On the Move: US Special Forces soldiers practice off-road maneuvers with light tactical all-terrain vehicles at Fort Bliss, Texas. (US Army)
In August 2012, a few dozen civilian contractors and government employees gathered in an office building in Crystal City, Va., just outside of Washington, to conduct a nine-day experiment on using social media and other open-source information databases for intelligence-gathering purposes.
Funded by US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and dubbed “Quantum Leap,” the experiment “was successful in identifying strategies and techniques for exploiting open sources of information, particularly social media,” an after-action report obtained by Secrecy News and released in August stated.
This effort to exploit Big Data was short-lived, however, according to a SOCOM spokesman. In a statement, SOCOM’s Ken McGraw said Quantum Leap was “a very small, little-known, inconsequential experiment that was defunded” after that first experiment in Virginia.
Still, the effort might strike some as being a bit of a reach for a command that most think of as being door-kickers or low-key advisers for local forces in some of the dustier precincts of the world.
But with an end strength soon to reach 72,000 — up from 33,000 in 2001 — and missions in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly in their rear-view mirror, the Tampa, Fla.-based command is looking for ways to continue its counterterrorism mission in a manner that doesn’t necessarily involve thousands of operators on the ground working out of fixed positions.
Part of the new effort involves what SOCOM Commander Vice Adm. William McRaven calls the “Global SOF Network” — a program that would try to build on the years of partnered operations between US, NATO and other partner special operations units in Afghanistan, and which would allow for the sharing of intelligence while keeping the lines of communication open across borders.
The program is still very much at the talking stage, and critics in Congress and elsewhere have already pushed back against some of the additional funding streams that McRaven has requested.
But the command is also trying to modernize its ground and air assets, even while awaiting the budget bite from sequestration that will begin to hit later this fiscal year.
And where SOCOM has been most active over the past two months has been on the ground. In August, SOCOM awarded General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems a contract worth at least $562 million for its long-awaited Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1 (GMV) program.
The program will be key to how operators move around on deployments, and the command has said it wants to buy 1,297 GMVs to replace its 1,072 AM General-made Humvee variants. SOCOM had already planned to spend about $24 million on the program in fiscal 2014 for the first 101 vehicles, at $245,000 per vehicle.
The award was bad news for fellow competitors AM General and Navistar International, both of whom are looking for new programs to make up for the lack of Humvee and mini-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle work now that the wartime buying spree is over. Oshkosh Defense had already been eliminated from the competition in January, after which it filed a protest that was withdrawn in April.
When announcing the award, the government also said it plans to spend about $14 million in already allocated fiscal 2012 and 2013 budgets for research, test and evaluation on the GMV program.
Deliveries of the GMVs are expected to be complete by September 2020.
In late September, SOCOM awarded General Dynamics another contract for the Internally Transportable Vehicle (ITV), an even smaller vehicle that can fit inside a CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft along with several operators and is capable of opening up with its weapons within a minute of exiting the aircraft.
Funding for that program will kick off in the 2015 budget, and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) will begin doing combat evaluations of prototypes in 2014.
While there are no details for how large the ITV program will be, given that AFSOC plans to buy 50 CV-22s by the end of 2015 and the Navy placed an order for 99 more Ospreys in June for use by the Marine Corps — a service itching to get back to its smaller, faster, more expeditionary roots — there is potential for more sales in the future.
Internationally, the Osprey is also headed to Israel — which bought six of the birds — while Boeing officials have said that they’ve had discussions with countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Singapore and others about buying the Bell-Boeingplatform.
On Sept. 30, SOCOM also said it had awarded Boeing a $50 million contract to perform upgrades on its MH-6 Mission Enhanced Little Bird helicopter fleet, starting with $5.3 million in fiscal 2013 funds. Boeing representatives did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but the work would help equip the light attack helicopter with next-generation technologies.
SOCOM is taking a hard look at upgrading fixed- and rotary-wing assets as well. The 2014 budget request asks for $20 million to produce an upgraded version of the Precision Strike Package on AC-130J gunships, as well as $10 million to fund an Enhanced Situational Awareness program for AC/MC-130J aircraft.
The command also asked for $2 million to start an electronic warfare and radio-frequency countermeasures program for the 130J to provide it with enhanced defensive capabilities.