that is marketing a new rugged uninterruptible power supply for troops on the move. "Everything is getting cut except special ops. Look at how we fight. You don't need an Abrams tank to drop eight guys out of a helicopter.”
The company's device produces 1,000 watts of power and weighs just 28 pounds, compared to their previous offering which weighed 135 pounds. Special operations units don't like heavy equipment and favor more portable systems. Several special operations commanders speaking at the conference mentioned lightweight power sources as one of their top equipment needs. Nearly all of them also mentioned a desire for improved communications technology.
Thales, one of the manufacturers of the Rifleman Radio that has been used in Afghanistan by Army Rangers, also anticipates growth in SOF business. The Rifleman Radio, also produced by General Dynamics, is being touted as a breakthrough. It weighs about 2 pounds, troops can pass information to others, including voice, locations and video. The device is used in tandem with a small display.
The radio has been tested at the Army's Network Integration Evaluations in the southwest desert, and it is especially suitable for special operators, said Walt Hepker, vice president of business development at Thales Communications Inc.
“They want wideband, they want full-motion video,” Hepker said. “And this is the smallest hand-held radio out there.”
General Dynamics and Thales were partners during initial production of 6,300 radios. When a full-rate production decision is made later this year or early next year, they will be competing against one another, and possible other manufacturers.
Radio supplier Harris Corp. wants in on the action, too. Harris displayed a “network in a backpack” system that uses cellular networking technology to send and receive information such as voice, data, streaming video, biometrics and forensics. The system will allow commanders to securely use smartphones and tablets on the battlefield, company officials said.
USSOCOM Commander Adm. William McRaven asked industry to adapt commercial communication technologies for special operators.
“When you see what industry is doing with communications technology, how can we not be as adaptive and as flexible as industry?” McRaven asked. “We've got to figure out how we're going to master this technology so that I can walk around SOCOM with an iPad that has the information I need on that iPad . . . I want to take the maximum effect that technology can give us and apply it on the battlefield.”
Harris also is marketing a covert broadband "direction finding system" that can help troops locate the enemy. The product was developed by a small business of just six family members. Harris joined the effort to help sell the product to the government. There are currently about 100 of the multiple intelligence sensor (MISER) systems fielded in Afghanistan to the National Security Agency, Army and Marine Corps, said Patrick Meyer, operations manager at Harris.
The system is used to locate enemies when they're using radios. It will pick up anyone talking within a 40 mile radius, Meyer said. Its wireless interface allows it to run remotely while operators are as far as 10 miles away, he said.
Harris project engineer Mark Redmon, a former Air Force special operator, said he is bemused by the public's fascination with special operations forces. But he recognized that the spotlight does come with its advantages.
“The special ops budget is on the rise,” Redmon said. “Business is good for special ops.”
But officials cautioned industry to become better attuned to what troops in the field need. Like conventional military forces, SOF units would like to have more effective detectors that can accurately identify improvised explosive devices, said Maj. Gen. Paul E. Lefebvre, chief of Marine Corps Special Operations Command.
An ideal product would be something operators could wear that allows them to see and identify the bombs before it's too late, he said.
“There are a lot of start-ups here,” Lefebvre said. “Sometimes I wonder if [they] truly understand what we're doing and how we're doing it.”