U.S. Special Operations Command Seeks Intelligence Capabilities for Duty Worldwide

By Dan Parsons
Special Operations Command has honed its information gathering capabilities during the wars of the past decade, but its requirements are expected to change as it evolves into the globally networked force envisioned by Adm. William McRaven, commander of Special Operations Command.

Special operators have relied on industry and their parent services to provide the extensive intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities needed to fight two simultaneous wars, said Lt Gen. Joseph L. Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command. He and fellow SOCOM commanders asked industry to keep it up as they assume a new role within McRaven’s “SOCOM 2020” plan.

“How do we transition this very excellent capability that we have invested in and built over the last 10 or 12 years into the new, emerging environments that will not be the same combat zones we have come to understand in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?” Votel asked a roomful of industry officials at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla.

Given the drawdown from Afghanistan, declining budgets and with operators spreading out from concentrations in the Middle East, SOCOM’s need for information gathering in multiple environments and the ability to access and transmit that data will grow, officers said in May at SOFIC. While they praised industry’s ability to provide advanced ISR capabilities through more than a decade of combat, SOCOM commanders asked for a variety of new technologies and help revamping old systems.

Votel said ISR equipment that works in multiple environments and with a wide array of vehicles is key to the success of a globally deployed force.

“Plug-and-play ISR is very important for us,” Votel said at SOFIC. “We need to be able to select the right tool for the right environment and be able to work in a standardized fashion in the aircraft that we are operating,” Votel said.

He listed full-motion video and the ability to access and share the vast amounts of data gathered as areas where SOCOM needs continued help from industry.

“We will need to have an ability to continue to search large data bases to identify enemies and information that helps us understand and gives us clues into what [terrorist] networks are doing out there,” Votel said.

Val Shuey, intelligence program manager for Special Operations Command, said processing, exploitation and dissemination of data-heavy intelligence streams like color and full-motion video will require continued cooperation between parent services and their SOF components.

“For SOF to go global, it can’t own the entire architecture,” she said. “We have to partner out.”

“With everything we do within SOF, we’re looking to share the data, use other people’s data, use other people’s tools and applications,” Shuey added.

SOF has several programs underway to help facilitate that global flow of information, gathered by everything from high-end airborne platforms to troop-worn cameras and tracking devices. McRaven has directed that acquisition efforts be focused first on outfitting an array of aircraft — both manned and unmanned, fixed and rotary wing — with advanced ISR and data storage capabilities that will work in multiple environments.

In many parts of the world, U.S. military aircraft are immediately recognizable to the indigenous populations, said Rich Chudzik, a business unit sales manager for Moog Inc.’s tactical missile solutions division. Operators who want to fly — or drive — below the radar of potentially hostile forces need ISR equipment that can be quickly and easily mounted to less obvious vehicles, he said.

“These guys are operating in 70-plus countries, depending who you talk to,” Chudzik said. “They sometimes are restricted to conventional, standard U.S. aircraft when they would like to fly something that’s a little less conspicuous in a covert-type mission set. In some of these places, flying over an objective inconspicuously is easier on an aircraft that maybe the local populace is used to seeing on a regular basis.”

As important as intelligence and information gathering is to operators in the field, capabilities and acquisition have suffered the same fate as other programs under budget cuts and the threat of sequestrations, Shuey said.

“We took hits in every line,” she said. “But we had enough time to look out in advance of our contracts and we’ve made all the adjustments we could to sort of bridge us through that.”

To save cost while continually refreshing operator’s equipment, SOCOM engineers rarely consider equipment that can’t immediately be fielded. Because operators’ requirements are so dynamic and varied, officials want to test and evaluate a constant stream of gear that, if useful, can be bought and put in the hands of troops, said Jennifer Powers, deputy program manager for hostile forces tagging, tracking and locating, or HFTTL.

TTL, as the mission is commonly called, involves placing a tracker on a target suspect, their equipment or vehicles and spying on them using satellite imagery and other sensors. The program uses only commercial-off-the-shelf equipment. Because the technologies advance quickly and SOF requirements are constantly in flux, buying gear that can be immediately fielded cuts cost and speeds delivery to troops, Powers said.

“If you are going to present me with a new kit or device, it needs to be ready to be fielded immediately. We are not looking for anything other than [technology readiness level] 9 gear,” which is fully functional and commercially available, she added.

HFTTL is a single program of record with multiple systems, including the SOF tactical video system, remote surveillance target acquisition system and the austere location force protection kit — “a self-contained force protection system consisting of remote video sensing, unattended ground sensor, standoff video surveillance, radar, sniper detection, and power generation components,” according to SOF requirements. 

Operators tailor which and how many tags to carry depending on the environment from a list of 190 items.

They also choose what imaging technologies they carry to keep track of tagged enemies and for field surveillance, Powers said. The tactical video system, a component of the HFTTL program, includes an array of long- and short-range cameras for day and night still and video imagery. Also available to troops are sensors that collect and disseminate seismic, infrared, acoustic and fiber-optic data.

SOCOM plays its cards close to its vest when it comes to specific equipment requirements. But operators will increasingly take on village support roles and partnership building as they transition from kicking doors and raiding Taliban strongholds, in step with McRaven’s plan to “change the narrative” after Afghanistan.

For those missions, SOCOM will need small, portable sensors also for perimeter security and village support operations by a small group of operators deep inside potentially hostile territory, Chudzik said.

“These are whole new mission sets for, for example [Army] SOC with building partner capacity,” he said.

Sensor manufacturers looked to the Southern U.S. border for monitoring technologies that are portable and can be remotely operated, said Richard Huftalen, business unit engineering manager for Moog sensor and surveillance systems. Over several years, Moog engineers transitioned border-security sensors to military fulfill requirements. As with other technologies, much design work went into making the systems small and light enough to be carried and used by a single operator.

 “You’ve got big truck-mounted scopes and there’s all sorts of traffic that comes in under your scope,” making them less than ideal for precise monitoring of enemy advances, Huftalen said of current systems. “So these are mid-range thermal and daylight cameras … wireless setup with solar cells that run it.”

There are two sets of tripod-mounted cameras, each about the size of a shoe box that can be carried in a rucksack, deployed and left to transmit still and video images to a laptop carried by an operator. Used for border security and perimeter monitoring, a single operator can watch up to six videos feeds at once.

Business opportunities abound providing communications and ISR gear for special operations, Powers said. Program managers are almost constantly evaluating and injecting technology into the SOF portfolio. The HFTTL program is constantly evaluating new tags and tracking technology, she said.

“We are specifically looking ... for devices that have the ability to use multiple [communications] paths in a single device,” she said. “We are looking for devices that can operate in GPS denied areas, tags that include capabilities such as data logging and efficient battery use.”

SOCOM is in constant need of better ways to track enemies and hostile vessels at sea, she said.
SOCOM also has a quick reaction capability requirements to field an airborne LIDAR imaging system that is grouped together with the tracking program, Powers said.

Lisa Sanders, SOCOM science and technology director, said much has been learned about the abilities of LIDAR — which uses lasers and radar to measure distance and can be used for mapping and imaging — to help special operators navigate through degraded visual environments where vision or awareness is temporarily obscured.

Experimentation with LIDAR showed the technology can help operators tell dusk from smoke, for instance, and to see through brownout and low-light conditions, Sanders said.

Topics: C4ISR, Sensors, Science and Engineering Technology, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

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