The National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) recently hosted its 26th annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) Symposium and Exhibition. The three day event hosted several notable speakers including: General Joseph L. Votel - Commander of US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Lieutenant General Michael T. Flynn (Ret.) - former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Lieutenant General Marshall B. Webb, Commander - NATO Special Operations Headquarters. The event covered topics such as the challenges related to combating ISIL and a more assertive Russia, as well the increasing demand for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and the growing desire for commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies.
The threat posed by ISIL was at the centerpiece of many discussions between SO/LIC event speakers and panelists. General Votel stated that at least 19,000 foreign fighters have surged into Iraq and Syria from over 90 countries. Votel further added that SOCOM has been closely observing ISIL’s operations in North Africa. Similarly, Lieutenant General Flynn offered a stark appraisal of the threat posed by ISIL, and cautioned that the ongoing international effort to defeat the group would likely last decades.
Despite the heavy emphasis on combating terrorism at the symposium, the rise in Russian military activity in the Arctic and Eastern Europe was also a frequent discussion topic for General Votel:
“A resurgent Russia is now employing coercive techniques against its neighbor using [special operations] forces, other clandestine capabilities, information operations, other cyber operations and groupings of ethnic proxies and surrogates to drive wedges into our key allies in East Europe…it is important for us to engage and understand what is happening out there and understand the spaces in which they can begin to assert some of their influence.”
RQ-21A Blackjack. Image Credit: US Navy
To combat the wide range of threats to American interests, Votel called for increased Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities from additional UAVs. SOCOM already operates a wide assortment of UAVs, including the RQ-21A Blackjack, RQ-7 Shadow, Viking 400, MQ-1 Predator, and MQ-9 Reaper (Hoffman & Schechter, 2013). Votel indicated that SOCOM would continue to invest in UAV technology, and would work with industry on future projects (Magnuson, 2015). Michael Dumont, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict, also stressed SOCOM’s growing interest in incorporating COTS technology as a means to maintain a technologically superior force:
“Many of our adversaries have acquired, developed and even stolen technologies that have put them on somewhat equal footing with the West in a range of areas…Recognizing this future direction requires understanding the current reality: The US government no longer has the leading edge developing its own leading-edge capabilities, particularly in information technology”
Dumont also discussed broader DoD wide measures to ensure the Military’s technological superiority, such as Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work’s “Third Offset Strategy” and Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall’s “Better Buying Power 3.0”. This new technological offset strategy, in tandem with Better Buying Power 3.0, is meant to secure the technological edge of US forces under a constrained fiscal environment. Both Votel and Dumont also discussed the difficulties of maintaining a high level of operational readiness under sequestration. However, even in the midst of sequestration, SOCOM’s budget has been relatively stable when compared to other portions of the DoD’s budget. Marcus Weisgerber recently examined SOCOM’s FY 2015 budget, which accounted for 1.8% of the DoD’s base and overseas contingency operations (OCO) budget, at $10 billion. The figure does not include the personnel costs of the 70,000 operators under SOCOM or major equipment and weapon procurements which are covered under the budgets of the individual armed services.