For years, the Pentagon has been looking to maintain its competitive edge over its near-peer competitors by outfitting U.S. troops with the best technology out there.
The U.S. Special Operations Command, known as SOCOM, has been a pioneer in this effort, often providing real-world testing for various weapon systems and technology that eventually is widely distributed among conventional forces.
This effort stalled amid decades of fighting technologically inferior enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the return of great-power competition, this time with China and Russia, has brought the need for technological superiority to the fore.
Central to this push for tech is SOCOM’s Hyper Enabled Operator program, known as HEO.
SOCOM has already experimented with equipping commandos with advanced weaponry and sensors. In 2013, the command introduced the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS.
TALOS was an Iron Man-style exoskeleton meant to give special operators several advantages over adversaries. The program was canceled after a few futile years, but the concept lives on in the HEO.
New Technology for New Threats
The HEO program is designed to equip special operators with the technology necessary to understand what is going on around them without impairing their ability to fight or creating cognitive dissonance.
According to SOCOM acquisition officials, the HEO seeks to create commandos whose decision-making is aided by data analytics, creating cognitive overmatch and, among other things, ensuring real-time situational awareness — knowledge of what’s going on around you — and connectivity with other operators, tactical commanders, and even headquarters.
“SOCOM’s HEO program may well become the most important program in the SOF community in light of the Pentagon’s shift from Afghanistan and counterterrorism to great-power competition,” Herm Hasken, a partner and senior operations consultant at MarkPoint Technologies, told Insider.
“I would envision small-unit SOF teams providing persistent and continuous access” during initial operations meant to shape the perceptions of opponents and bystanders in “gray spaces” or those between competition and conflict, added Hasken, who has extensive experience with special operations and the intelligence community.
Such operations will yield “insight into near-peer military critical infrastructure. This is to respond to near-peer anti-access/[area]-denial strategies through major lines of communication, particularly in the Pacific Region,” Hasken said.
Anti-access/area-denial, or A2/AD, weapon systems are meant to create “bubbles” around strategic areas so rival forces, such as U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, won’t be able to approach.
U.S. strategists are particularly worried about Russian A2/AD systems across Eastern Europe and Chinese A2/AD systems across the western Pacific.
In a testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year, Gen. Richard Clarke, the SOCOM commander, stressed the need to deploy cutting-edge technology to special operators both for offensive and defensive reasons.
For the former, SOCOM wants its commandos to be able to or “see and sense the battlefield” without losing a step. For the latter, SOCOM wants to reduce their digital and electronic presence to make it harder for adversaries or their proxies to target U.S. operators.
“Our [HEO] initiatives seek to accelerate gains in our ability to provide power, protection, and force projection at the tactical edge,” Clarke said at the hearing.
An additional feature is the ability to communicate with locals and partner forces through an advanced talk-to-translate device, removing the need for an interpreter. With special operators already deployed in scores of countries, this will greatly increase their effectiveness in dealing with locals and winning them over.
For example, a Special Forces operational detachment deployed in Kenya to train local forces and conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Shabaab could use certain sensors and communications devices to collect information and “atmospherics” on Chinese troops or activities nearby.
Any data collected would be quickly processed and analyzed, informing both the special operators’ mission in the country and the Pentagon’s planning back in the United States.
Getting the Right Gear on Time
The acquisition process is a big part of the HEO program. Technology is evolving fast, and SOCOM doesn’t have the luxury to be too bureaucratic when it comes to cutting-edge systems that special operations troops need in the field.
There doesn’t need to be an open conflict for special operators to deploy overseas, and they often encounter competitors or their proxies in third countries.
“SOCOM continues to look at multiple means by which new technologies can be introduced to the command for evaluation,” Hasken said, advocating “the immediate establishment” of a proving ground that can develop and evaluate electronic-warfare, information-warfare, and cyber-warfare technologies to support special operations forces’ core missions.
“This will also require the ability to move beyond just adjustments in procurement. It also requires a thorough examination of other obstacles,” added Hasken, who spent time at the National Security Agency as SOCOM’s chief cryptologist.
A lot of these systems already exist in the private sector. U.S. military commanders have been making greater use of off-the-shelf technology, and companies like MarkPoint have sought to develop new commercial technologies to fill capability gaps for special operations and cyber communities.
SOCOM’s establishment of the Joint Acquisition Task Force is a step in the right direction, but Hasken said it also needs resources that will allow it to accelerate its ability to design and test prototype tools and send them into the field for further evaluation and integration.
This article was written by Stavros Atlamazoglou and originally published on the Insider.