SOCOM Aiming for Big Boost in R&D Funding
President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget request would give U.S. Special Operations Command a major increase in research, development, test and evaluation funding, as it pursues new capabilities to take on advanced adversaries.
The fiscal blueprint calls for $820 million in RDT&E investment, a 34 percent bump over the enacted 2019 budget. It would remain at relatively high levels across the future years defense program.
The proposed ramp-up comes as the U.S. military is carrying out the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes preparing for great power competition with China and Russia.
Steven Bucci, a national security analyst with the Heritage Foundation and a former Special Forces officer, said the funding request for SOCOM reflects that strategic shift.
“It’s totally in line with the larger budget priorities” that Pentagon leaders have set, he said. “While eventually that will lead to procurement [of new systems], right now you’ve got to figure out what it is you want to buy” by going through the RDT&E process, he added.
During a change-of-command ceremony in March, departing SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Raymond Thomas III emphasized the need to acquire new capabilities. He was especially keen on artificial intelligence and machine learning. “It applies to everything we’re doing and everything we could consider doing in the future,” he said. “I am an absolute zealot. We are trying to drive SOCOM in that direction.”
Targeting, predictive maintenance, logistics and information warfare are just a few examples of areas where AI could be applied to aid special operations forces, he noted.
Bucci expects more investment in new unmanned systems. “You’ll see that … [technology] get much more sophisticated,” he said.
He also anticipates more spending on offensive cyber weapons. Special operators need the tactical ability to “turn off enemy capabilities or to tap into their intel and their communications, and in some cases to intrude on those things in ways that provide deception and cover for our folks,” he explained.
New SOCOM Commander Army Gen. Richard Clarke has said he will prioritize modernization and developing capabilities aimed at threats posed by great power adversaries.
In an email to National Defense, SOCOM Acquisition Executive Jim Smith noted that the command’s funding priorities shift dynamically in response to the changing operational environment.
The 2020 proposal “does very clearly allocate resources to address the challenges presented in the National Defense Strategy,” he said. “Our budget request includes funding for precision strike, directed energy and man-machine interface automation while also ensuring our existing platforms have the ability to operate across the spectrum of competition.”
Under the 2020 budget blueprint, there would be major RDT&E spending increases across the portfolio including: applied research $41 million, up 14 percent; advanced technology development $89 million, up 13 percent; aviation systems $246 million, up 40 percent; maritime systems $73 million, up 74 percent; intelligence systems $15 million, up 36 percent; tactical vehicles $11 million, up 450 percent; and classified “special programs” $22 million, up 1,000 percent.
The total request for the command was $13.8 billion, approximately 2 percent of the total Pentagon budget.
“SOF has proven itself to be pretty darn useful for relatively little cost,” Bucci said. Nevertheless, SOCOM might not receive the funding it’s asking for from Congress.
“You would think well, heck, just give them their 2 percent ... [because] their 2 percent is not going to make much difference” in controlling federal spending, he said. “But what tends to happen is because their projects are smaller they have fewer advocates on the Hill.”
The degradation of terrorist groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida might cause some lawmakers to see less of a need for special ops. They also might not appreciate the imperative to help the force modernize to compete with countries like China and Russia, he added.
“It’s a lot easier for the legislators, particularly those who are not huge military proponents anyway, to say, … ‘I don’t see a need for this stuff right now. Why should we fund it?’” Bucci said.
The withholding of R&D money would be problematic because there can be a significant lag time between the initiation of new projects and the fielding of capabilities, he noted.
“If we don’t reach for these things now and get them authorized and appropriated and start developing them, it’s really hard to get them quick” when they’re urgently needed on the battlefield, Bucci said.
He said he’s cautiously optimistic that lawmakers will recognize the value of SOF and appropriate the amount of money requested, but “you never know how these things are going to go.”