Communications Tech a Top Priority for Special Forces at SOFIC


Recently, the members of the special operations community and their industry partners came together in Tampa for this year’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC). Noted as the “premier conference of the SOF community to interact with industry,” it was clear that one of the top priorities of the community and its industry partners is to make sure that operators have secure, cutting edge communications technology that is uniquely tailored to the specific needs of the low-intensity, asymmetric warfare where special forces operators excel.

Indeed, Lisa Sanders, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) science and technology director, put “communications and navigation in all environments” among SOCOM’s top four science and technology priorities.

To that end, here’s what you need to know about how the conference addressed this pressing need and, because special forces operators often experiment with new technology ahead of regular units, what the military might prioritize in the near future.

Industry Advancing Mobile Comms Solutions

Consistent with SOCOM’s tech priorities, industry representatives heavily promoted their advanced, field-deployable information and communications solutions, and because of the SOCOM unit’s unique makeup as a small, mobile, elite team of operators on intensely critical missions – the watchword for so many of these technologies was portability – the smaller, the more portable, the more secure, the better.

Innovation in Drones

Companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin exhibited various advances of their drone technologies that make the hardware more compact, while retaining the ISR capabilities that SOF operators need while making those capabilities more portable for a small team on the move.

Once more, this highlights the special operator’s need for reliable communications.  Not only does he need to maintain connection with his fellow warfighters, but he also needs to be able to deploy remote assets like this tube-launched drone to visualize the upcoming terrain and scan for possible threats.

“The Hyper-Enabled Operator” Means Increased Connectivity and Comms

For those that remember then-SOCOM commander Admiral William McRaven’s announcement of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), which was often labeled a real-life “Iron Man” in the press, at SOFIC in 2013, this year’s SOFIC showed off where the program has since gone. Although many of the fantastical design concepts—exoskeletons, power systems, and the like—have not come to fruition, what has come out of it is still remarkable in the field of  distributed communications.

The research that went into the TALOS helmet, including a heads-up display, augmented reality, and dependable communications with built-in cloud-based computing, will continue to be a SOCOM priority under the new “hyper-enabled operator” concept. This means that the individual warfighter of the future will be an increasingly networked asset, demanding bandwidth, individual receivers, and the communications infrastructure to get him the data he needs to fully take advantage of the asymmetrical advantage that his gear can provide him.

Acquisition Reform

Following a trend across the military, SOCOM is looking to simplify the acquisition process. Especially with the groundbreaking new technologies that are coming out of industry partners and special operators’ proclivity to modify commercial equipment to quickly meet their specifications, this is a vital development that will keep warfighters on the cutting edge.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Enablers Stacy Cummings recognized this need on Day 2 of SOFIC, emphasizing that her office’s aim is to reduce “the amount of paperwork and oversight needed to carry out a program,” and make the process of buying capability more flexible, more modular. In turn, she said, that means “we can deliver the faster, we can get them in the hands of the user faster, we can test them faster and we can reuse them when it makes sense across the Department of Defense.”

After all, despite the innovations on display at SOFIC and the benefits they could each have for the warfighter, they do no one in the field any good caught in the bureaucratic process.