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  • Two U.S. Army special forces soldiers conduct radio checks during Exercise Combined Resolve in December, which included special operations forces from Ukraine. The U.S. Special Operations Command is pursuing multiple approaches to establish communications links with special forces and partner nations, and these approaches may become part of conventional force operations.  U.S. Army photo
     Two U.S. Army special forces soldiers conduct radio checks during Exercise Combined Resolve in December, which included special operations forces from Ukraine. The U.S. Special Operations Command is pursuing multiple approaches to establish communications links with special forces and partner nations, and these approaches may become part of conventional force operations. U.S. Army photo
  •  U.S. Army SOFs and their Ukrainian counterparts conduct military free fall operations from a U.S. Air Force Osprey over Ukraine in late 2020. A long-standing SOF partnership between the two nations helped train forces in both regional communications and special operations.  U.S. Air Force photo
      U.S. Army SOFs and their Ukrainian counterparts conduct military free fall operations from a U.S. Air Force Osprey over Ukraine in late 2020. A long-standing SOF partnership between the two nations helped train forces in both regional communications and special operations. U.S. Air Force photo

SOCOM Technologies Blaze Trails for Others in Defense

The Cyber Edge
May 1, 2022
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

What is unique to special operations becomes de rigueur across the department.


The U.S. Special Operations Command is developing an information technology architecture and operational plan that eventually may evolve into a template for overall U.S. Defense Department military operations. Many of the needs expressed by special operations forces are not unlike those experienced by elements of conventional service forces, and successful development and deployment of special operations digital systems can have a direct bearing on departmentwide military systems.

Some of the command’s flexible and resilient approaches to information at the edge already have borne fruit in Ukraine. Special operations forces have been in the region for years working in collaboration with partners, and their approach has relied less on hardened military-specific communications and more on various means that allow for redundancy and flexibility in communications. Lessons learned there already apply to communications work underway in the command.

With many different mission-specific needs, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) requirements are driven by its individual warfighters. “SOCOM’s enterprise is shaped by requirements that come from the edge,” says Col. Paul I. Weizer, USA, program executive officer (PEO) for Special Operations Forces (SOF) Digital Applications. “What is SOF-unique today is that what we are building is not really available in the services yet,” he says.

Atop the command’s priority list is its Mission Command Systems/Common Operational Picture (MCS/COP), Col. Weizer states. This is the situational awareness tool that will provide knowledge and inference at all levels of command, from strategic to tactical, he explains.

“It’s basically the highway for all of the applications, algorithms and analytics that would be used to take intelligence and situational awareness, apply analytics and knowledge inference to provide commanders with the situational awareness of what’s occurring at their level,” he says. “It will do everything from showing where friendly and enemy [forces] are on the battlefield to helping in targeting.”

It also will provide an assessment on what will—or is expected to—occur by using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) on large data sets. This will provide commanders with courses of action, he adds. The system will absorb data from edge warfighters, government, military services, the SOF community and commercial information.

Many of these capabilities will be available to the warfighter at the edge, Col. Weizer allows. All levels of command are accessing the same authoritative data, and the edge will have access to the same data as the higher-level commanders. However, the warfighters will view a common operating picture on their devices customized to their needs. They would not be viewing as large an area or as all-encompassing a mission set, he notes.

He observes that everyone is building a function of mission command—in the Defense Department, it’s the Joint All-Domain Command and Control system, or JADC2. Each of the services is building a situational awareness version that focuses on its particular functional area, but SOCOM is not focused in any one area, he notes. Its requirements span the region from space to undersea, so its work is truly a joint development effort.

In the same vein, the command is developing its systems in an open architecture using commercial standards. With all the services attending technical exchange meetings together, interoperability is enhanced as capabilities are developed, Col. Weizer notes.

This has ramifications for the rest of the military, he adds. “At some point, we may develop something at SOCOM in mission command that gets pushed or transferred to a service. In a lot of what we do at SOCOM, we try to do that.”

Col. Joe Pishock, USA, director of networks and services for the U.S. SOCOM J-6, notes that the phase at which SOCOM operates, in which it needs access to mission command tools, differs from conventional department needs. It would not be unusual for SOF to send out small teams—liaisons, for example—who would still want to access MCS information. However, they would not be accessing it as would an Army brigade combat team. Different tools are required for nonkinetic operations, for example.

MCS/COP has attained minimum viable product by having the initial set of capabilities required to deploy, Col. Weizer reports. It currently is in test phase with the User Development Unit, which is an operational unit. It is expected to attain minimum viable capability release this month, he adds.

The cloud will play an increasing role in SOCOM operations, and the command is tailoring its efforts to accommodate that. Col. Weizer says that the command is ensuring that the software code in the applications it builds is cloud-native in design, which in turn will ensure that they can move freely across the Internet without rule-set constraints. But moving this capability to the user lies more in the JADC2 realm, which itself is a hybrid solution.

Col. Pishock explains that the cloud can be a commercial off-premises environment or a government entity such as existing data centers. A properly cloud-designed data center allows employing analytics, which helps modernization efforts for on-premise facilities. A recent effort with MCS began with existing on-premise facilities that were built out to obtain the cloud-like effect of a SOCOM data center, he relates.

And this work continues to evolve with exercises. “Every exercise, every operation, is an opportunity to push an on-premises facility or an off-premises one,” he says. “We’re making pretty good and rapid progress out there because of the tempo we have, and then it’s raising additional areas and opportunities.”

“Ultimately, the effects we are trying to achieve are that users wouldn’t know the difference,” Col. Weizer adds. “We’re trying to build this hybrid environment where only the signal people would actually know where, when and how this is being transmitted.” The technical solutions—such as what has to be forward, what is carriable, how much cloud, what capabilities can be made mobile that will intermittently connect at the edge—are still being worked out.

And JADC2 may play a role in that determination, the colonels say. Col. Pishock offers that SOCOM is influencing its development, especially “to the left of kinetic war.” The services will pick up with larger elements in warfighting, while SOCOM will make use more of the smaller deterrence aspect. “We’re informing because before the big services are able to sign a large contract with all of the dependencies figured out, we’re able to work on a lower level of complexity and help inform their decisions,” he says. Ultimately, SOCOM would want to leverage what the services would bring, and the command’s focus would return to what is SOF-unique.

SOF-unique systems would include being able to use local commercial telecommunications systems during a deployment. For example, Col. Pishock relates that a theater special operations command team has been operating in Ukraine for years. Its partnerships have set the framework for the collaborations currently going on, “and they don’t happen necessarily on green radios with serial numbers and encrypted conversations every day,” he says. These collaborations didn’t need to be designed for degraded or denied conditions because the most important phase took place before hostilities broke out.

With this in mind, the command is striving to maximize improvements in areas such as 5G, better connectivity, tactical mission networks and cloud-based areas that allow rapid establishment of a collaborative environment with a partner force, the colonel continues. If this collaborative environment is compromised, it can be torn down and replaced rapidly with another that does not require extensive work.

SOCOM can use multiple acquisition pathways under the Defense Department’s Adaptive Acquisition Framework. Instead of being cornered in a single program methodology, the command can use six different pathways, including one for software. Typically, small bits of software capability are developed and deployed over time, Col. Weizer relates. The command is able to utilize high-level requirements that already exist, such as situational awareness. Input from all aspects of the SOF and program officials has a rapid effect that can allow changes quickly, as needed.

Col. Pishock notes that the operational side requires speed. While acknowledging that providers will never be able to move as quickly as warfighters want, he offers that his organization has touchpoints with the operational force each day. The result is constant feedback, which hones requirements at all levels and is both shorter and faster than conventional processes.

In one recent case, a theater SOF operational element reported how well a commercial satellite dish was performing. Consequently, the program manager for satellite communications within SOCOM was aware of that success and could incorporate it into planning. “There is a feedback loop there, and it’s pretty rapid for them to then make a decision, ‘Is this something we want to go at? Is it something we don’t want to go at? Does this fit our work toward the end state?’ There is very little that stands in the way of our operational units … from conducting small-scale iteration and innovation to inform the larger program ultimately,” Col. Pishock says.

He emphasizes that the SOF user community is not so much changing requirements as it is informing program officials where they need to go. “They know what is required, or at least they know that they have a problem,” the colonel explains. “Then, we have to figure out collectively how the solving of that problem ultimately turns into what is required.”

He continues that synchronization is a major part of this at higher levels. A problem in Europe, for example, may be similar to a problem in the Pacific, but there are differences that manifest themselves in the writing of requirements. Again, input from the edge is key.

Col. Weizer notes that the command has moved away from a relationship characterized by friction between the acquisition community and the user community. Traditionally, users would not see the results of submitting a requirement for a long period of time—by the end of which the product they receive no longer meets their needs because they weren’t consulted along the way. But the current process delivers products rapidly that address their needs, which has increased trust, he adds.

“We’re getting a lot more participation in this development process,” he reports. “They’re observing that the person that gets to be part of that development really gets a say in how this thing is going to work in end state.”

Still, challenges remain. Incorporating AI and ML into SOF systems will be difficult because their versions are not well-defined. “If I went to 10 data scientists—Ph.D.s—and asked them what AI is, I’ll get 10 answers,” Col. Weizer says. Defining them will be necessary to meet expectations. Col. Pishock concurs, adding that, “Getting the bite-size chunks so we can turn concepts and visions into reality … is proving to be, ‘What do you want to predict?’” Progress is taking place in this area, but much remains to be done, they say.

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