Special Operations Forces in the Market For Global Communications Technology

By Sandra I. Erwin

When they deploy to combat zones, special operations troops bring along a multitude of gizmos. Besides basic line-of-sight radios to communicate with their peers, they need devices to connect with other U.S. government agencies and allies. They also have satellite receivers, smartphones, tablets and custom terminals to upload streaming video.

At a time when special operations forces are seeking to expand their presence around the world, there has to be better ways to connect operators and allow them to share information in real time, said Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.

“We are trying to enhance the SOF network,” McRaven said during a presentation at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “How do we push communications down to every liaison officer at a U.S. embassy, to every operator in the field?”

McRaven’s plan is to transition SOCOM from a force that is primarily in the Middle East and Afghanistan to one that is spread around the globe.

In the future, special operations forces will face challenges that “cut across geographic combatant command boundaries, demanding integrated global approaches,” said Jim Thomas, vice president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. In a new CSBA study on the future of special operations forces, Thomas suggested that SOCOM’s vision to build a “global network” will require greater collaboration with foreign forces and interagency partners.

To realize its ambitious goals, SOCOM needs more advanced communications systems, industry experts said. Command officials are now scouring the marketplace for new products and fresh ideas on how to use existing technology. In a recent “request for information” that was published in FedBizOpps.com, SOCOM asked vendors for white papers detailing how they could help improve tactical communications. The solicitation warns that the RFI is only for “planning purposes” and does not commit the government to acquire any products or services.

High on SOCOM’s wish list is a multipurpose device that would lighten the operator’s load. It wants single handheld and backpack size devices that can simultaneously operate legacy radio waveforms, more advanced digital waveforms and that can also receive and distribute encrypted video, imagery and telemetry. These radios would be connected to Android or BlackBerry phones and tablets.

The Pentagon’s major suppliers of military tactical communications systems are expected to submit proposals, which are due June 3.

Industry officials said in interviews that they see this RFI as an effort by SOCOM to put its finger on the pulse of industry.

“They want to see how close we are to meeting what is in that RFI,” said Mike Iacobucci, a retired SOF officer and currently account manager at General Dynamics C4 Systems.

“They want to consolidate devices to take the burden off the operator,” he said. The number of radios that SOF teams now carry has grown significantly over the years, and the problem could get worse as their communications needs become more complex.

“SOCOM is looking to push the envelope,” said Christopher Aebli, vice president of Harris Corp. RF Communications. The company sees the RFI as a call to industry to produce a “next-generation radio” that merges high-speed voice and data communications, and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) functions into a single box, Aebli said.

A jack-of-all-trades radio does not yet exist in the marketplace, but SOCOM wants industry to push the technology in that direction, said Joe Adams, a sales manager at Harris. “Every one to two years, the SOF community will surface with an RFI like this,” he said. “They want to see where technology is. If they like what they see and it matches the user requirements, then it might lead to an acquisition.”

SOCOM has been a proponent of buying commercial technologies, rather than investing in costly development programs, Adams said.  “We are starting to notice tighter technology cycles,” he said. “That is because of SOCOM’s willingness to leverage commercial technology.” Products from the commercial market, however, do not always meet SOCOM’s rigorous security demands, he cautioned.

Suppliers regard SOCOM as a coveted customer because the command has independent buying authority and does not get bogged down in the Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracy. At the same time, SOF customers can be more challenging than the conventional military services because operators are more seasoned and demanding.

The average special operator has greater needs for information than conventional troops, said Kevin Merrigan, a former operator and now vice president and general manager for battle management systems at General Dynamics. “They are the ‘strategic corporals’ who must make decisions on the ground,” and need access to lots of information, he said.

In the SOF global network, “everybody would have the same command-and-control situational awareness,” said Merrigan. “They need a network capable of real-time information sharing. Today that does not exist.”

If and when SOCOM decides to start investing in new technology, it will probably need to establish a “base architecture” to start building a global network, said Merrigan. “This will not be a single procurement solution.”

SOCOM already has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on radios, computers and networking systems. But those were bought as individual components, he said. A better approach would be to set basic standards for a network and then buy devices that can plug and play. The command might decide to go with commercial standards such as the Android or Linux operating systems. A SOCOM network also would have tough bandwidth and throughput requirements, and would need to be interoperable with vehicles on the move and dismounted forces.

The Army is building its own soldier network that has similar goals. For vendors, SOCOM’s network presents more difficult problems because special operators must be linked with outside organizations.

“The Army is doing this just for the Army,” said Merrigan. A small Special Forces team that deploys to any given country has to work with the State Department, the CIA, the National Security Agency, coalition partners and the host nation. The Army’s problem, conversely, is one of scale, as its goal is to deploy a brigade of 5,000 or more soldiers and have them all share information and collaborate in real time.

Companies such as General Dynamics and Harris have huge stakes in an upcoming Army procurement of thousands of new radios. The Army intends to buy “software programmable” radios that must run Joint Tactical Radio System software — the soldier radio waveform and the wideband networking waveform.

SOCOM officials have been watching the JTRS program and are not yet convinced that they should move in that direction, said Adams.

JTRS waveforms are more uniquely suited to Army needs, whereas SOCOM is interested in multifunctional devices, he said. “The Army can have single-purpose soldier devices that are part of a larger network. SOCOM doesn’t have the benefit of infrastructure.”

There is probably room in the SOCOM architecture for a JTRS radio, said Adams, “but not to the same density that would exist in the Army.” SOF teams, for instance, must be in communication with aircraft, and they usually rely on conventional line-of-sight ultra high-frequency radios. “The soldier radio waveform does not support that,” he said. “That’s a big deal for SOCOM operators.”

Aebli said he believes SOCOM is not satisfied with the current state of technology and wants to “leap frog over the JTRS radios.”

Iacobucci said some of the JTRS technology would be valuable to SOF teams. In recent trials, he said, the 75th Ranger Regiment tested General Dynamics’ JTRS radios and gave thumbs up to the reroute and retransmit features of the waveforms. “You can pull in legacy waveforms that SOCOM uses,” said Iacobucci. “That’s important for them.”

Merrigan said companies are simply trying to “figure out where SOCOM wants to be … and what is the right waveform that we should develop to put on that radio?”

McRaven’s plan to boost “theater special operations commands” will stress the ability of current communications systems, Merrigan said. “TSOCs will be used as deployable command-and-control cells. They will take a bigger role in the future. They will be forward deployed. They need a communications architecture that can fly to a location.”

Topics: Defense Department, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.