Special Operations Command Increases Technology Funding

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

While the armed services are grappling with fewer dollars to spend on personnel, procurement, maintenance and operations accounts, Special Operations Command came out as one of the few winners of the fiscal year 2015 Defense Department budget request.

Renowned for being the military’s most agile and cost-effective force, SOCOM’s overall budget is slated to increase in the upcoming fiscal year, allowing for more procurement and personnel funding.

The organization is looking to acquire new “game-changing” technologies, said Navy Adm. William McRaven, commander of Special Operations Command.

“SOCOM is focusing on strategic, long-term technology development efforts in order to enhance protection and survivability for our operators through advanced materials and methods,” McRaven said in March before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on emerging threats and capabilities.

The command is aiming for new technology that augments human physical and sensory capabilities, improves weapon systems and increases situational awareness, he said. The command plans to work with other government agencies and the private sector to develop these technologies, he said.

In the Defense Department’s 2015 budget, SOCOM was allocated $7.7 billion, which is a 10 percent boost over fiscal year 2014. The budget hike will help increase personnel from 67,000 to 69,700.

In addition, base funding for SOCOM procurement went up about $65 million over fiscal year 2014’s total enacted funding, according to budget documents. That total could increase once overseas contingency operations is taken into account. For now, the Defense Department has included a $79 billion placeholder of OCO funding in the budget, which is subject to adjustment based on the anticipated withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

One of SOF’s priorities is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs, McRaven said.

“We continue to modify our wide variety of manned aircraft with the latest in sensor technologies. For unmanned systems to meet current and emerging threats, USSOCOM will rely on longer endurance platforms which include a fleet of extended range MQ-9 Reapers,” McRaven testified.

More than $15.6 million was requested for Reaper upgrades and procurement for fiscal year 2015, up more than $2.7 million from fiscal year 2014. However, research, development, test and evaluation dollars for the Reaper decreased by $3.6 million from the current fiscal year. The Reaper is built by General Atomics.

More procurement funding for the RQ-11 Raven, a hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicle, was also requested in SOCOM’s budget, said Brad Curran, an aerospace and defense senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a global consulting firm.

Procurement funding for the AeroVironment-built UAV increased by $5.5 million from fiscal year 2014 to total nearly $6.4 million in fiscal year 2015.

SOCOM is likely looking to improve the Raven’s capability to collect ISR securely, he said.

“What they may be trying to do is enhance the ability of the platform. Try to make it have a longer endurance, try to improve the data link so they are more secure and jam-proof,” Curran said. “[The] platforms themselves are kind of set, but they will still continue to make incremental improvements.”

SOCOM is also investing in the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), which has been referred to as the “Iron Man suit,” based on the Marvel superhero character of the same name. A slew of private and public organizations are teaming up with Special Operations Command to create the protective suit that officials hope will be deployable by 2018.  TALOS is envisioned as an independently powered armored suit which could have an exoskeleton. The suit is meant to not only protect soldiers, but to also increase performance.

“The project has the potential to drive improvements in how we do acquisitions by fostering new collaborative development models within industry. By teaming with a wide range of corporations, government agencies, universities and national laboratories, the TALOS project is leveraging the expertise of leading minds throughout the country to redefine the state of the art in survivability and operator capability,” McRaven said.

The C-130 Hercules fleet is also being recapitalized to replace aging aircraft.

The AC-130J Ghostrider program, “which will eventually give the entire fixed-wing gunship fleet the latest in close-air support capabilities,” has started flight tests, McRaven said.

Additionally, 19 MC-130J Commando IIs were delivered in 2013 and are on track to replace worn out MC-130H Combat Talon II and MC-130P Combat Shadow fleets, McRaven said. About $65 million in procurement funding is allotted for the MC-130J and AC-130J programs.

SOCOM is also in need of a new, small, tactical truck, McRaven said. At the time of his testimony, a lawsuit was stalling the acquisition process of the ground mobility 1.1 vehicle as AM General sued the command after losing to General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems. On April 7, the U.S. Federal Claims Court rejected AM General’s lawsuit.

The vehicle, once procured, should be able to maneuver in challenging terrain and could be transported via SOF rotary-wing aircraft, McRaven said. He did not mention the lawsuit.

SOCOM is also investing nearly $146 million in precision strike packages, $48 million in non-standard aviation programs, more than $25.5 million in CV-22 Osprey modifications and $3 million in MH-60 Seahawk modernization programs, budget documents revealed.

SOCOM lists a number of programs in its official budget request, but many are kept under wraps because of the secretive nature of the organization, Curran said.

“[Some programs are] kind of buried in other areas [so] that it’s not real obvious from the line item, say for a specific unmanned aerial vehicle,” Curran said. “That’s the thing with Special Operations. … That’s true of all the services and all the programs, but even more so with Special Operations, because it’s almost all secret. … You can’t see it.”

While SOCOM managed to net more dollars this year, its budget will likely remain flat in the future, Curran said. However, it will be a priority for the Defense Department, he said.

“I think everyone is going to be austere … but I think Special Operations Command will not be as austere as everyone else. I think they will be a priority for obvious reasons, because of the counterterrorism mission,” Curran said.

Special operators are known for their abilities to mobilize swiftly, partner with allied nations and respond to insurgencies in a cost-effective manner, McRaven said.

SOCOM will likely focus on modernizing equipment or taking advantage of commercial products, Curran said.

“I don’t see any real big new programs starts. It will be taking proven platforms and making incremental improvements technology-wise to those … utilizing [commercial, off-the-shelf] technology and utilizing more allied technology,” Curran said.

SOCOM may draw new technology or methodologies from allied nations such as the United Kingdom, France and South Korea, he said.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement, Defense Department, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

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