Armada launches its new Stirling column providing the latest news and developments in the Special Forces community. Named after David Stirling, the founder of the Special Air Service, we hope he would have enjoyed it.
Despite ongoing operations on land involving Special Operations Forces (SOF), most notably in the Iraq and Syria theatres, directed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria insurgent organisation, attentions continue to be focused on maritime SOF operations around the world. This could see increased government backing around the world regarding the design, development and procurement of specialist technology and equipment.
The US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and its sub-component, the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Command which controls the country’s US Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, Land) Teams is responding to such concerns. On 23 July, the NSW completed a consultation regarding a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA), a US government solicitation for research and development assistance, as opposed to specific products or capabilities, to address future ‘Expeditionary and Naval Special Warfare Capability Challenges’. According to the solicitation, the NSW seeks to identify technologies that “enhance and/or accelerate military capabilities which directly address expeditionary warfare and Naval Special Warfare capability challenges by meeting urgent/emergent operational needs.”
Seeking to adopt selected technologies via urgent operational requirements within a two-year timeframe, the NSW added: “The projected annual cost must be less than $1 million per project and involve efforts … which will include a technical demonstration in order to expedite technology transition from the laboratory to operational use.” Reflecting demands from contemporary theatres, as potential future operations, the BAA-triggered NSW focus concentrates on four key areas including mine warfare,; naval special warfare, expeditionary pre-positioning and logistics, and navy expeditionary combat.
Mine warfare requirements consider technology allowing maritime SOF to detect and engage sea mine with improved detection sensors, automatic target recognition, computer-aided detection and computer aided classification, real-time data transfer of high definition sonar data, and Beyond Line of Sight (BLoS) communications, to handle large volumes of sonar data plus Command and Control (C2) direction for off-board platforms performing mine countermeasures work. Additionally, the NSW has been considering other technologies capable of extending the capabilities of off-board sensor platforms such as Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs) dedicated to mine warfare. One example of such technology is Swiftships’ development of its autonomous Anaconda Special Operations Craft Riverine (SOCR) high-speed SOF vessel which began phase two of its development on 2 August 2016. Having lost out on a USSOCOM solicitation to US Marine, to provide the NSW with a SOCR capability, Swiftships made the decision to develop the platform into an unmanned vessel. The company has announced a strategic partnership with ICS Nett to focus on developing a “complete autonomy” solution for the SOCR as well as a test and evaluation programme to replicate relevant operational environments where such a craft could be employed in the future.
Speaking to Armada, a Swiftships’ spokesperson explained how the Anaconda SOCR boat’s remote controls would be updated to enable the use of satellite navigation: “The current Anaconda model lacks closed loop data from the boat that is needed to adjust control actions; to combat this, an additional sensor interface will be equipped to transmit relevant boat data back to the operator console as necessary.” Maritime SOF sources explained to Armada how such an USV could be used for a variety of tasks including stand-off command and control, fire support, troop insertion and extraction, maritime interdiction, and mine warfare inspections.
NSW and Logistics
The second NSW BAA (see above) focuses on naval special warfare and the identification of technologies to improve multi-intelligence (which can gather imagery and electronic intelligence, for example) and multi-spectral (which can gather infrared and visual imagery, for example) sensors to provide enhanced situational awareness to operators as well as to manned and unmanned surface and sub-surface platforms. According to the BAA, NSW is also considering solutions to optimise technology used at dusk and dawn, as well as low profile (discreet), multi-spectral, and multi-sensor capabilities;, able to connect to existing maritime platforms C2 systems.
NSW’s third area of interest refers to the growing importance of expeditionary pre-positioning and logistics challenges, which the BAA explained, comprised demand for equipment allowing for more efficient distribution from the sea base to the individual user. “Technology that is a robust, highly mobile automated information technology system with total asset visibility and assured receipt confirmation in order to provide a (holistic) view of the entire logistics chain accessible to small units of distributed, highly mobile force,” is a key NSW requirement.
On 19 August 2016, the USSOCOM released a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the renewal of the Special Operations Forces Global Logistics Support Services (SOF GLSS) contract, currently being executed by Lockheed Martin. This encompasses a ten-year programme to support special operations globally, a USSOCOM spokesperson explained to Armada. Following the publication of a draft RFP in April 2016, bidders including Lockheed Martin, L-3 and CACI are expecting to respond to the solicitation with the Command expected to select a preferred partner in the third quarter of 2017. The contract itself would not begin until 2018, it was added.
The GLSS contract will encompass a wide range of support solutions for the USSOCOM including maintenance and sustainment services, with the winning bidder reporting directly to the Programme Executive Office for Special Operations Forces Support Activity. Specific requirements will include support of design and development contracts, disposal of platforms and systems, support of aircraft and platform lifecycles as well as modifications and critical infrastructure support, according to Lockheed Martin sources. Speaking to Armada, Paul Lemmo, senior vice president for corporate strategy and business development at the firm, described how the contract would continue to be a critical element of USSOCOM’s capabilities. “The operational tempo for USSOCOM has really grown with a significant number of actions presented by SOF,” he said referring to the speed and agility required to fulfil such requirements in line with USSOCOM demands. As an example, Mr. Lemmo highlighted how such “high velocity” requirements would generally need to be administered within ten days, compared to more conventional requirements which could be satisfied within 30 to 90 days.
The final element of the NSW’s BAA encompasses naval expeditionary combat and technologies that are capable of improving the soldier’s ability to interact with target populations, identify threat activities, solve complex problems and adapt to situations faster than an adversary. Specifically, areas of interest include technologies which can ‘enhance’ naval construction, disaster preparation and recovery efforts; the ability to allow operators to better analyse and handle foreign and domestic explosives, counter explosive hazards, including Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and underwater mines. The NSW is also seeking technologies which can optimise operations in littoral and riverine environments including maritime security operations, high value asset defence and escort, protection of critical maritime infrastructure, and the conduct of offensive combat operations.
Arguably the most notable of SOF insertion programmes for maritime operations is the USSOCOM Dry Combat Submersible (DCS) concept which aims to design and develop a next-generation miniature submarine for US Navy SEALs. In July 2016, reports emerged of a $166 million contract with Lockheed Martin for the provision of three such platforms capable of carrying between six and eight operators, and used for covert insertion and extraction to and from areas of operation.
Used widely by SOF and combat diver units, such craft can be deployed submerged from submarine dry docks allowing special operations teams to remain undetected ahead of beach landings, for example. However, confidential sources informed Armada that this latest DCS would have to be launched and recovered by surface vessels. According to USSOCOM sources, the trio of DCSs will be delivered to the Command in 2018 as part of a Joint Urgent Operational Need.
The DCS contract aims to provide a “dry environment, diver lock-in/lock-out, undersea mobility capability”. The latest DCS iteration comprises a variant of Lockheed Martin’s S301 commercial submarine which displaces 30 tons. The electric motor driven vessel is capable of diving down to a depth of 57 metres (190 feet) with a maximum operational range of 60 nautical miles (60 kilometres). The vessel features two topside hatches from which SEALs can extract themselves when wearing personal diving equipment to approach target areas or drop-off sites although the vessel’s protection remains highly classified. DCS craft will also allow SEAL teams to covertly approach ships, harbours and other infrastructure.
Additional options are being offered to the maritime SOF community from STIDD Military whose range of products includes the Diver Propulsion Device (DPD) and Multi-Role Combatant Craft (MRCC). STIDD’s DPD is currently in service with undisclosed SOF globally as well as the NSW as an underwater mobility platform. The DPD provides operators with the capability to deploy down to an operating depth of 80m (262ft) submerged. It is available in Standard, Extended Range (ER) and Dual Thruster configurations with the ER variant reliant on higher capacity lithium-ion batteries allowing the craft to double its undisclosed range. Meanwhile, the Dual Thruster model allows users to deploy at increased speed and range with the integration of two redundant propulsion systems, meaning this particular variant is capable of travelling up to a third faster than other models. All models, however, have the capability to tow up to three or four combat divers behind them as well as their associated personal equipment, STIDD officials explained to Armada.
Elsewhere, STIDD’s MRCC comprises a medium-sized, rigid hull, multi-purpose maritime platform capable of being operated as a surface vessel as well as a semi-submerged and fully submerged platform. According to STIDD, the MRCC is manufactured with marine grade aluminium and composite materials allowing the craft to extend endurance and at higher speeds with additional cargo compared to previous designs. The vessel can be launched and recovered from “multiple ship, aircraft and land” platforms, the company added, as well as being airdropped from aircraft including Lockheed Martin C-130 family turboprop and Boeing C-17A Globesmaster-III turbofan freighters. According to STIDD, operators and combat divers being inserted into an area of operation can be trained within two weeks to operate the MRCC. Due to its surface and sub-surface capabilities, the MRCC can also be easily cached on the sea-bed for up to three days, a technique routinely used by special forces operating inflatable boats for covert special reconnaissance and direct action tasks.
Covert or discreet insertion into target areas remains just one element of maritime special operations. Speaking to Armada, executives from Patriot 3 Marine explained how the firm continued to position itself to provide “next-generation (equipment) for maritime operators”. The company’s products include its Jetboots technology designed propel combat divers below the surface using reduced noise brushless motors running on lithium-ion batteries. “Military units around the world are realising the potential of … combat swimmers equipped with the unprecedented mobility of Jetboots for reconnaissance, search and rescue, patrol and hull inspections (being) just some of the uses available,” a company spokesperson explained. Already approved by the US Department of Defence (DoD), the technology comprises two thrusters (positioned on the outside of each thigh), a single control unit with single battery, a waist belt, waterproof cabling set, and transport case.
The control unit features lights to indicate battery status which can be turned off during covert insertion and extraction operations to avoid compromise while the thrusters are positioned in waterproof aluminium housings with black, ruggedised and anodized coating to enhance camouflage. Patriot 3 Marine is also offering up its Micro Navigation Board (MNB) which includes a Suunto compass, which can be illuminated in dark conditions. The MNB is attached via a leash to the operator should it be dropped.
Finally in the maritime domain, the NSW Command is responding to the demand from special forces operating in the maritime domain for enhanced close quarter combat training. As NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) SOF sources explained to Armada, combat missions in the Middle East where SOF continue to work in a Train, Advise and Assist capacity for local forces, are seeing operators sometimes get very ‘close and personal’ with enemy combatants. As one source explained: “There used to be a myth that Special Forces used to train in underwater knife fighting. Well, it appears this might soon be the case.” On 9 August, the NSW Command released a solicitation calling for the commercial sector to provide troops with a comprehensive training package geared towards countering ‘Edged Weapons and Close Quarters Combatives’. “The purpose of this training is to provide NSW personnel with skills for close arms combat with edged weapons for low visibility operations during deployment and to maintain reasonable levels of force protection,” the solicitation reads.
One can expect that more information regarding this, and other, BAA initiatives will be revealed in the coming years, as the NSW and research and development communities move these aspirations to TRL Seven. These developments, and many others in the shadowy world of special forces will be covered with Armada’s characteristic analytically rigorous approach in future Stirling columns.