WASHINGTON — The science and technology arm of U.S. Special Operations Command is investing in edge computing, secure data sharing and other new technologies that it expects will shape the future of warfare against near-peer adversaries.

Components across the Defense Department are trying to lock in emerging capabilities, such as artificial intelligence and new communications technology, that will define the coming decades of war, while divesting legacy tools used in the last 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have to maintain the budget and resources to continue moving forward,” Gen. Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, said in a keynote at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference. Where “we can’t stay is: USSOCOM only does counterterrorism, only does crisis response. We have to develop and make sure we really look at what SOF [special operations forces] can do in competition and what SOF can do in high-end conflict.”

The Pentagon envisions the future battlefield as an interconnected web of sensors that pass data to war fighters, combined with a myriad of emerging technologies including AI/machine learning, mesh networks, advanced waveforms and secure digital tools that allow commanders to make decisions faster.

SOCOM is trying to fill many gaps related that future battlefield, including how to effectively search through its “mountains” of data, move that information across levels of security classifications and communicate across a more complex battle space, Clarke said. Operators will also face threats from adversaries’ unmanned systems, electronic warfare, cyber effects and information warfare, he noted.

“What we must be able to go is not just play defense, but we also have to play offense for our capabilities, our war fighters,” Clarke said. “To meet those challenges we have to innovate to transform our force. Investing in both people and key technologies are going to be essential.”

SOCOM is trying to do so through its science and technology arm’s Hyper-Enabled Operator effort, which aims to outfit operators with access to informative data in austere environments to improve decision-making, giving them a so-called cognitive advantage. In fiscal 2020, the Hyper-Enabled Operator project had a $16 million budget, according to a presentation at the event from Lisa Sanders, SOCOM director of science and technology.

That project has transitioned some technologies to acquisition program offices. According to Sanders, that effort needs advanced data analytics on the battlefield, voice-to-voice language translation, and beyond-line-of-sight communications with high bandwidth if satellite communication is unavailable.

Sanders said that one beyond-line-of-sight communications project transitioned to SOCOM’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, while an integrated situational awareness tool moved over to PEO Special Reconnaissance to support a program of record.

She also said the program has a “big focus” on edge computing, or the ability to process data on the battlefield without sending it thousands of miles back to a data center, as well as natural language processing, which would allow computers and humans communicate better.

SOCOM’s Network and Data Management Capability Focus Area is looking for secure artificial intelligence capabilities, Sanders said, specifically focused on trust between machine-to-machine connections.

“Any sort of fused environment, being able to know that that information is secure, is important,” Sanders said. “Data integrity is important for us. So those are areas that we’re seeking additional work.”

The S&T director also said SOCOM has shortfalls in nonkinetic effects, such as information operations, electronic warfare and cyber, adding “we’re looking for projects coming to us that have those kinds of capabilities.” According to the presentation from Sanders, the Next-Generation Effects CFA wants to more than double its Next-Generation Effect Budget to $35 million in fiscal 2022.

The command’s Next Generation Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance focus area will center in on improving situational awareness. Sanders said a significant part of that involves space and what Special Operations-specific payloads the command needs to maintain situational awareness.

“Our gaps are really about how do I take the capability that I’ve learned to expect in the last 20 years of war and make them tactical, and make them not require you to go back to the to the analyst and not have an army of analysts to determine what’s coming off of one set of [data] feeds,” Sanders said.

Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.

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