Military Embedded Systems

The future of Special Operations technology as seen at SOF Week 2023


September 08, 2023

Dan Taylor

Technology Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Walking through the corridors of the Tampa Convention Center at SOF Week earlier this year, you couldn’t escape the palpable buzz of innovation. This annual gathering serves as a launchpad for technologies that could potentially shape the future of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and other governmental bodies.

From my front-row seat, two presentations in particular caught my attention, each heralding significant advancements in defense technology: Leslie Babich, the director of the SOFWERX innovation lab, and Jim Smith, head of USSOCOM acquisition.

They both took the stage to discuss some mind-bending projects that are currently underway. Here’s my take on what they presented and what it means for the defense industry.

The SOFWERX Phenomenon

I was particularly impressed by Leslie Babich’s insights into SOFWERX, an innovation lab headquartered in Tampa. Founded in 2015, SOFWERX has the unique mandate to create and maintain a platform dedicated to accelerating technology development for USSOCOM. Over the years, this lab has contracted $116.1 million through 749 purchase orders.

What makes SOFWERX a success story is its commitment to involving smaller contractors in large-scale projects. This inclusion leads to “lightning-fast” contract awards and brings fresh, innovative solutions to the table.

The numbers presented by Babich speak volumes: 668 knowledge transfers, 54 transitions to programs of record, 101 consignments, and 282 validations. For smaller defense contractors, this is a golden opportunity. SOFWERX serves as a go-between that not only offers a window to showcase products but also handles market research and protects intellectual property.

Essentially, it opens doors for technologies to get from the lab to the battleground faster than ever before.

Their Tech Tuesday initiative caught my eye. Launched in May 2020 in response to the pandemic, this program allows contractors to showcase their technologies virtually. With 835 government personnel and 1,036 technologies already in the ecosystem, this is one virtual event that smaller contractors can’t afford to miss.

A New Horizon for Aerial Mobility

The second day of the conference held equal promise. Jim Smith took us on a tour of some extraordinary initiatives. The most ambitious among them? Transforming the MC-130 into a floatplane capable of landing on water. Now, this is no small feat of engineering, but if successful, it could turn the vast expanses of the world’s oceans into potential landing zones, redefining tactical possibilities and presenting substantial strategic challenges to adversaries.

The application of such a capability is huge, particularly for operations in the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility. The goal, as Smith highlighted, is to reduce the military’s dependency on runways.

High-speed, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capabilities are also in the works, in collaboration with DARPA, aiming to tackle the “tyranny of distance” that comes with operating over large bodies of water.

Untethered logistics and ISR

Smith also highlighted the concept of “untethered logistics,” allowing small units to be self-sufficient at the edge, generating their own energy, water, and even manufacturing capabilities. In a world increasingly defined by asymmetric threats, the ability for small units to operate independently is nothing short of game-changing.

Another crucial pillar was next-generation intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). Smith emphasized a three-legged approach combining data from space, cyber, and uncrewed systems. This fusion is designed to provide real-time information at the edge of operations. Given the challenges in contested communications, the need for a balanced approach between broad bandwidth and security is more critical than ever.

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