SOCOM Gung-Ho on Biotechnologies

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

iStock photo

Special Operations Command has listed biotechnologies as one of its top technology needs and is examining how it can improve the performance and health of its commandos.

Biotechnologies are “a big area of emphasis with us,” said Lisa Sanders, the head of SOCOM’s science and technology office, and investments are increasing in the area.

Special Operations Command is partnering with groups such as the Defense Health Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and academia to get ahead on biotechnology research, she said during the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference which was held virtually in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Smith, SOCOM’s acquisition chief, noted that investment in biotechnology is crucial because operators cannot necessarily count on medical evacuation during the “golden hour,” which is the idea that if a wounded servicemember can be brought to a point of care within an hour, their chances of survival increase exponentially.

“Often our SOF are operating outside of that golden hour,” he said.

The command is particularly interested in providing new capabilities to combat medics. Projects in this area include the use of freeze-dried plasma, taking advantage of artificial intelligence to enable medics to make a rapid diagnosis, and new tourniquet designs.

SOCOM was an early adopter of freeze-dried plasma, Smith noted. Partner nations such as France and Germany had been working with freeze-dried plasma for a few years, so SOCOM piggybacked off that effort and conducted a limited experiment alongside the U.S. Food and Drug Administration with operators.

“Freeze-dried plasma has absolutely saved lives in the battlefield,” Smith said.

A long-term effort to further develop the technology is being led by the Army as the service pursues a freeze-fried plasma product for full FDA acceptance, he added.

In the meantime, the command is “illuminating that conversation, showing the art of the possible and how that works,” Smith said.

SOCOM is also looking at biotechnologies to improve human performance. “How do I maintain and optimize my warfighters ability to do their mission?” Sanders asked. Special Operations Command wants to develop technologies that can prevent injuries before they occur and rehabilitate operators from existing wounds faster.

The command is also looking at ways to improve cognitive awareness. It is currently undertaking a study to examine the long-term effects on brain health of repetitive, low-level blast exposure, Smith said.

“Exposure to blast [is] obviously a huge concern for the entire force,” he said. “Our special operators train at a rate that their blast exposure — even to mild blasts — is probably greater than their peers in the services.”

The study will utilize technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze data, he added.

Enhancing rest is another area of interest for the command.

“The first thing that our operators are going to ask … for is, ‘Get me [the benefits of] eight hours of sleep when I only have two hours to close my eyes,’” Smith said.

SOCOM is now looking at imagery of brainwaves so it can safely rejuvenate its operators even when they are preparing for difficult missions, he added.

Optimizing operators’ performance is a key area of interest for the command, Sanders said.

“The human is the most important element of the SOF formation,” she said. “It’s not because they’re the strongest, fastest, toughest guys out there. It’s because they’re stinking smart.”

The command wants to give operators the tools to be at peak performance, Sanders said. Those could include better nutrition to improve commandos’ health and decision making. It also wants to monitor for toxins that may be in an operator’s environment to ensure they are not being overly exposed.

It’s about “optimizing their ability to do things within the normal performance range,” Sanders said. The command is not trying to create “super soldiers,” she added.

Smith said: “We don’t like that term.” There is no intention of permanently altering commandos physically or mentally.

“It implies doing things to the soldier that could have negative long-term effects,” he added.

Topics: Special Operations

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