Opportunities Abound to Sell to Special Operations Customers

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

TAMPA, Fla. — Despite a downturn in military spending, some defense contractors believe that Special Operations Command is ripe with opportunities.

Hundreds of companies exhibited this week at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. Showing off trucks, unmanned aerial vehicles, surveillance equipment and other technologies, many industry members who spoke with National Defense said they were optimistic about SOCOM’s future acquisition strategy.

In the proposed Defense Department fiscal year 2015 budget, Special Operations Command was one of the few winners. Its overall budget would go up, and it is slated to receive an increase of $65 million in procurement funding over 2014 levels.

Touted as an agile force, the command is tasked with deploying rapidly and building relationships around the globe. Special operators will be on speed dial as the nation’s global strategy shifts from the Middle East to Africa and Asia.

Because of its need to deploy on the fly, SOCOM can often procure cutting edge technologies and put them into the hands of operators quickly.

At the Aurora Flight Sciences’ booth, representatives of the Manassas, Virginia-based unmanned aerial vehicle manufacturer showed off the company's latest product, the Skate-in-a-Box. The Skate unmanned aerial vehicle, which is made of a material that resembles Styrofoam, was deployed last year in Afghanistan to assist with perimeter security. It is lightweight and ascends nearly straight up for easy launches. Now, the company wants SOCOM to invest in it.

The Skate-in-a-Box can launch independently. Users can leave the system — which includes the UAV, a battery, a radio/electronic module and various other parts — in a remote location and then send it up days, weeks or months after the system was placed there. The box will automatically open and close. Upon returning from its mission, the UAV will land near the container, though it cannot automatically reload itself, said James Peverill, small unmanned aerial systems lead at Aurora Flight Sciences.

Selling this new kind of low-quantity, innovative technology to SOCOM is ideal, he said.

“We like the SOCOM market in particular because they tend to do smaller purchases and they … purchase technologies which are maybe a little less suited for full acquisition,” Peverill said. “If you talk to the Army or the Air Force, they do massive acquisitions typically. For … us, we are kind of newcomers to the  [small] UAS field, we’re kind of lower quantity, which … suits us more for SOCOM.”

Furthermore, SOCOM often takes into account the personal needs and requirements of its operators, he said.

“There is a lot more input from the actual operators in the SOCOM world. So if they see a capability that is interesting to them personally, there is a lot more opportunity to sell a product to them, whereas in the Army it can take a long time for things to trickle up the chain,” he said.

Aurora Flight Sciences has been working on the Skate-in-a-Box for the past six months as a research-and-development project after it heard from customers that they wanted unattended launch, Peverill said.

“This product, in particular, I think is very well suited to a lot of the SOCOM requirements,” he said.

Officials at Battelle, a Columbus, Ohio-based company also praised the command for its low-quantity and innovative needs.

“What really makes SOCOM interesting is that they can pursue some very niche capabilities for very niche situations, whereas a lot of the other services wouldn’t be able to approach that,” said Dan Stamm, senior engineer and program manager for Battelle’s tactical systems.

Battelle works with SOCOM to make everything from trucks to soldier gear, he said. While it is a small community, its needs are complex and urgent.

Working with SOCOM allows companies to personally engage with operators to develop and understand individual requirements, he said. That creates accountability and helps develop better products.

“That’s a really good feedback channel that I don’t get usually with the big services,” Stamm said. “The feedback is a really handy, great way to make a tailored development project work.”

At Polaris Defense, a Medina, Minnesota-based vehicle manufacturer, the company has already sold hundreds of vehicles to the command.

From its MV850 ultra-light tactical vehicle, which gives operators off-road mobility, to its MRZR 2 vehicle that allows for transport and modularity, the company sees a strong future with SOCOM, said Jed Leonard, manager of advanced mobility platforms at Polaris Defense.

“They need solutions quickly. That’s where we try to focus our efforts, on rapidly developing products for their unique … [and] demanding needs. We’ve seen very, very rapid requirements coming from them,” Leonard said.

The nature of SOCOM as a globally deployed force means that it needs to get technology onto the field as quickly as possible no matter where it is, he said. Polaris Defense, with its commercial off-the-shelf technology, can help with that, he said.

“They need lighter, smaller, faster, more agile [and] adaptable vehicle platforms to be used … [because] they don’t know where the next target is or where the next fight is,” Leonard said.

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, Land Forces, Robotics

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