Special Operators Require NextGen Technologies


Defense Dept. photo

U.S. Special Operations Forces operate in an environment of global competition in which strategic adversaries have a refined and calibrated understanding of the threshold that would trigger the nation to take decisive military action. At the operational level of warfare, the United States benchmarks authorities, activities and capabilities to phasing constructs for operational plans.

Adversaries are not limited by the same construct. Daily, adversaries leverage information operations, cyber and space capabilities, unconventional operations and other elements of national power while avoiding the costs and consequences of escalation.

To prevail in this competition, the 2022 National Defense Strategy prioritizes integrated deterrence to recalibrate U.S. adversaries’ risk calculations. In addition, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s recently released “Joint Concept for Competing” emphasizes the need at the strategic level of warfare for the Joint Force to re-posture from reactive operational responses to proactive strategic actions that favor U.S. long-term interests or undermine an adversary’s efforts to pursue their incompatible interests.

In this context, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict and U.S. Special Operations Command are focused on adjustments to optimize SOF’s role in integrated deterrence and campaigning against strategic adversaries. The United States sends these highly trained, highly disciplined men and women into the most complex and dangerous locations around the world to build partnerships, provide unique access and placement to maximize response options for senior leaders and create dilemmas for competitors and adversaries.

In addition, the National Defense Strategy is also a reflection of the Defense Department’s assessment that the future character of war is being shaped by advancements in information operations, cyber activities, space operations and ballistic missile technology. Conflict is expected to spread quickly across the boundaries of geographic combatant commands, increasing the likelihood that it will be transregional, multi-domain and multi-functional.

Therefore, the functional combatant commands — in particular special operations, cyber and space — are working together to leverage their unique global reach, persistence, endurance and responsiveness. SOF often require cyber and space capabilities to sense, understand and visualize their operational environment or to conduct kinetic operations.

Other commands, in turn, rely on their physical access and placement to deliver effects. The objective is to achieve desired effects in the operational domains faster than any adversary.

The national strategies, concept development and analysis of the future character of war are also driving the command’s fiscal year 2024 science-and-technology integrated priority list. The command is focused on “SOF-unique” and “operationally relevant” next-generation technologies for special communications, electronic warfare systems, tailored lethality, human performance optimization and data-enabled personnel.

SOF will need next-generation technical solutions to continue to operate in hostile, denied or politically sensitive environments. They require resilient, survivable and federated networks that are enabled by timely, actionable and mission-assured dissemination of data. They will also need use of indigenous communications; robust encryption methodologies and devices; low probability of intercept or detection with specific solutions for contested area data management; and multi-purpose wireless devices.

With the emphasis on contested and denied operating environments, the command is also focused on electronic warfare systems to collect and identify threat signatures and to create effects to disable or destroy anti-access/area denial targets to enable freedom of maneuver for U.S. forces, with a particular focus on littoral and maritime domains.

Its personnel are also expected to operate in dispersed small units, requiring enhancements to current precision effects and combat lethality capabilities. This will require data networking enhancements to improve the transport of targeting data; precision-guided munitions; next generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support technologies to operate effectively in contested and non-permissive environments; and methods to secure access to buildings, facilities and structures, either remotely or with lower risk to personnel.

True to the SOF value of taking care of its people, the community is focused on improving and increasing their physical and cognitive abilities, including exploring new approaches to achieve the restorative effects of sleep; providing greater mental acuity; developing minimally invasive, alternative or internally powered diagnostic devices to provide actional information on predictors of injury; and identifying technologies to maximize physical performance, including increased endurance and greater tolerance for extreme temperatures and changes in altitude.

Finally, SOF is focused on artificial intelligence, machine learning and edge computing to enable data accessibility, advanced processing and analysis and dissemination of data in contested and disconnected operating environments. The desired end state is to access and quickly process critical data to enhance flexible autonomy, reduce cognitive loading and support timely and actionable insight to inform tactical decision-making.

Ultimately, SOF will need man-portable edge computing solutions to process data from multiple sources and sensors with minimal hardware footprints and power consumption levels, as well as data fusion techniques to interconnect and enrich disparate data streams and dynamic data management. The technical solutions must prioritize movement of data within hybrid cloud, network-connected and network-disconnected environments.

While SOF comprises less than 3 percent of the Joint Force, it accounted for almost 50 percent of deployed U.S. military personnel in the last fiscal year. This reflects the reality that there is no other element of the Joint Force as purposefully designed, trained and employed to shift the center of gravity in preventing conflict in favor of the United States.

The return of great power competition reminds policymakers and the U.S. public of the roots, the core competencies and the value proposition of the entire SOF community. The demand signal will only increase, and their operating environment will become more complex, which is why these next-generation science-and-technology solutions are so essential.

Jennifer Stewart is NDIA’s executive vice president of strategy and policy.

Topics: Emerging Technologies, Special Operations

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