Special Operations Command Creating New Drone Technology Initiative

By Jon Harper
Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III

Photo: EPNAC

TAMPA, Fla. — U.S. Special Operations Command is partnering with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office to create a new organization dedicated to advancing drone technology, a top acquisition official announced May 16.

The outfit, known as DRONEWERX, was modeled after Special Operations Command’s SOFWERX initiative which opened the door to nontraditional partners in industry and academia to do fast prototyping and experimentation with new technologies.

The goal is “to build a DRONEWERX equivalent to SOFWERX to really get at, how do we leverage this combination of swarm technology, commercial drone technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and actually create near-term combat capability?” said James “Hondo” Geurts, SOCOM’s acquisition executive, at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.

The initiative will include prize challenges. Industry, academia, hackers and tech-savvy individuals will be allowed to participate, he said.

“That’s all about experimenting,” he said. “It’s not about writing a [request for proposals] and then 10 years from now selecting a contractor to build a SOCOM drone. It’s, 'how do we have it all work together [and] create a scalable platform?'” 

Special Operations command isn’t just interested in unmanned aerial vehicles. It wants to look at the “full spectrum” of unmanned systems and autonomous capabilities including in the undersea domain, Geurts noted.

By experimenting with cutting edge drone technology, defense officials also hope to learn more about how to deal with the threat posed by enemy unmanned systems, he noted.

“Understanding what the capabilities are, how you would use those capabilities, how you would grow those, I think inherently gives you both … a view of current capabilities you could use as well as get you better prepared for how would you defeat something like that if an adversary brought that forward,” Geurts said.

Advanced adversaries aren’t the only foes whose drones pose a threat, noted Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III, commander of SOCOM. Terrorist groups such as ISIS are also using unmanned systems.

He recently returned from Syria and Iraq where last year’s most daunting problem was "an adaptive enemy who for a while enjoyed tactical superiority in the air … in the form of commercially available drones,” he said at the conference.

Some of the systems were equipped with weapons such as 40 mm guns, he said. Just a few months ago, ISIS had up to 70 drones in the air at a time, and the Iraqi military’s effort to retake the city of Mosul “almost came to a screeching halt,” Thomas said. The coalition’s initial response was to try to bring down the drones with small arms fire, he noted.

Since then, “folks have very quickly come up with … a full array of things to address the problem,” he said.

The DRONEWERX facility will be co-located with SOFWERX in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood.

“It will be part of that whole infrastructure,” Geurts told National Defense after his speech.

He expects the organization to deliver results quickly.

“We’re just kicking it out, so I think you’ll see initial capability probably within the next 90 days,” he said. It will be a good partnership with the Strategic Capabilities Office to leverage the technology to help SOCOM and the other services, he predicted.


Topics: Special Operations, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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