TAMPA, Fla. — The leadership of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) said the force and its acquisitions — facing a multitude of hotspots and threats from around the globe — must be more flexible than ever, fueling an increase in research an development funding.
SOCOM's total R&D budget rose from a low of $368 million in 2014 to $538 million in the 2016 budget request — a development USSOCOM acquisition executive Bill James "Hondo" Geurts called "a huge win for us" as the command looks past Mideast-specific technologies for gear for global operations.
While the operational tempo for conventional forces has slowed, SOCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel said his forces are "operating in possibly the most complex strategic environment in recent history."
Recent months have seen an "incredible eruption" in foreign-fighter flow into the Middle East from all over the world in support of the Islamic State group and its affiliates, increasing connections between transnational criminal organizations and violent extremist groups, ISIS-inspired flare ups in Africa and Asia. A resurgent Russia is using special operations forces and information operations, Votel said.
Meanwhile, Ccongressional budget cuts targeting the conventional services, which support SOCOM have had a ripple effect on the command. "Even small changes to their budgets will have an impact on [special operations forces'] ability to meet mission requirements around the globe," Votel said. "These mission requirements are not only numerous, they're absolutely critical."
Geurts said demands on the command are, "expanding exponentially in almost every dimension," from threats, to the number of partners to the speed of operations.
With the R&D funding uptick, the command is exploring a multi-mission tactical unmanned aerial system; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance payload technology improvements, sensitive site exploitation; combat diving and dry deck shelter modernization efforts.
Geurts called the operating environment, "the age of surprise," but added: "We should not be surprised that things are changing quickly. We act surprised when a requirement changes over time or we act surprised when we have to do to a country we didn't think about."
Rather than attempting to predict the next conflict and what precisely is needed to fight in it, Geurts said the acquisitions side must be responsive and "flex quickly between requirements and logistics needs and technology surprises, [which] is our biggest challenge, where I think we are the most vulnerable right now."
In an impassioned statement about the health of his force, Votel acknowledged how vital predictability is to troops' mental health. The command has successfully added processes to better manage and monitor troops, and get help for stress, with some success, which Votel credited to his precedessors.
"We see threats that run the gamut, from non-state actors in very remote locations, non-state actors in urban areas, to state actors operating in a number of different areas, we have a lot we have to do for the nation," Votel said. at a Special Operations Forces Industry Conference here Tuesday.
A 2013 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments reported that those assigned to Special Operations Forces (SOF) units often experience symptoms of PTSD at twice the rate of general purpose units.
"We do feel stress in the force, we do have members who exhibit behaviors that we certainly need to be addressing, so we are certainly paying attention to it, it has my attention," Votel said.
To that end, it had also been important for SOCOM's to managing and prioritize the requirements for special operations forces, because, "We can't do everything," he said. "We have to be smart about where we manage and deploy our forces."