Beyond Afghanistan: Adm. William McRaven, head of US Special Operations Command, focused on new technologies at this year's Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida. (AFP/Getty Images)
TAMPA, FLA. — For the past several years, the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference has been about the impending transition from Afghanistan to other, less defined areas. That discussion was spearheaded by the hard-charging head of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Adm. William McRaven, who was radically revamping his command structure.
The message this year was quite different, as McRaven had already won the bureaucratic fight in Washington over coordinating his theater special operations commands. His victory, despite early misgivings on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon, ensures that McRaven can now link all of his commanders across the globe as they carry out missions ordered by the Pentagon’s combatant commanders, which will allow his leaders to better coordinate activities and share intelligence.
The admiral was so beyond talking about these fights that when kicking off the industry-focused conference, he simply tossed away his prepared speech and jumped right into the question-and-answer session with industry representatives.
In one striking moment, he audibly sighed when a reporter asked about Afghanistan, insisting that he wasn’t here to talk about the war, but instead answer questions that industry reps had about requirements for new technologies.
While he had nothing particularly new to offer on Afghanistan since Washington is still waiting for the country’s next president to sign the bilateral security agreement, McRaven called his top acquisition executive, James Geurts, up on stage with him to answer questions.
One of the technologies that McRaven is most excited about is the tactical assault light operator suit (TALOS), which is popularly being called — to the supreme annoyance of SOCOM officials — the “Iron Man suit.” It could be deployed as soon as 2018.
The TALOS system is being developed by a team of almost 100 industry, academic and military partners working on a vision of an independently powered armored suit that may include an exoskeleton. SOCOM and the development teams are working through a “rapid prototyping session” that will wrap up in June.
McRaven said the program isn’t as “blue sky” as one might think, since it comes from a very real need.
What drove the program “was the fact that we lost an operator in Afghanistan and I had a mid-grade officer come to me and say how come after all of these years of war we haven’t been able to build something that can protect that SOF operator as soon as he goes through the door?” McRaven said.
“And I didn’t have an answer.”
SOCOM relies heavily on the services for much of its standard equipment, but it also must develop specialized kits, leading the command to focus on quickly fielded, high-impact gear.
“Our system isn’t better than the services, it’s just different” Geurts said. “It’s aligned to our problem set. We’re not good at 10-year programs — that’s what the services are good at.”
Unmanned systems and ISR equipment was a major topic of conversation in Tampa, especially now that operators will begin to focus more on areas outside of Afghanistan.
“There’s just an insatiable desire for ISR,” said Lt. Col. Lou Ruscetta, head of the manned ISR and non-standard aviation systems office at SOCOM. “That need’s not going to go down, it’s just going to be refocused into all the stuff that we’re not doing now, and into operational environments that don’t have the infrastructure that the US has been able to build up in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Even as forces operate in more austere environments, they’re going to have to rely more and more on long-dwell ISR capability, Geurts said, and he’s agnostic as to whether those platforms are manned or unmanned.
McRaven agreed, adding that “I’m not sure I care what the platform is, and I don’t think the operators do. They just need the information.” ■