USSOCOM and open architecturesStory
June 21, 2022
Enthusiastic crowds were a theme at each show I attended over the last six months, as folks were eager to be back among their defense industry colleagues, clients, and partners. None were more excited than attendees at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida, a show put on by the National Defense Industries Association (NDIA). Navigating the exhibition aisles of that show was like trying to walk through a crowded bar, as this was SOFIC’s first in-person get-together since 2019.
The show is always an excellent event, with impressive capability demos of operators performing high-altitude/low-opening (HALO) jumps, rappelling from helicopters to board a vessel, and other dangerous-looking performances. The audience was crowded outside for all of it.
I actually find the press briefing on acquisition strategy early in the week the most informative part of the show, which makes sense considering the nature of this magazine. This year’s briefing was no different, as it covered open architectures, leveraging commercial technology for special operations applications, and AI [artificial intelligence] strategies.
Regarding open architectures, Jim Smith, Acquisition Executive for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), told me: “It’s embedded in our acquisition strategy and the reason for that is that SOCOM being a joint force needs to be interoperable with the [other services].”
SOCOM also has concerns about open architectures interacting with the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) process, in terms of how it will work with SOCOM mission command system, he added.
Smith said that SOCOM quite likes the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) Technical Standard, especially for what it means for counter-UAS [unmanned aircraft system] applications. The system is designed to deal with multiple threats and will need an open architecture that can work with more than one sensor, he added.
As a follow-up, I asked, “As SOCOM has a faster acquisition pace than the other services, are you worried that their slower process will impact interoperability?” He paused, smiled, and said, "At Special Ops, we like to set a trail for technology [innovation].”
He added that SOCOM continues to work at getting technology more quickly to operators in the field through efforts like the SOFWERX platform, a partnership between DefenseWerx and SOCOM that works with industry to provide rapid prototyping of new technology. The number of items developed through SOFWERX rapid prototyping is in the double digits, Smith says. According to the SOFWERX website (www.sofwerx.org) the organization also sponsors science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) efforts at universities.
This is an opportunity space for SOCOM in the digital domain, as solutions leveraged by special operators’ solutions frequently end up adopted by other services. “As long as we adhere to open architectures, we will set the pace for how DoD does that.”
There is a distinction between what SOFWERX does and what the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) does, as DIU is more of a technology scout, finding opportunities for government investment and emerging tech, Smith continued. SOFWERX is more about bringing ideas into USSOCOM, for the rest of SOF to do partially what DIU does. “Many of the [technology solutions] they set the pace for are things we are now working with in SOCOM.
“We are reaching out to nontraditional companies at SOFWERX [those who are not a typical defense contractor],” he continued. “While there are contractual language limits on what [these companies] are allowed to say in the public domain, they can make a big splash to say they work with USSOCOM. We have a good control of info released to the public space so it does not add operational risk to our commanders.
“I don’t think government has to be the system integrator,” he continued. “In the case of mission command, if you get the right partners under the tent, it is a good way to set the standards up front.”
Another commercial capability innovation Smith says he would like to get into operators’ hands is artificial intelligence (AI).
“My view of AI is that it is basically helping operators make better decisions. The [Special Operations Forces (SOF)] AI solution would take disparate data and form it into useful information and deliver it to a small, disconnected team at the edge. This is where the SOF aspect of AI is. We can’t assume our small teams will have access to the cloud (not persistent access at least). We need to look at how we leverage AI algorithms at the edge to enable our operators to make decisions better. Our operators are very comfortable with technology. We [also] need to improve the fidelity of how we present information to the user.”
For more on how AI speeds up decision-making in military applications, see my interview with John Canipe of SparkCognition Government Systems on page 26.