SOCOM Tapping into Biotechnology

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Image: iStock

This is part 4 of a 10-part series covering U.S. Special Operations Command’s Top 10 technology needs leading up to the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, May 21-25, 2018. Today: Biotechnology. 

New tools — from nutritional supplements to wearable technology — could give commandos the edge on the battlefield by giving them increased performance.

Special Operations Command is in the initial stages of researching safe and effective solutions to maintain peak performance of operators throughout their careers, said Navy Lt. Phillip Chitty, a spokesperson for SOCOM.

The command is continuing its work with defense health research partners to expand its understanding of the risks and benefits of the technology, he said in an email.

Special operators must be able “to withstand extraordinary physical demands and psychological stressors to complete their missions,” he said. “Optimizing peak performance for long durations will significantly improve their overall operational effectiveness.”

SOCOM wants warfighters to be able to process information and make critical decisions in a timely manner while operating in extreme environments, he added.

The command has previously worked with Halo Neuroscience and tested its Halo Sport headset, which uses transcranial direct-current technology to deliver an electrical stimulation to the motor cortex that could encourage a more effective workout or recovery period.

“The idea is that that small current can essentially enable the neurons in the area being stimulated to fire more easily, and that you could then learn more quickly or you can perform better,” said Andrew Herr, an adjunct fellow and biotechnology expert at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

SOCOM also has programs where it brings in trainers, dieticians and physical therapists to work with units. So far, that has been the command’s focus, he added.

“That has obviously been a valuable thing to SOCOM because with the very high optempo keeping people able to continue operating requires quite a bit of support,” he said.

But more work needs to be done on the technology side, he said. Herr founded Helicase, an Arlington, Virginia-based company that develops products to enhance mental and physical performance.

His team has created a solution that can cure jet leg anywhere in the world and is used widely by CEOs, he noted.

“When we start to talk about products like that, [the military is] still very slow on the uptake,” Herr said. “Other than on the services side — which has been successful — they really are kind of moving a bit slowly.”

However, SOCOM has done more work in this regard than the rest of the military, he said. “The services have essentially done very little in this space beyond some programs to tell people to eat better.” The effectiveness of that is hard to measure, he added.

Helicase’s technology can provide humans with substantial benefits ranging from better focus to more energy within a matter of weeks, he noted. It is currently developing a holistic nutrition product and recently ran a clinical trial with 329 Army cadets from the University of North Georgia.

“[We] put them through a placebo-controlled, double-blind randomized study,” he said. “In eight weeks of our nutrition training plus our supplement program, they were able to see a 55 percent improvement in mood, a 25 percent improvement in sleep, and they dropped … 30 seconds from their 2-mile run time.”

The private sector is moving much faster than the military when it comes to human performance technology, he said.

While SOCOM is leading in the military’s human performance arena, there is an opportunity for them to be much more aggressive, Herr added.

Chitty said the command is not trying to create “super soldiers,” a term that has become increasingly popular and conjures up images of super heroes like Captain America.

Herr agreed that the term can have a negative connotation and noted that it has been “tainted by pop culture.”

“People immediately assume it’s something that you are doing to the warfighter maliciously just to exploit them and get more out of them,” he said.

“I want our warfighters to be able to land in theater feeling ready to go. I want them to have the focus, energy, mood, leadership, confidence, and all these other factors that they rely on, to be at their peak when they are on missions.”

SOCOM's Top 10 Technology Needs

Part 1: SOCOM Iron Man Suit Prototype Delayed a Year

Part 2: Special Operations Command Beefing Up Communications

Part 3: SOCOM Investing in New Tech to Counter Drones

Part 5: SOCOM Replenishing Precision-Guided Weapon Stockpiles

Part 6: SOCOM Setting Records for Unmanned Systems Procurement

Part 7: New Tools Wanted to Fill Signature Management Gaps

Part 8: Commandos Need Lightweight, Energy Efficient Equipment

Part 9: Special Operators Pursuing New Position, Navigation and Timing Capabilities

Part 10: Special Ops Command Aims to Convert M4A1 Carbine

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

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