Senior commanders recently called on the defense industry to provide technologies that give special operations forces more situational awareness, better networking and communications and more precise location and targeting capabilities.
Officials from across U.S. Special Operations Command, including commanders of its service components and the theater special operations commands, laid out their wish lists earlier this month at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla.
All noted the unprecedented capabilities the defense industry has delivered to help special operations forces succeed during the past 12 years of conflict. But looking to the future – the drawdown in Afghanistan, budget constraints and a refocus on the Asia-Pacific region and other parts of the globe beyond the Middle East and Southwest Asia – they said they will need more.
So despite budget constraints and uncertainties, efforts must continue to ensure that special operations forces have the tools they will need to succeed in missions ranging from building partner capacity to irregular warfare and counterterrorism, the commanders emphasized.
At the top of their list are improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets and better processes for sifting through the mountains of data streams to paint a more complete operational picture.
SOCOM’s current acquisition efforts are focused on equipping both manned and unmanned fixed-wing assets with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities suitable for diverse global requirements, Navy Adm. Michael McRaven, the SOCOM commander, reported to Congress earlier this year.
“We will need to have an ability to continue to search large data bases to identify enemies and information that helps us understand and gives us clues into what (violent extremist) networks are doing out there,” Army Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of Joint Special Operations Command, told the Tampa assembly.
And in support of Navy Adm. William H. McRaven’s vision of a global special operations forces network, Votel underscored the need for knowledge management and information storage and sharing technologies to support it.
“We want every advantage before we lock horns with an adversary, and that is knowing what they have available to them and then countering it with decisive action,” Navy Rear Adm. Sean A. Pybus, commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, told the assembly.
What’s needed, the commanders agreed, are more universal systems to replace those that work only on specific platforms.
“We have to have plug-and-play ISR packages that allow us to select the right tool for the right environment, and be able to work in a standardized fashion in the aircraft that we are operating across the enterprise,” Votel said.
Marine Col. Michael Sweeney, deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, echoed the need for a single, multitiered network to consolidate what five and sometimes six sets of equipment now do. “We are increasing the burden on the force from a load perspective,” he said.
“We are system agnostic,” said Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, the commander of Special Operations Command Europe. “We don’t care what it is, as long … as the communications are compatible with whatever the distribution network is.”
Army Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, the commander of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, said the systems that have proven themselves in Afghanistan will remain critical throughout the rest of that mission and into the future.
But looking ahead, he also recognized the fine line between becoming overly dependent on technology and ensuring enough redundancy “to make sure we are not crippled if we lose something as a capability.”
Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, said he sees little decrease in future demand not only for ISR, but also for mobility and strike capability. As wartime requirements decrease, the command is evaluating its portfolio to ensure it is postured to provide what future missions will demand, he said.
The first of up to 10 CV-22 Osprey slated to be based in Mildenhall, England, are expected to arrive next month to extend the reach of U.S. special operations forces supporting both U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command, Fiel said.
The MC-130J Commando II also is slated for the European theater, with 12 to be fielded to provide “a very much-needed capability to both Special Operations Command Africa and Special Operations Command Europe,” he added.
Naval Special Warfare Command is undergoing a similar assessment of its inventory, as its SEALs and special boat teams transition back to their traditional maritime environment, Pybus said.
A new Maritime Mobility Roadmap, approved by McRaven, calls for a family of vessels – ranging from high-end, stealth, long-range penetrating craft to a multimission craft that can launch from a variety of ships for operations in littoral waters.
But Pybus also noted the need for other hardware suited to the maritime domain: refreshed rebreathers, propulsion devices, sleds and weapons that can work both underwater and across the beach.
“There is equipment that our partners have, quite frankly, that is better than ours, because we spent the past decade fighting ashore,” he said “It is time to move forward so that our troops have the best that there is out there so they can be successful.”
While laying out their immediate and future requirements, the commanders made clear they understand the economic realities facing the entire military.
“We are going to have to do things smartly and efficiently, because we just won’t have all the things that have been available to us in the past,” Pybus said. That, he acknowledged, will mean using legacy systems to the very end of their life cycles.
“But you can accessorize them and make improvements to them to make them better,” he told the industry representatives. “And that is what we are going to be looking for from a lot of you.”