Changing Missions Means New Equipment Needs for Special Operators

By Stew Magnuson
Special Operations Command’s acquisition organization for the past 12 years has been working under one axiom.

“Whatever you need for the war, you’ve got it,” said James F. Geurts, acquisition executive at Special Operations Command.

But those days are quickly coming to an end.

A large, or perhaps an even complete, troop withdrawal from Afghanistan later this year means that many special operators will be departing that area of operations for other regions, he said.

Commandos that have become accustomed to fighting in the “sandboxes” that were Afghanistan and Iraq may now find themselves in completely different terrain, which will require different equipment, he said. 

“So while we have a lot of great stuff that works on a cold desert night in Afghanistan, it’s been a while since we’ve had [special operators] in the jungle. It’s been a while since we’ve had them in the Nordics. It’s minus 70 degrees up there,” Geurts said.

In a speech before the National Defense Industrial Association’s special operations low intensity conflict division, and in an interview with National Defense Magazine, Geurts spelled out some of the new gear requirements special operators will be needing as the Defense Department makes a shift to the Asia-Pacific and special operators spread out to other parts of the globe.

About 85 percent of SOF personnel are currently assigned to the Central Command region, which includes Afghanistan. The plans are to bring those operators home, but then to eventually redeploy them.

“I have to start thinking about how I acquire equipment and sustain that equipment for our globally postured force,” Geurts said.

Special Operations Command has a reputation for being able to procure new and highly specialized equipment more nimbly and quicker than its counterparts in the four services.

The acquisition infrastructure that allows that to happen will still be in place as the force takes on new missions in new regions, he said. The funding, at least for the time being, will also remain steady, he noted. The number of personnel assigned to the command will grow in the coming years from 66,000 to 69,700. Funding is expected to rise accordingly.

“We are one of the few places in the department that still has a little bit of a growth curve.” That will flatten out at the end of fiscal year 2014, he said.

SOCOM since 2006 has doubled the size of the force, but research and development hasn’t necessarily kept up with that pace, he said.

It goes back up in the 2015 budget proposal but the percentage that should be spent on R&D is not as high as it should be, and operations and maintenance costs are crowding out procurement accounts, he said.

The acquisition organization now has to consider its logistics strategy, Geurts said.

“How do we get after our ownership costs? How do we get rid of old inventory? How do we look for better, more effective sourcing models?” he asked.

SOCOM may end up like the four services, which can’t afford to sustain what they have and can’t afford to buy anything new, he said.

“We’re going to be in the same boat if we don’t really take a hard look at that.  … We haven’t completely mortgaged modernization within the command, but we are watching it closely,” he added.

A more globally postured force will pose logistics challenges that the command hasn’t had to face before.

“I can logistically supply a war-torn country pretty efficiently. How do I maintain that same level of readiness, that same level of capability spread globally?” he asked.

Twenty-one aircraft can be maintained more easily in one area than three deployed on each continent, he noted.

Over the past 12 years, logistics were not a top consideration. For example, loading one sensor aboard one aircraft has been a common practice. This is called the “box of the month club,” he said. SOCOM will want to get more out of its manned and unmanned platforms.

“I’m looking for good architecture ideas” so technicians don’t have to redesign the airplane every time there is a new sensor, he said.

Much of the commercially available equipment procured over the past dozen years is also problematic. It’s not clear when these items will begin to fall apart.

“What is its lifecycle? When does that run out? Boy, I would like to know that three years before it runs out, not three years after it runs out,” he said.

One of the most high profile new programs is TALOS, the tactical assault light operator suit.
The program is the brainchild of SOCOM Commander Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, who was asked why special operators tasked with kicking down doors to root out insurgents weren’t given any special protection. It was the death of a special operator in Afghanistan who was killed in such a scenario that kicked off a multi-agency effort.

“Afterwards, one of the young officers asked me a question I couldn’t answer: ‘After all these years in combat, why don’t we have a better way for the tactical operators to go through a door?’”

SOCOM is teaming with 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities and 10 national laboratories to put together such a suit and all its components.

“If we do TALOS right, it will be a huge comparative advantage over our enemies and give the warriors the protection they need in a very demanding environment,” McRaven said at the NDIA Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference.

The announcement that SOCOM wanted to produce something akin to the Iron Man suit of Marvel comics fame garnered headlines. Geurts said the project is bringing together a variety of nontraditional participants.

“It’s attracting folks who normally have no desire to do business with us,” he said.

The project appeals to them because it is a hard technical challenge, it is protecting troops, and it’s directly applicable to other fields such as first responders or helping paraplegics walk, he said.

“So we are getting a lot of inputs … that we haven’t been seeing traditionally,” he said.

The idea is to make sure the suit fits right and the operator can still do what he normally does, as well as have some added protection, he said.

“It is a very interesting systems engineering and integration challenge, especially with the human in the middle of all that,” he said.

The most difficult aspect so far has been power. The suit is envisioned as having some kind of exoskeleton. Since the operator can’t be hooked up to a cable, the power to move the structure and maintain all the devices such as a heads-up display will have to be within the suit.

Geurts is optimistic that this tough technological nut can be cracked. For one, the commercial world is coming up with better batteries. Developers are now seeing the suit as a power grid.

“If you can tie more energetic power sources with better power management with more efficient devices using the power, you can probably get a pretty good effect,” he said.

McRaven said he wants to see the command use some of the innovative acquisition strategies based on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s grand challenges or the X-Prize, where teams compete to solve a problem and win a cash award.

“It’s just as much about what is the right business acquisition model as it is the technical model. And those have to play together,” Geurts said of the TALOS program.

SOCOM now has the money and approval to hold such competitions. They haven’t been announced yet, but it is a good bet that the power issue will be one of the challenges, he said.

SOCOM during the past three years has also been preparing for the day when Navy SEALs leave landlocked Afghanistan and return to their maritime roots. The same can be said of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command personnel, except they never had much experience with sea-based operations. MARSOC was activated in February 2006, and the first units were immediately deployed to Central Command.

Updating sea-based equipment has lagged, he said. “Our highest priority in acquisition has been getting that part of our capability back up and modern,” Geurts said.

Work on developing two new tactical boats — combatant craft medium and the combatant craft assault — has wrapped up. The Mark V special operations craft was decommissioned in 2012.
A program to produce a dry combat submersible delivery system for SEALs is underway, with one prototype delivered and two others in production.

“We’re seeing some very promising, relatively cheap, relatively quick-to-field capabilities there,” Geurts said.

SOCOM will also need new sensors for new areas of operations, he said.

“How do you have the same ability to find and track people that you had in Iraq and Afghanistan? How do you do that in urban and jungle environments?” Geurts asked. “That certainly is a challenge.”

SOCOM is looking at some possible answers but there is still a lot of work remaining, he said. Again, solutions shouldn’t entail placing one sensor on one aircraft. They should be easy to switch out and modular, he said.

There has been some progress on the command’s long standing goal of developing foliage-penetrating radar for jungle or forested environments. There are ongoing evaluations, he said. It was originally believed that such sensors were only suited for either manned or unmanned helicopters, which can fly slow enough to collect the data. That is problematic from an operations perspective, he said. It would be best if they were on slow moving, fixed-wing aircraft.

As far as soldier equipment, the command is always on the lookout for smaller, lighter and more energy efficient items. Special operators normally have cutting edge radios, but “we’re never content,” Geurts said. “We want small, lighter, more power” and to integrate multiple radios into single ones, he added.

Similarly, SOCOM is willing to look at new ideas for small arms. Anything that can improve accuracy, extend the life of gun barrels and improve sights is welcomed, as well as scalability, in other words, nonlethal weapons that give operators a choice when or when to not use deadly force.

Special operators are also big customers for night vision goggles. An ideal pair would fuse night vision with thermal sensors and be digital rather than analog, he said.

For those who have products that may appeal to SOCOM, the acquisition community does its best to make the process as open and responsive as possible. It tends to buy a large variety of products, but in small quantities, which is ideal for small businesses, he said.

The caveat is that it is only charged with procuring items that are SOF specific. A vendor may come to him with a new idea for a canvas tent, and it might be the best canvas tent in the world, but that is not a need specific to special operators, he said.

Those with ideas can submit them for review to the technology and industry liaison officer online at: www.socom.mil/sordac/Pages/SubmitYourIdea.aspx

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Science and Engineering Technology, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

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