Special operations (S.O.) are military, law enforcement or intelligence operations that are “special” or unconventional and carried out by dedicated special forces and other special operations forces units using unconventional methods and resources. Special operations may be performed independently, or in conjunction with conventional military operations. The primary goal is to achieve a political or military objective where a conventional force requirement does not exist or might adversely affect the overall strategic outcome.
Special operations are usually conducted in a low-profile manner that aims to achieve the advantages of speed, surprise, and violence of action against an unsuspecting target. Special ops are typically carried out with limited numbers of highly trained personnel that are adaptable, self-reliant and able to operate in all environments, and able to use unconventional combat skills and equipment. Special operations are usually implemented through specific, tailored intelligence.
The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) is the Unified Combatant Command charged with overseeing the various Special Operations Component Commands of the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force of the United States Armed Forces. USSOCOM conducts several covert and clandestine missions, such as direct action, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, foreign internal defense, unconventional warfare, psychological warfare, civil affairs, and counter-narcotics operations. Each branch has a Special Operations Command that is unique and capable of running its own operations, but when the different special operations forces need to work together for an operation.
USSOCOM shifting from counterterrorism to “Great Power” competition with Russia and China
U.S. military is shifting from fighting insurgents in the Middle East and South Asia to preparing for so called “Great Power” competition with rivals such as Russia and China. Yet troops — including special operations forces — remain in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria, and they are “on call” for a variety of missions big and small, anywhere in the world.
The science and technology arm of U.S. Special Operations Command is investing in edge computing, secure data sharing and other new technologies that it expects will shape the future of warfare against near-peer adversaries.
Components across the Defense Department are trying to lock in emerging capabilities, such as artificial intelligence and new communications technology, that will define the coming decades of war, while divesting legacy tools used in the last 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We have to maintain the budget and resources to continue moving forward,” Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said in a keynote at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. Where “we can’t stay is: USSOCOM only does counterterrorism, only does crisis response. We have to develop and make sure we really look at what SOF [special operations forces] can do in competition and what SOF can do in high-end conflict.”
SOCOM Pivots to Indo-Pacific Challenges
Special Operations Command — along with the rest of the U.S. military — is refocusing its attention on the Indo-Pacific, specifically China, and SOCOM’s technology priorities are following suit, senior leaders said at the command’s biggest conference of the year 2022.
The U.S. military’s commandos for the past two decades have focused on counterterrorism missions in nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in mostly dry, desert conditions. Operating in the Indo-Pacific poses its own set of challenges, Lisa Sanders, the command’s science and technology director told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.
The counterterrorism, hostage rescue-type operations will always be a part of SOCOM’s mission, Sanders said May 18, but shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific means operating in a different environment, most notably an area with vast amounts of water. Operating in the Indo-Pacific poses its own set of challenges, Lisa Sanders, the command’s science and technology director told reporters on the sidelines of the conference. “Of all the priorities we talk about, the maritime domain is really difficult,” she said.
Take alternative precision navigation and timing as an example, she said. In a contested GPS environment, alternatives to the space-based system are required. However, most GPS alternatives are based on reading geographical features. “The ocean looks the same. So that’s a challenge in that domain,” she said.
SOCOM’s science and technology division receives about $150 million to $170 million per year to conduct applied research and experiments on emerging technologies that can help in several areas including: next-generation mobility; situational awareness; next-generation effects; network and data management; and bio-technological human interfaces, she said.
All these priorities are aligned to the National Defense Strategy, which sees a shift away from counterterrorism and possible confrontations again peer or near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China, she said. Along with challenges of operating over vast distances in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, special operators will also have to perform missions on land, which will mostly likely mean large cities, Sanders said.
When it comes to employing next generation sensor and communications in large urban areas, all the “energy bouncing around” creates difficult conditions, she said. “It’s not that easy to see things and communicate. There is lot of jamming, intentional and unintentional,” she added.
Outside of cities, special operators may also have to contend with jungles with triple canopies, along with weather conditions such as high heat and humidity, she said. “We have not really done a lot of things in the jungle environment in 25 years. Those are very, very harsh environments and very hard to operate in,” she said.
Clarke said next-generation mobility in the Indo-Pacific will be a priority — manned and unmanned, surface and subsurface. One idea that could help SOCOM cover long distances in the region is a concept to give MC-130J airlifters the ability to land on water. The feasibility of an amphibious special operations aircraft is still in the study phase, James Smith, SOCOM acquisition executive told reporters during the conference.
Navy Capt. Randy Slaff, SOCOM program executive officer for maritime, said the renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific has strengthened cooperation with the Navy, which sees Naval Special Warfare as a unique capability that can penetrate places where the seas service can’t go.
Navy special operators such as the SEALs rely on the Navy’s submarines and ships to take them near where they need to go. The commandos’ smaller surface and subsurface vehicles can then maneuver where the big vessels can’t, he pointed out. The Navy has always supported its special operators, but the hard shift over to the Indo-Pacific has resulted in their relationship growing “tremendously in the last year to year and a half,” Slaff said.
“The ability to get into places and get access to places that nobody else on the planet can get isn’t out there except for some of these platforms that we provide,” he said. This has resulted in Navy Special Warfare “returning to its frogman roots,” Slaff said.
Senior Navy leaders have expressed their interest in naval special operators decreasing their dependence on submarines to take them where they want to go, Slaff said. They would like to see more interoperability with surface combat or sealift ships, he added.
“We see a lot of opportunities in not just undersea — while continuing that partnership as well — but in other areas. So, it’s pretty exciting. I think the [Indo-Pacific Command] shift has enabled that,” he added.
SOCOM technology requirements
U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) officials, aim to optimize Special Operations Forces (SOF) by adopting advanced technologies in four key areas. Officials intend to invest in communications, computer, data and sensor, and human-machine interface (HMI) technologies to realize the end goal of a “hyper-enabled operator” – an entirely new concept introduced by SOCOM Science and Technology Office Director Lisa Sanders at the 2018 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida.
Because of the special nature of their operations, Special Operations teams want specific technologies. One of the technology what SOCOM wants is a cheap, expendable technology that can be given to allied forces so that U.S. troops can identify them. “Potential solutions addressing this problem should be easy to operate with minimal training,” SOCOM said. “Additionally, based on the need to transfer or give this equipment to partner forces in significant quantities, individual devices must be low cost and contain technology that can be transferable to the partner force.”
U.S. Special Operations Command—and the allied armies they work with—are looking for a reliable means of stopping fratricide. The idea is similar to Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) transponders on aircraft that emit signals that enable radars to identify these planes as friendly: without them, it would be too easy to mistake a friendly plane as hostile.
“Currently there is difficulty identifying mounted and dismounted partner forces in the combined air and ground battlespace during both day and night operations, and in all weather conditions,” according to a SOCOM research solicitation. “The solution must be detectable by existing Special Operations Forces, U.S. military and Coalition observation and targeting systems, both ground and aerial, out to a tactically relevant range (1 kilometer—threshold; 4 kilometers—objective), be compatible with a standard and non-standard military uniforms, soldier carried equipment and vehicles.
SOCOM suggests the device emit an infrared recognition signal. Developers should “address viable system concepts that provide an infrared signature in bands visible to existing U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps aviation platform-mounted and ground-based targeting sensors during the all-weather, day, and night conditions.”
The equipment should be capable of operating for up to eight hours without needing a battery recharge. “This technology should be able to work in all weather and all environments from urban to snow to highly cluttered desert floors, equatorial summer or on vegetation that may have moisture,” SOCOM said. “Minimum weight, small form factor, simplicity, and durability are desirable characteristics.”
Phase I of the project will be a feasibility study to determine what current technology is capable of providing. Phase II will call for a prototype Partner Force Identification Friend or Foe device. SOCOM says there could be spin-off applications for U.S. law enforcement, border patrol and search and rescue teams.
SOF should focus on commercial, OSINT for big data analytics
US Special Operations Forces (SOF) must enhance its exploitation of big data by capitalising on commercial technologies and open source intelligence (OSINT), a report published by the US Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) has warned. JSOU’s ‘Exploitation of Big Data for SOF’ paper, published in November 18 , said big data analytics must be relied upon more to support SOF activities, including unconventional warfare and counter-insurgency operations, although it noted that identifying big data requirements and solutions remains challenging.
Big data exploitation could help SOF personnel “with understanding the social, cultural, physical, informational, and psychological elements” in a complex operating area, the report said. “SOF often operate in small units requiring small footprint efforts, thus the need for actionable intelligence from big data to ensure mission success is even more critical.”
In contested environments, exploiting big data could significantly assist SOF by “enhancing situational awareness, bolstering indications and warnings, providing real-time feedback about a potential uprising area, and helping with pre-crisis decision-making, which is where SOF are most effective”, the report said.
The report recommended the US Special Operations Command to “capitalise” on commercial information technologies and to integrate OSINT with other intelligence sources. The report highlighted the UN’s Global Pulse programme as a potential model for US SOF to consider. Global Pulse aims to harness big data to accelerate the discovery, development, and scaled adoption of big data innovation in humanitarian aid/disaster relief operations. “The employment of SOF in similar UN Global Pulse big data initiatives helps monitor local perceptions on socio-culture, educational, economic, and political issues and identify propaganda and violent incidents reported through social media and other open sources,” the report said.
The Haze Gazer web analysis tool, developed in conjunction with the Indonesian Government, is one application used in Global Pulse. This solution exploits open data from a variety of sources including satellite imagery, social media and online news feeds, and other citizen-generated information. Additional solutions suggested by the JSOU report include exploiting live radio broadcasts and public social media websites that can be monitored for OSINT.
The report suggested a Radio Content Analysis Tool, which is also used in Global Pulse, could help capture radio discussions across an area of operation, although JSOU conceded it required a “small evaluation team” to capture false detections. JSOU also called for improvements in speech recognition technology capable of deciphering dialects, poor speakers, and poor reception. “Although Google and Microsoft are investing in speech recognition technologies, they have not captured all languages and dialects around the world, especially in Africa and Asia,” the report noted. “Where there is little US government presence, OSINT may be the best immediately available information to prepare US forces to operate in a foreign country,” it said.
SOCOM Outlines Technology Areas of Interest
New, high-tech equipment is projected to enhance and expand warfighter capabilities, and help hyper-enabled operators be as effective as possible in achieving their missions. Sanders and other SOCOM officials are anxious to empower the hyper-enabled force with advanced technologies and capabilities quickly. Equipment that takes advantage of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies are their best bet for being fielded fast, Sanders recognizes, and could be in the hands of deployed operators in as little as six months.
SOCOM described specific technologies and capabilities under each category it seeks to explore during the March demonstration.
- For Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) technologies, it seeks collection, segregation and matching of voice from media or live capture; hand-held hidden chamber materials of interest detection; Hand-held detection of materials includes biological, chemicals, and hazards. Rapid DNA hand-held collection, processing, and matching technologies; facial recognition up to one kilometer; dustless fingerprint collection.
Media exploitation capability priorities for 30 minutes or less ; at the Exploitation Analysis Center (EAC) level are: simultaneous imaging of media, Simpler user interface for exploiting media (searching and reporting), Innovative transmission or transfer of large images over the internet.
Portable Explosive detection kits that can detect explosives based on trinitrotoluene (TNT), Research Department Formula X (RDX, dynamite, and black powder within minutes with no more than five milligrams of the suspected sample, Does not require field calibration, power, or peripheral devices and Simple enough for operators to be trained in its use over a couple of hours.
Embedded hazard detection and identification for exploitation analysis center (lab-like facility), Identify hidden/concealed explosives during triage, Examine items up to 24”x24”x36” and 75 pounds, Compatible with existing chemical, biological, and radiological decontamination as well as explosive ordinance disposal procedures. All proposed technologies should be operable while wearing gloves and military equipment to include eye protection and chemical protective clothing.
Extract file and user-created metadata such as filenames, hash numbers, date-time stamps, etc. and compare to an onboard watch list. Locate and extract personal identifying information such as names, addresses, telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, chat user names, social media user names, etc. and compare to an onboard watch list.
- For Information Operations (or Military Information Support Operations (MISO) , SOCOM is looking for technologies that can provide persistent cellular data service (3G) into denied areas while achieving stand-off range and interoperability with existing target audience equipment (handsets and subscriber identity modules) in various locations.
Sentiment analysis capability to process large volumes of reader/user-provided comments in social media or on a website to discern trends/long term sentiment change. Must be in languages other than English, especially non-Latin alphabets (e.g., Arabic and Cyrillic), and phonetically written using the Latin character set. Radio, television, internet messaging, and cellular broadcasts (Short Messaging Service (SMS), voice and Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS) ) into denied areas; and automated translation technology.
- SOF personnel often operate for extended periods of time in austere environments that expose them to extremes in altitude, temperature, humidity, wind, kinetosis, infectious diseases, toxic industrial chemicals/materials, and other environmental hazards. The primary emphasis is to ensure sustained human performance/effectiveness while operating under these harsh conditions with or without personal protective equipment.
Therefore for human performance, the command seeks physiological status and heart rate monitoring devices; optimal performance strategies for harsh conditions; new technologies that can boost performance; methods for measuring the nutritional status of SOF operators; and innovative approaches for determining the interaction between SOF-common medications and dietary supplements.
SOCOM investing in new capabilities for future battlefield
Autonomous Ground Vehicles
Officials from U.S. Special Operations Command are pursuing new ground vehicles and enabling technologies to help commandos roll into battle. Artificial intelligence and autonomy are key capabilities that SOCOM wants for its trucks. “By 2030, 2035, you’re really going to be seeing a difference in the way we fight,” Feltham said. AI could assist with a variety of tasks including operating platforms in environments where satellite-based navigation could prove challenging, he said. “That is going to … get [forces] in autonomously through machine learning, but also get ‘em out when things have gone maybe not the way we wanted them to go in a GPS-denied environment,” Feltham said. “That’s probably the battlefield that we’re going to be facing.
Autonomy could also reduce manpower requirements for logistics and resupply missions, especially when special operations forces are spread out over large areas, noted Army Col. Joel Babbitt, program executive officer for SOF Warrior. “Let’s get out of the paradigm of lots of little vehicles with lots of support people running around vulnerable on the battlefield,” he said during a panel discussion at this year’s annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Arlington, Virginia, hosted by NDIA. “Let’s instead get vehicles driving themselves.”
The first ground mobility platform that SOCOM aims to equip with autonomous capabilities is the light tactical all-terrain vehicle, or LTATV, Kittinger said. The system is used for a variety of missions including infiltration, reconnaissance and medical evacuation. The two- and four-seat variants can be transported via V-22, H-53 and H-47 aircraft, according to a product description.
Hybrid-electric technology is another item on SOCOM’s wish list. Dedicated funding is already in place for the ground mobility
vehicle 1.1 when the platforms are upgraded in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, Kittinger noted. Babbitt described the GMV as “an oversized dune buggy” that carries small assault teams. A system that can utilize electric propulsion could help commandos be stealthier as they close in on their targets, he noted. “When it comes to the hybrid technologies, it’s really about the last 15 minutes as you’re approaching the objective,” he said. “If a Prius can sneak up on you, then certainly something that SOCOM has should be able to sneak up on you.”
Facing an evolving threat environment, Special Operations Command is modifying its fleet of rotary- and fixed-wing platforms to ensure commandos can reach their destinations around the globe. Militaries worldwide are increasing their reliance on special operators, and the demand for airlift capabilities is expected to rise, said Matthew Beres, airborne retrofit and modernization analyst at Forecast International, a Newton, Connecticut-based marketing consulting firm.
“The airlift platforms must be able to align with special operations needs such as stealth while being capable of sustaining high [operational tempo] … meaning they need to be maintained properly and available for missions,” he said in an email. For rotary-wing aircraft, SOCOM may leverage the Army’s future vertical lift work to replace its mission-enhanced Little Bird helicopters. As a nimble unarmed system, the MH-6M troop transport variant is used to deliver special operations forces in and out of tight spaces and can also be used for reconnaissance.
The command is also looking to integrate more aircraft with the Silent Knight radar, a system that provides a terrain-following/terrain-avoidance capability that displays weather patterns and terrain features. President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2020 proposed budget calls for the installation of the radar on MH-47G Chinooks, MH-60 Black Hawks, CV-22 Ospreys and MC-130J Commando IIs.
SOCOM-specific requirements for the new platform include the ability to be transported in a C-17 and an in-flight refueling capability, the RFI stated. For all airlift capabilities, Beres said there are multiple “trends” being pursued that differentiate special operations platforms
from general military transport aircraft. These include electronic warfare, electro-optical sensors, human interface-helmet mounted displays, secure communications and improved engines.
Electronic warfare, in particular, is “one of the fastest-growing and probably most important sectors in the defense market,” he said, noting that Russia could potentially outmatch the United States in this area. SOCOM must adjust its airlift capabilities to prepare for these threats, he added. “Special Operations airlift aircraft must be able to protect against EW threats that may knock out the spectrum of airlift electronics systems,” he said. Additionally, the command could make small changes, such as changing aircraft position, “in ways that get unnoticed, but profoundly affect mission effectiveness,” he said.
SOCOM must also keep operating costs down while increasing the availability of its aircraft, Beres noted. “Less frequent maintenance and less man-hours needed per maintenance interval significantly increases the availability of airlift resources,” he said. Top capabilities on SOCOM’s airlift wish list also include increased situational awareness to “hyper-enable” its aircrews and assault forces; resilient communications; virtual reality mission simulation; and data science to support predictive maintenance and sustainment strategies, Chitty said
Watercraft — both underwater and on the surface — provide special operators with a key technological advantage: the ability to quickly, efficiently, and covertly conduct missions from the sea. While commandos as of late have become closely associated with conducting operations on land thanks to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a command-wide pivot to great power competition will increase the need for these maritime systems as operators turn to the water, experts have said. Special Operations Command is currently undergoing two major modernization efforts for its underwater systems — the shallow water combat submersible and the dry combat submersible. Both platforms are key to moving SEALs through oceans and seas.
“The SWCS represents a significant improvement over the legacy … [system] in several areas,” she told National Defense in an email. “SWCS brings increased payload and range, updated sensors, an improved navigation system and a modernized command-and-control architecture to permit the rapid integration of new technologies.” SEALs are transported “wet” with the system, requiring the use of protective suits. The vehicles can be transported via a dry dock shelter attached to a submarine.
The dry combat submersible is bigger than the shallow water combat submersible, he noted. SWCS is roughly 7 meters long and the dry combat submersible is about 12 meters long and four times as heavy. The dry version “allows them to be warmer, more ready, less fatigued,” Callender said. It also has an increased range over the SWCS.
SOCOM is also pursuing new surface watercraft, Dolloff noted. It is currently looking for a replacement for its combatant craft heavy vessel which is used for the insertion and extraction of special operators. “The current combatant craft heavy grew out of a technology demonstrator effort by the U.S. Navy,” she said. “Incorporating lessons learned from the operation of this craft over the past five years, U.S. Special Operations Command determined that an improved version of this platform could greatly increase USSOCOM’s capabilities in the maritime domain.”
The command is looking for a craft that is capable of launching and recovering larger payloads and possesses an enhanced command, control, communications, computers, cyber-defense, combat systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance suite, or C6ISR, she said. It would also like the system to have improved range while incorporating a state-of-the-art hull design and power plant.
“Hyper-enabling the operator could mean a lot of things — getting them better body armor, getting better boots, get them better helmets,” said Jim Smith, the command’s acquisition executive. But “when you hear U.S. SOCOM talking about hyper-enabling the operator …
we’re really talking about the cognitive space.”
The concept — which focuses on four pillars of technology including communications, computing, data/sensors and human-machine interfaces — is about pushing tailored information to a dismounted operator or unit at the tactical edge, he said during remarks at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict conference.
The command intends to look at multiple technology areas including data, presentation and computation, he said. Having readily available information for warfighters on the battlefield mirrors technology found in self-driving cars, Smith said. “[You have] got to have a lot of computing power on the car” itself, he said. “You can’t be reaching back to the cloud every time you’re trying to figure out if something
is a stop sign or a pedestrian.”
The biggest technological hurdles the command will have to overcome as it pursues the hyper-enabled operator concept are long-range communications and optimizing data throughput in contested environments and denied areas, MacCalman said. “The management and
distribution of computer processing from the cloud down to edge devices is another area of continuing development, as well as research to understand how immersive technologies affect and benefit human cognition,” he said.
AI, Big Data
The Pentagon envisions the future battlefield as an interconnected web of sensors that pass data to war fighters, combined with a myriad of emerging technologies including AI/machine learning, mesh networks, advanced waveforms and secure digital tools that allow commanders to make decisions faster. SOCOM is trying to fill many gaps related that future battlefield, including how to effectively search through its “mountains” of data, move that information across levels of security classifications and communicate across a more complex battle space, Clarke said. Operators will also face threats from adversaries’ unmanned systems, electronic warfare, cyber effects and information warfare, he noted.
“What we must be able to go is not just play defense, but we also have to play offense for our capabilities, our war fighters,” Clarke said. “To meet those challenges we have to innovate to transform our force. Investing in both people and key technologies are going to be essential.” SOCOM is trying to do so through its science and technology arm’s Hyper-Enabled Operator effort, which aims to outfit operators with access to informative data in austere environments to improve decision-making, giving them a so-called cognitive advantage. In fiscal 2020, the Hyper-Enabled Operator project had a $16 million budget, according to a presentation at the event from Lisa Sanders, SOCOM director of science and technology.
That project has transitioned some technologies to acquisition program offices. According to Sanders, that effort needs advanced data analytics on the battlefield, voice-to-voice language translation, and beyond-line-of-sight communications with high bandwidth if satellite communication is unavailable.
Sanders said that one beyond-line-of-sight communications project transitioned to SOCOM’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, while an integrated situational awareness tool moved over to PEO Special Reconnaissance to support a program of record. She also said the program has a “big focus” on edge computing, or the ability to process data on the battlefield without sending it thousands of miles back to a data center, as well as natural language processing, which would allow computers and humans communicate better.
SOCOM’s Network and Data Management Capability Focus Area is looking for secure artificial intelligence capabilities, Sanders said, specifically focused on trust between machine-to-machine connections. “Any sort of fused environment, being able to know that that information is secure, is important,” Sanders said. “Data integrity is important for us. So those are areas that we’re seeking additional work.”
The S&T director also said SOCOM has shortfalls in nonkinetic effects, such as information operations, electronic warfare and cyber, adding “we’re looking for projects coming to us that have those kinds of capabilities.” According to the presentation from Sanders, the Next-Generation Effects CFA wants to more than double its Next-Generation Effect Budget to $35 million in fiscal 2022. The command’s Next Generation Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance focus area will center in on improving situational awareness. Sanders said a significant part of that involves space and what Special Operations-specific payloads the command needs to maintain situational awareness.
“Our gaps are really about how do I take the capability that I’ve learned to expect in the last 20 years of war and make them tactical, and make them not require you to go back to the to the analyst and not have an army of analysts to determine what’s coming off of one set of [data] feeds,” Sanders said.