U.S. SOCOM Officials Lay Out Technology Challenges (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper
Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of SOCOM

U.S. commandos are looking for new high technology to help them stay ahead of emerging threats, officials from U.S. Special Operations Command said Jan. 20.

“Our people must be enabled with key capabilities to help us maintain an edge over our potential adversaries in some of the most challenging environmental conditions,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of SOCOM, said at a National Defense Industrial Association special operations conference in Washington, D.C. “Currently we see a few gaps.”

Needed capabilities include “comprehensive signature management” to make forces stealthier at close range; advanced ballistic protection for SOF operators; active diver thermal protection systems; high energy lasers; and command-and-control, communications and computer systems that include low probability of intercept and detection, advanced networking low signature antennas, less reliance on GPS for positioning data and key enhancements to underwater navigation and communications, he said.

The command is also pursuing human performance enhancers, such as the exoskeleton tactical assault light operator suit project, known officially as TALOS or informally as “the Iron Man suit.” “We intend to continue these investments,” said Navy Vice Adm. Sean Pybus, deputy commander of SOCOM.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, wants to put a directed energy weapon on an AC-130 gunship. The U.S. military is working on laser technology but the systems developed thus far are not as powerful as they need to be, he said.

“I want to up [the laser power] to about 150 kilowatts and I want to burn a hole … in that [enemy platform] in about a three to-six second burst of high energy,” he said. “I am at the red zone okay, but we’ve got to get this thing into the end zone."

AFSOC also needs “tactical off-board sensors” such as C-130-launched drones that fly below clouds for intelligence gathering and targeting purposes, Heithold said. The objective would be to “Wi-fi a sensor back to the airplane” so it doesn’t put itself at risk by flying low.

“The idea is let’s just drop something down below [the clouds] that’s programmed to go below the weather, set up at an orbit point, and it’s got a gimbal sensor I can control from the airplane,” he explained. “It sends me back the target [locations] and I can shoot.”

Demonstrations of the technology have been conducted in recent weeks, he said. “This is doable. … The enemies are using the cover of weather to mask against our forces. We’ve got to take the cover of weather away from them.”

The laser could also potentially be used to shoot down enemy anti-aircraft missiles, he noted.

Marine Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, commander of Marine Corps Special Operations Command, said he is heavily focused on protecting command-and-control and intelligence systems in an increasingly threatening cyber and electronic warfare environment. MARSOC needs “self-healing networks” that can mitigate attack, he said. “You don’t have to go very far as you start taking a look at that five-domain fight to understand that we’ve got key vulnerabilities.”

Commandos also need more advanced unmanned aerial systems, he said. “What I’m really interested in is how do I operate a smaller and smaller platform with longer endurance and higher … capability and capacity within the payload?”

Navy Rear Adm. Brian Losey, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, sees smaller drones as the wave of the future. His units currently use the ScanEagle. “The next level is going smaller and more controllable,” he said. “Now you’re starting to talk about smaller, rotary wing, almost hobbyist quad copter-type platforms that are out there.”

Advances in batteries, power density and sensors are enabling smaller platforms to do more, he noted. “I think things are moving to the smaller end of the spectrum for our business, at least from a naval special warfare perspective.”

Army Maj. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher, deputy commanding general of Army Special Operations Command, said improving the capabilities of Group 3 drones – which weigh between 50 and 1,320 pounds – is a key requirement. His forces currently use the Shadow UAS, which requires a runway.

“For a small unit like a Special Forces team or a Ranger company operating out there in denied territory, it creates a linear terrain feature that they have to secure and it makes us very predictable to the enemy,” Hutmacher said. “We’re looking for something …. [with] longer endurance, quieter but also net-recoverable so we can operate from forward operating bases and not be tied to a runway. That’s critical for us.”  A new UAS needs to have an open architecture and non-proprietary system that can be updated as technology advances quickly, he added.

Officials said SOCOM continues to be pushed hard, despite the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our operational tempo has not throttled back significantly,” Votel said. “Our forces remain in high demand to meet our geographic combatant commanders’ most challenging and pressing problem sets.”

The SOCOM chief has been nominated by President Obama to take over U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for overseeing United States military efforts in the greater Middle East, including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Commandos are playing a key role in each of those areas, as the Obama administration is reluctant to commit large numbers of ground troops.

“The foreseeable demands of the current and future strategic environment are enhancing SOF’s value,” Votel said. “I think we have been extraordinarily well supported by Congress, we’ve been extraordinarily well supported by the [Defense] Department. You know, when I look at this year’s budget we did pretty darn well.”

But other SOCOM officials said the command hasn’t been able to invest enough money in research and development.

“We want more R&D [but] it competes with everything else,” Pybus said. “So, again, we hold out our hand to industry, can we spend that money more wisely? Can we collaborate and save some money? … So there’s recognition we need to do more here [but] there’s a shortage of funding to do it.”

Correction: Corrected the title of Army Maj. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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