SOCOM Looking to Fill Niche Technology Gaps

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Getty

Special Operations Command’s technology development enterprise is charged with acquiring items that the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps are unlikely to need.

Its unique set of missions sometimes requires singular tools to help its operators do what they do best.

Still, SOCOM must rely on the services for the basics. As its chief acquisition executive James “Hondo” Geurts put it at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference, “I cannot build an AC-130 without a C-130 from the Air Force and an MH-47 without a CH-47 from the Army.”

Nevertheless, SOCOM has some fields where it must go it alone. National Defense Magazine looks at some of the unique technology needs chosen from a list Geurts presented at the conference. 


Biometric Sensitive Site Exploitation

When a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, they needed proof positive that operators had eliminated the right person. They did so by taking samples containing his DNA.

Speed, of course, is of the essence. Commandos on raids do not have the time to collect biometric data and send it to some far off laboratory for analysis. SOCOM is looking for lightweight, handheld devices that can help it collect DNA, iris scans, fingerprints, and do voice recognition, along with other means to identify persons living or dead.

Operators may also want to collect data that identifies people who are found in the same house as a suspected terrorist to create databases of possible associates. 

The command’s SOFWERX outreach center in Tampa, Florida, recently invited all interested parties to discuss ways to get at this problem. They looked at “far-out, game-changing technologies which will expand the SOF operators’ abilities to perform rapid collection and analysis by leveraging capabilities that are small, lightweight, rugged and deployable,” the SOFWERX website said.  

A recent broad agency announcement called on industry to provide ideas for facial recognition and iris scanners that can collect data at long distances in different environmental conditions.

An even tougher challenge is that the command wants to confirm an identity — with low error rates — at speeds of less than two minutes. 

Once data is brought back from the field to a SOF exploitation analysis center, the command needs “deployable, high-fidelity instrumentation for more in-depth processing of collected data or samples, with the ability to share data rapidly with the whole of the intelligence community,” SOFWERX said.


Countering Weapons of
Mass Destruction

SOCOM commandos for decades have had the mission to find and secure weapons of mass destruction, particularly those that might end up in the hands of terrorist organizations. 

A reorganization in late 2016 of how the Defense Department deals with chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological weapons shifted the responsibility of countering WMDs from Strategic Command and placed it in the hands of SOCOM. Stratcom never had specialized forces devoted to the mission — military leaders pointed out — and SOCOM does.

How this reorganization will shake out remains to be seen, but it may mean SOCOM will have more duties on its plate. Meanwhile, poison gas has been employed in Iraq and Syria both by Islamic State fighters and the Bashar al-Assad regime. Organizations such as al-Qaida have also expressed the desire to acquire such weapons.

Commandos operating covertly to find and secure these dangerous weapons need better tools to detect, verify and characterize them, documents show.

SOCOM recently released a request for information on new ways for operators to safely enter a facility where chemical, biological or radiological devices might be located. That would require sensors that can “triage,” or screen, for hazards to warn them of potential danger or confirm that they have found a site where weapons of mass destruction might be placed, or were in the past.

That includes the ability to collect bulk amounts of material — what they can plainly see — or traces, if they have been removed from the scene. The command is looking for a device that can tell an operator WMD materials are present within one minute and at standoff distances of at least four feet. 

Once they have located potential samples, they need ways to safely collect and transport them to a lab for further analysis, the RFI said. While not categorized as a WMD, they require similar technologies for explosives, the document said.

Special operators should not have to be chemical or biological engineers to use such devices, the RFI suggested. The tools should require minimal training and ease of use, it added.

“Operator level interface should be intuitive, guided by on board operating aids or wizards,” it said. It should have an updatable database for newly discovered compounds and each device should be able to detect at least two of the three physical states — liquid, solid or gas, it said.  

Defense Dept.

Military Information Support Operations 

The field once called “psychological operations” has undergone a name change and is now known as “military information support operations,” or MISO.

The desire for a kinder, gentler name hasn’t changed the basic mission, which resides only within SOCOM. That is to influence foreign fighters, civilian populations, governments, groups or individuals to act in a way favorable to combatant commanders. This was most famously carried out in the field’s infancy by dropping leaflets behind enemy lines, or blasting discouraging messages through loudspeakers. It’s better, after all, to goad an enemy fighter to surrender than to have to fight a battle. Those methods are still part of the mission, but the means of communicating have changed rapidly and continue to evolve in an age of the internet and social media.

MISO specialists still deploy to austere locations with fly-away printing presses, broadcast equipment and loudspeakers to help them spread their messages, but the field is changing rapidly in the information age, and must keep up, as Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Moore, deputy director for global operations on the Joint Staff, testified at a House Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee hearing in 2015. SOCOM is creating a roadmap to expand MISO training into social media use, online advertising and web design, he said.

Army Col. Curtis Boyd, a career-long specialist in psy-ops, wrote in Special Warfare Magazine that MISO “must be more inclusive, be compatible with information-age constructs, employ [information operations] tools and techniques, adapt to emerging technologies and be resilient to perpetual scrutiny from those suspicious of government authority or DoD sources of information.”

The most important element isn’t hardware, but the cultural insights that MISO specialists provide, Boyd said. But they can use help understanding if their messages are getting through, how effective they are, and what can be done to improve them. 

SOCOM is asking industry for social network analysis tools and advanced analytics software to gain a better understanding of how populations are responding, Deb Woods, SOCOM’s program executive officer for command, control, communications and computers, said at NDIA’s 2016 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. 

Big data analytics is a new field for SOCOM, Geurts said at the SOLIC conference. “We’re the best in the world at the hardware side, but this is new ground for us.”


Small Unit Dominance

Special Operations Forces are not the only part of the military that has small units operating on the battlefield, but it doesn’t send out troops in large formations.

Green Berets are broken up into groups of 12 — special forces operational detachment-Alphas — better known as A-teams, and the SEALs normally deploy with 16 operators.

Giving these small groups an edge — small unit dominance in SOCOM acquisition parlance — is a priority especially since these teams must operate in austere environments, and often covertly on their own in enemy territory. It’s a term that encompasses a number of technologies that includes: sensors to find enemies, stealth, personal protection and weapons. 

Several of these needs are being addressed in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program called Squad X. One of its goals is to develop the ability to detect threats out to 1,000 meters and then employ at the same distance more lethal weapons that don’t add to the size, weight and power requirements of dismounted troops, an agency information sheet said. 

Brad Tousley, director of DARPA’s tactical technology office, said the program is also looking at ways to allow small units to engage in electronic warfare by disrupting, or even taking over, enemy communications. 

“If you do that, we think it has dramatic military impact,” he said at a recent NDIA robotics conference. The program is looking for small, lightweight devices that don’t require much energy to do this, he added.

While the program has Marine Corps and Army squads in mind, SOCOM is keeping tabs on DARPA’s progress, he said. It can pick and choose any of the technologies it develops for the program as it sees fit, he added. 

As for protection, SOCOM’s high-profile tactical assault light operator suit program is designed to give commandos kicking down doors in raids all the protection the command can provide. The first one through a door is the most susceptible to small arms fire or bomb blasts. 

The first prototype for the “Iron Man suit,” as it is more popularly known, is due in 2018, and Geurts said SOCOM is on track to deliver it. But the program still needs help with power issues, software that helps the operator control the exoskeleton’s movements and communication links.

“We continue to look for ways to onboard process or bring in data for situational awareness,” he said.

As far as small arms, SOCOM is looking into flexible rifles. That includes an advanced sniper rifle that would allow marksmen to convert the gun to three different calibers depending on what they need to take down a target. The convertible rifle would fire 7.62 NATO, .300 nm (Norma Magnum) and .338 nm cartridges. The kit must include a light and sound suppressor, any tools needed to convert between cartridges, and weigh less than 17 pounds or below, according to FedBizOpps.

It is also looking to acquire 550 personal defense weapon kits that will allow the operator to quickly collapse the size of the standard M4A1 assault rifle. The weapon must be no more than 17 inches in length and fully operational when collapsed. Extended, it would be 26 inches, the document said.


 Tagging and Tracking

Covertly tagging a person or vehicle to see where they are headed is a SOF-unique requirement that can provide operators with valuable intelligence. A commando might be called upon to covertly place a tracking device on a car, truck, boat, or even a person, hoping that it could lead them to a terrorist cell, or perhaps a bomb-making factory.

Tagging is a more passive technology. That requires marking a target so a sensor pointed in its direction can do the tracking. It might be a spray invisible to the naked eye that leaves a mark visible only to a special sensor.

Since these devices are intended to be placed on unwitting carriers, the command is always looking for improvements to their size and weight, according to a recent broad agency announcement. The tracking devices rely heavily on GPS technology, so anything that can help boost their power in areas where satellite signals are weak is also needed. One solution might include non-GPS enabled trackers, it added.

Such systems require a power source, so SOCOM needs “enhancements in the ability to power devices either through better power sources or improved device efficiencies,” the BAA said.

Topics: Acquisition, Emerging Technologies, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, Research and Development