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TAMPA, FLA. — About 7,000 members of the defense industry, along with hundreds of service members — and plenty of guys with long beards — packed into the Tampa Convention Center last week for the annual Special Operations Industry Conference (SOFIC).
Conferences like this exist in no small part as a venue to roll out the latest “magic” — a term of art for leap-ahead technologies that was tossed around quite a bit here. But they’re also a place where a service attempts to explain itself to itself, and to industry.
In an interesting but palpable shift from previous SOFICs, spec ops commanders mostly looked beyond the ongoing fight in Afghanistan, focusing on the next set of missions across the globe.
Last year, much of the talk focused on possibly sending more forces to Afghanistan. That script was flipped this year, as senior leaders spent much of their time talking about life beyond Afghanistan.
Rear Adm. Sean Pybus, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, dropped the biggest bomb when he announced that the number of SEALs in Afghanistan will be halved by December, a year before the final NATO pullout date.
“Our SEALS have been fighting two land wars for the last decade, and there’s plenty of work back in the maritime environment,” he said. Due to demand signals coming from elsewhere in the world, he said that his SEALs will be “turned to the waters of the Pacific,” as well as the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Guinea and the Arabian Gulf.
The conference, which bucked the recent trend of declining attendance at trade shows, comes at a difficult time for the Pentagon and the defense industry as both struggle to implement a relatively vague and complex national defense strategy while dividing up a tightening budgetary bottom line.
All of the armed services are struggling to reset after 12 years of war while trying to define spending priorities to meet a variety of uncertain and overlapping threats, but SOCOM is doing so while rapidly growing in size and influence.
As the only segment of the Defense Department that is actually growing in both size and capability — its 60,000-odd operators will expand to more than 70,000 in the coming years, and its fiscal 2014 budget request for $12.4 billion is an increase from previous years — the command faces some difficult choices in how it maintains its “specialness” in the coming years of strategic retrenchment.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commander of Army Special Operations Command, said operators are using equipment that reflect a decade’s worth of slugging it out in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan — and that gear likely won’t be a good fit for other theaters.
“Our tools that we have developed for our style of land warfare largely are not relevant,” he said. “What we built to fight in the last two wars is not what we need for the future.”