Trade Show Offers Peek Inside Secretive U.S. Special Operations Forces

U.S. and Romanian Special Forces train Afghan Provincial Response Company, Laghman Province, Feb. 9,  2012. David Axe photo.

U.S. and Romanian Special Forces train Afghan Provincial Response Company, Laghman Province, Feb. 9, 2012. David Axe photo.


The Special Operations Industry Conference in Tampa last week offered a rare glimpse inside the powerful, and growing, U.S. commando community. The three-day conference, jointly hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association and U.S. Special Operations Command, included presentations by senior special operators and bureaucrats and equipment demonstrations and displays by the military and industry. Among the disclosures:

Special Forces Census

There are 66,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces including U.S. Army Rangers and Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Marine operators, Air Force commandos and others, according to SOCOM chief Adm. Bill McRaven. Of those 66,000 operators, around 13,000 are deployable at any one time. The cost to equip the operators totals $2.5 billion per year, according to SOCOM weapons buyer Jim Cluck.

The “Frayed” Force

Since 2001 U.S. Special Operations Forces have been on the front lines of conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Central Africa, among others. McRaven’s predecessor, Adm. Eric Olson, famously described the commando force as “frayed” by repeated deployments, deaths, injuries and combat stress. “Frayed … that’s the right word,” McRaven commented at SOFIC. “If you’ve been in this war any amount of time, you’ve been affected.” McRaven said he and his senior officers and NCOs are paying close attention to operators’ stress levels.

Media Relations

Responding to criticism that too many U.S. special operations are disclosed to the press, McRaven stressed that the vast majority of ops remain classified. Still, “we are in age of 24-hour media,” McRaven said. “We’ve got to learn to deal with it.” In the balance, “I’m comfortable where we are in the media today,” he added. “It’s sporting.”

Gunship Bomber

The showroom floor at SOFIC included displays by scores of defense contractors, featuring many of the latest weapons, vehicles, robots and communications gear tailored for Special Operations Forces. L3’s display described ongoing weapons modifications to the Air Force’s MC-130W infiltrator planes. In addition to previously installed gun armament, the MC-130s are receiving bomb racks and computer interfaces for 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, a type of winged, guided glide bomb. The mods transform the once-unarmed MC-130s into “pseudo-gunships” only slightly less powerfully-armed than the Air Force’s purpose-built AC-130 gunships.

Bobbing River ‘Bots

Qinetiq displayed its “riverine drifter” robot alongside a host of other systems. The drifter looks like a glass ball stuffed with machinery. Drop the drifter into a river and it bobs with the current for a day or longer, sucking up data on depths, currents and other water conditions and beaming them back to the operator. The drifter comes in two sizes — 2.5 and 5 pounds — and each costs under $10,000, according to a company rep, adding tha the Army uses them to find river crossings in Afghanistan.

Polar  Comms

More than one Special Operations Forces officer at SOFIC highlighted the need for radios that work at high or low latitudes. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Repass, commander of American special operators in Europe, explained that satellite communications rely on fixed, equatorial spacecraft that cannot reliably cover polar regions such as the Arctic and the Koreas. For extreme latitudes, troops must rely on traditional High Frequency radios. But those can be tracked, said Army Brig. Gen. Neil Tolley, commander of special operators in South Korea. Tolley said his troops need a more “discrete” HF antenna that can’t be easily tracked.


Guests at SOFIC included commandos from no fewer than 90 countries, McRaven said. The event’s theme was “Building the Global SOF Partnership.” “If we’ve learned one thing … it’s that we in the SOF community cannot do this alone.” To that end, Repass described efforts to design “universal” command and control systems allowing troops from different countries to share data. As a demonstration of international cooperation, special operators from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Colombia and other nations conducted mock raids on the convention center grounds, complete with weapons firing blanks and controlled pyrotechnic explosions.

This entry was posted in David Axe, English, Technology.

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