Socom Strives to Meet Current, Future Operator Requirements
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
TAMPA, Fla., May 29, 2013 Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, is quick to point out what he calls one of the special operations forces’ most universal truths -- that “people are more important than hardware.”
U.S. Special Operations Command works to ensure operators have the tools they need not only for today’s missions, but also for those they will confront in the future. Here, a special operations forces member attached to Special Operations Task Force Southeast fires an AT-4 shoulder-fired rocket launcher on the heavy weapons firing range at a base in the Tarin Kowt district of Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, Aug. 22, 2012. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class James Ginther
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But as the military’s most elite commandos take on some of the most challenging missions around the globe, McRaven said, he’s committed to ensuring they have everything they need to succeed.
“It is my job to provide [geographic combatant commanders and chiefs of mission] the best special operations force in the world,” he told Congress earlier this year.
The broad range of special operations missions -- from dramatic raids like the one that took down Osama bin Laden to lower-profile training missions designed to build partner nation capacity -- demands the best “enabling capabilities” possible, he said.
Special operators require many of the same enablers as their conventional-force brethren: mobility, lethality, situational awareness provided by intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and survivability, McRaven said. But due to the unique nature of their missions -- often highly sensitive and conducted with little notice -- they also have unique equipment and service requirements, he added.
Congress recognized that when establishing Socom in 1987, James Cluck, the command’s acquisition executive, told American Forces Press Service. So as part of the initial legislation, Congress granted the new command special acquisition authorities that enable it to respond directly -- and more quickly -- to its operators’ needs.
More than 25 years later, Socom remains the only U.S. combatant command with these authorities. The others, with forces from all four services, have to work through three different service acquisition systems to satisfy their requirements.
“Here, we have it all under one system, and we have one commander vetting and deciding what we are going to field and what the priority is going to be,” Cluck said. “So the benefit is immense.”
Cluck was quick to note broad misconceptions about Socom’s acquisition function. “We have to follow the same rules and laws as everybody else does, and we are subject to the same policies as the rest of the department,” he said.
What’s different, Cluck said, is that Socom typically takes the larger, big-ticket systems the military services develop -- aircraft, vehicles, vessels and weapons systems, among them -- and adapts them for its operators’ needs.
One example is the new CV-22 Osprey aircraft developed by the Navy and Air Force that Socom is modifying for its uses. Socom also has contracted to modify seven additional CH-60 helicopters into special-operations-capable MH-60 models during fiscal year 2013.
“Clearly the mission for a special operator is different than that of a conventional operator,” Cluck said. Stealthy infiltrations, for example, require aircraft able to fly at lower altitudes and speeds, with the necessary terrain-following radars to support those missions.
“I am not building an airplane from the ground up, and going through all the oversights and testing aspects that go into that,” Cluck said. “What I do is get that aircraft from the service and then modify it to our requirements.”
This process, even with the associated developmental and operational testing, significantly reduces the time it takes to field the capability, he said.
And for requirements not already in the conventional forces’ inventory, Socom has authority to buy them off the shelf, or it can contact industry to develop them, he said.
For the most part, the systems Socom develops itself are lower-cost than the major systems fielded by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. Despite strict oversight requirements that apply to all Defense Departments acquisitions, they aren’t subject to the level of scrutiny associated with major DOD acquisition programs, thus avoiding resultant delays.
Socom currently is selecting the source for a new ground mobility vehicle that’s lighter and easier to transport by helicopter than the Humvee. The command recently awarded two prototyping contracts for foreign shipyards to build a class of submersible combat vehicles, and expects delivery of the first craft by the end of fiscal 2014.
In addition, Socom recently awarded a contract to Remington to develop a new precision sniper rifle.
“What we are looking for is, ‘What is the next technology to allow our folks to be able to operate even better?’” Cluck said.
But another big factor in streamlining Socom’s acquisition process is access to all the key players. That includes the operators themselves, the special operations acquisition community that supports them and the decision-makers empowered to give a proposal a yea or nay.
“One of the big advantages for us is that we are all here in one place,” said Cluck, who’s assigned to Socom’s headquarters staff and the Special Operations Research, Development, and Acquisition Center at MacDill Air Force Base here.
“You generally can’t say that about the services,” in which acquisition authorities and responsibilities commonly cross multiple senior-level organizations spread across multiple states, he said.
Being on one campus gives Cluck direct reach across the organization and promotes immediate responses and close interaction, he said. Everyone associated with a project -- from establishing requirements to contracting out projects and overseeing their progress -- works together under one roof.
“We can rapidly make a decision, because we have processes in the headquarters that if a [theater special operations command] or an operational component have an immediate combat or mission requirement, we can meet and make a decision on that need within days,” Cluck said. “If the command validates a requirement, we are rapidly able to move through our contracting processes to satisfy that.”
Members of the Acquisition Center are cautioned against “falling in love with a requirement” when it makes sense to field the “80-percent solution,” Cluck said. They also understand when it’s necessary to shift gears or to abandon a program altogether when priorities or requirements change.
“We need to listen to what the operational demands are and respond to the priorities the command establishes in a budgeting sense to meet those demands,” Cluck said.
“The entire Acquisition Center has a focus on the operator and the requirement, … recognizing that whatever they need us to do is what we are going to put our talents against,” he said.