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Operators, Industry Guide Special Forces Acquisition

July 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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A U.S. Army special forces team leader with Special Operations Task Force-South radios other team members during a counterinsurgency operation in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is teaming with industry to develop new communications technologies for the wide variety of missions facing special forces.

The technology road map is rife with forks and intersections.

Special operations forces are looking to the commercial communications marketplace for their next generation of information systems and solutions. However, the U.S. Special Operations Command’s ability to tap commercial off-the-shelf systems is proving more difficult as its needs become more complex.

Accordingly, the command now is engaging industry earlier in the technology development phase so that future systems are more suited to mission needs. Where potentially useful technology development is well under way, officials at the command are teaming with industry to adapt technologies to suit special operations needs.

The biggest hurdle for the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is to incorporate a plethora of new technologies concurrent with streamlining existing capabilities. Special operations missions can vary as widely as the environments in which they can occur, as can the number of forces involved. The command must tailor its gear so that it can provide a variety of capabilities, yet not diminish the special forces operator’s ability to carry out missions.

SOCOM’s biggest technological challenge is to provide a wide range of communications and information capabilities in small, lightweight packages, reports Tony Davis, program executive officer for command, control, communications and computers (PEO C4), SOCOM. Davis notes that the relationship between the J-6 and its acquisition arm—the PEO C4—is different from that of the other services. Davis reports directly to the J-6 (see page 51), so the command’s acquisition strategy for C4 technologies is tied closely to field requirements.

And that strategy focuses on obtaining commercial solutions, Davis continues. SOCOM cannot afford a long development cycle, so the command turns to industry to allow it to field new capabilities rapidly and more frequently. Where gaps exist in commercial technology capabilities, SOCOM then combines its effort with other services and joint program offices.

Where possible, SOCOM partners with industry in cooperative research and development agreements (CRADAs) to steer companies’ research and development toward areas of interest. “We have a very open relationship with industry on what we’re trying to do, where we’re trying to head and how it might help us fill gaps in those capability areas,” Davis allows.

One SOCOM program aims to develop new information system technologies for its personnel. Known as Next Generation Tactical Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (NGTC3I), the effort resides under the command’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) Tactical Communications (STC) umbrella radio program, which encompasses all personal and vehicular radios.

The NGTC3I program is designed to accomplish two overarching goals. One goal is to shrink the size of the command’s tactical C3I footprint, and the other is to combine multiple capabilities into fewer units. Davis points out that forces today must take along a handheld radio, a manpack radio and a blue force tracker—all largely separate gear needed to provide the necessary capability suite for an operation. SOCOM would like to reduce the number of devices, along with their size and weight, that are carried into an operation.

Last year, SOCOM conducted an extensive market research study on relevant industry capabilities. The command learned that several vendors were developing capabilities independently of great interest to SOCOM, but were not ready yet for purchase. So, the command is undertaking some interim lifecycle replacement activities while concurrently working with industry partners through CRADAs.

Davis explains that this CRADA-based effort aims to steer the companies’ independent research and development toward technologies and systems that will be ready for SOCOM implementation in the 2013-14 time frame. Next summer, the command will undertake a follow-on market research study on these companies’ progress so that it can develop an appropriate acquisition strategy.

He notes that the command already has developed a blue force tracker application that can be downloaded for installation on a tactical radio. This allows the radio to present blue force tracker data on its display, thus obviating the need for a separate device. SOCOM has implemented other industry/SOF-developed apps that are special operations-unique, he adds.

At the top of the command’s information technology wish list with industry is advanced smartphone capability. SOCOM’s mission areas make attaining that capability a greater challenge than for other commands and services, Davis asserts. At any given moment, SOCOM has SOFs deployed in more than 70 countries, and potential deployment areas total 140 countries. Many of these deployments take place in austere locations that lack the necessary service infrastructure to support regional wireless communications. Even Afghanistan has cell towers in some places that the Army can use for its own wireless communications needs.

So, SOCOM must be lighter and more tactical. The command is pursuing a cellular wireless capability that is much more secure than a conventional commercial cellular capability. This puts a different research and development spin on some of the efforts currently undertaken by the services and commercial organizations, Davis offers.

The command wants to extend to a smartphone or tablet the same capabilities available on a PC in garrison or on a laptop in a tactical environment. The aim is to have similar capabilities tailored to multiple form factors to suit a SOF mission’s operational environment.


Special Operations Task Force-South soldiers fire on insurgents in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. SOCOM’s efforts to provide improved communications are complicated by the need to provide equipment that can service special operations forces (SOF) under a wide range of conditions, both environmental and operational.

Davis notes that the command has just stated its differing requirements to industry. A recent request for information (RFI) to industry seeks data on wireless capabilities available today and under development. SOCOM has several CRADAs with companies with which it is working to influence their internal research and development through frequent and early feedback. And, the command has partners within government so it can help those solutions proceed through the certification and accreditation process when they become viable, he reports.

Developing a secure cellular capability is only part of SOCOM’s thrust to offer the same services and data to all SOFs regardless of their requirements or their location, Davis points out. The diverse missions and arenas that constitute SOF operations may call for a variety of C4 capabilities. Davis emphasizes that the command is not striving for a “one size fits all” approach to providing vital C4 to SOCOM personnel. Instead, the command is aiming at a “program family” solution that would offer different capabilities to missions as needed.

He notes that SOFs deploy in configurations ranging from joint special operations task forces down to six-man teams in an austere location. So, the command seeks solutions in the small/medium/large capability family to suit these different deployments.

As with all military forces, bandwidth is near the top of the J-6’s wish list. Davis notes that two years ago SOCOM would average about 250 to 300 satellite nodes in use around the world on a given day. Today, that average is up to 550 or 600 nodes per day. That doubling indicates how the requirements have increased over just two years, he points out, and that need also illuminates the bandwidth stresses the command faces.

SOCOM is pursuing a dual-track effort toward meeting its bandwidth challenge, Davis explains. In addition to trying to add new pipes, particularly in the form of new satellites, the command is looking at various technologies that increase efficiency and help improve bandwidth exploitation.

Several efforts to solve that challenge are underway. Commercial technologies, particularly in compression and acceleration, already are in use. “We’ve had good success with the new commercial compression and acceleration technologies,” he states. “We can put a lot more in the existing pipes.”

The command also is deploying many satellite capabilities that can use more than one type of satellite. “We’re trying to take full advantage of wideband gap filler constellation as it comes online,” Davis offers, noting that military Ka-band capabilities will be free and more plentiful than the currently available commercial satellite links on which SOCOM is relying in Afghanistan. “We’re looking at different SATCOM [satellite communications] solutions that allow us either to get bandwidth on a different satellite constellation than we traditionally use or to get more bandwidth across the existing constellation—in terms of what you can carry in a rucksack in a small team environment.”

The command also is using commercial technologies in content staging as well as replication and de-duplication. Davis explains that these capabilities offer the potential to reduce bandwidth consumption. “We’re focusing on well-developed COTS [commercial off-the-shelf] solutions that allow us to break that bandwidth issue,” he says.

Another SOCOM priority is enhanced beyond-line-of-sight communications on the move. Research into this area, which is being conducted in concert with commercial vendors, focuses on antennas and antenna form factors. Davis notes that SATCOM-on-the-move capabilities can be installed on a fairly flexible platform, but the command wants antenna platforms that would permit the use of multiple bands such as Ku, Ka and X.

The goal is to be able to mount these capabilities without substantial modifications to a vehicle, he says. This would permit easy adaptation from one vehicle to another—such as when the first vehicle breaks down and the SATCOM capability must be transferred quickly and easily to another. Davis adds that this action is difficult in today’s COTS environment, so SOCOM is working with several vendors on a solution. These full-strength antennas also need to be more flexible and less intrusive to the vehicle. SOCOM is looking at applications on small craft afloat or a commercial vehicle. Providing this capability in a small, unobtrusive footprint may be the command’s toughest technological challenge, he allows.

Smartphones and tablets soon may be accompanying SOFs in remote operations. Davis notes that many SOCOM operators want the same wireless capabilities that these devices provide them at home, so the J-6’s top priority is to provide those capabilities in an operational environment. As with standard cellular, security is an issue with these devices. They also must be rugged and dependable for SOF operations without yielding their small size and weight.

“We’re still in the ‘crawl’ phase of the ‘crawl, walk, run’ capability,” Davis says of the command’s approach to smartphone and tablet deployment. “We have 56,000 smart SOF users who know what their requirements are, so we’re working hard to provide them with an app store capability where they can partner with us—or even develop applications of their own—to take advantage of those platforms.”

Part of this effort falls under the NGTC3I purview of combining multiple capabilities and reducing the size and weight. “The smartphone and the tablet provide excellent possible capabilities to do a combination of both of those [goals],” Davis declares. “They’re light, they’re energy efficient and they’re much less expensive than some of our militarized devices. But, they have the processing capability to display the full-motion video that we get from our airborne platforms; bring in sensor data if required; display blue force tracker information; and offer chat and text messaging. We also do a lot of John Madden-style markups of video or pictures.

“There are a lot of capabilities that you could deliver on that kind of platform, but I think of it as an extension of our existing requirements that currently are delivered on more and larger devices,” he states.

SOCOM comprises four service components and its theater special operations command. Having SOF operators move from garrison to mission can present networking difficulties. Currently, SOCOM’s service components are provided their nonsecret Internet protocol router network (NIPRNet) capability from their parent services, while the theater SOFs obtain their NIPRNet from the combatant command. Additional networks are provided by other organizations, so the result is “a hodgepodge from the network perspective,” Davis states.

He relates that the command is striving for a single sign-on capability that will allow a SOF operator to leave a garrison network and sign back on elsewhere using the same user identification and password. That user would have the same portal access and email as well as access to the same data available in garrison. The command already has consolidated its data into two distributed data centers that store and back up enterprise data, Davis reports. Standard SOF entry points provide reach-back access for tactical customers.

U.S. Special Operations Command: