The international SOF community has undergone somewhat of a standardisation process over recent years with NATO and Non-NATO Entity (NNE) partners becoming more and more indistinguishable from one another due to growing similarities in equipment and garments. Walk through one of the large NATO multinational main operating bases in Afghanistan and it is difficult to sometimes identify unit and even international affiliation through combat uniforms.
Such a trend can be partly blamed upon growing requirements across the SOF community to enhance cooperation and interoperability as international partners continue to deploy small, force-multiplying special operations teams to work closely with indigenous partners globally.
As the new head of USSOCOM, Gen Tony Thomas, explained at SOFIC 2016 on 23rd May, the international SOF community is now trending towards becoming a type of Global Combatant Command, providing a unique capability to synchronise planning and effects against violent extremist organisations worldwide.
“Collective actions with international and inter-agency partners is consistent with the way we do business,” Thomas explained while describing how industry and defence continually strived to transform equipment to counter emerging and future technologies.
Such thoughts were echoed by the SOF Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (SOF AT&L) executive at USSOCOM, James Geurts, who described how USSOCOM continued to demand technological advances in equipment and garments to, “speed our ability to partner,” internationally.
“This is a pretty tough operating environment and we need to get that capability downrange for a globally deployed force, operating with a multitude of partners across the world and changing industrial base. How do we continue to provide that level of capability against that pace of change?” he asked.
“In terms of operating environments, we continue to find a lot of solutions and use technology to simplify activities and enhance interoperability,” Geurts explained while referring particularly to maritime operations as well as extreme areas of operation such as winter and jungle warfare arenas.
Such trends in standardisation of equipment and apparel has been most evident in the proliferation of kit such as Crye Precision’s MultiCam combat uniform pattern, now widely adopted by an ever-increasing number of SOF and conventional armed forces globally. This particular uniform type, with its integrated elbow and knee protection pads, was first adopted by US SOF during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with its utility now proliferating across NATO and NNE partners.
Additionally, the high-cut combat helmet such as Ops Core’s FAST system continues to dominate the SOF market with wider armed forces now adopting similar technology allowing for easier integration of communications headsets and night vision devices. So popular has the trend become that conventional forces including the Australian Army are now issuing high-cut options to mounted and dismounted infantry units alike.
However, criticism remains ongoing from certain corners of the SOF community where operators from across NATO continue to purchase their own equipment including body armour, combat helmets and combat apparel.
Blaming slow procurement processes; inadequate funding; and even poor selection of technology to support SOF operators, defence sources from across the alliance explained to Mönch how they had at one time or another, spent “thousands” of dollars to make sure they deployed with equipment capable of allowing them to conduct their tasks as efficiently as possible.
In the US, the problem has become such an issue for USSOCOM operators that members of congress were approached earlier in 2016 asking for an explanation from US Defence Secretary Ash Carter as to why this was the case.
In order to develop suitable technologies to enhance the capabilities of SOF operators in these domains, USSOCOM continues to conduct Industry Collaboration Days, organised by the Program Executive Office (PEO) SOF Warrior and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) with specific exercises also concentrating on urban warfare.
Between 2-3 November 2016, the organisation will conduct such an event concentrating on the facilitation of delivery of innovative capabilities to force elements within the Command, including Soldier Protection, Survival, and Equipment Systems. Areas of Interest will cover body armour and combat helmet technologies designed to decrease weight while increasing protection; eye protection capable of countering visible and IR laser beams with the integration of a single lens allowing operators to work in various lighting conditions; and battle dress uniforms, including “novel technologies and designs” including heated clothing and gloves for cold weather operations.
Additionally, the international SOF community is paying particular attention to ergonomics relating to combat apparel and equipment worn by operators in particular environments with programmes, such as the USSOCOM TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) for example, seeking to identify the most efficient means of wearing and operating in an exo-skeleton, as well as the development of a baselayer system capable of biometric-monitoring and temperature interface.
One example of how the organisation is seeking to exploit environmentally-specific equipment includes the US Naval Special Warfare Command’s Maritime Assault Suit System (MASS) and Lightweight MASS (L-MASS) solution, an RfP for which was completed on 18 February 2016.
The solicitation, under the command of USSOCOM and the US Natick Soldier R&D Center, is focused on the demand for an over-garment with neck relief/ring for utility as a combat suit in “maritime, land, airborne, shipboard and transitional environments.”
The concept, which aims to provide enhanced ergonomic comfort to US Navy SEALs and other operators conducting operations across this wide range of environments, must be capable of keeping the user comfortable while providing water vapour management and rugged field use.
“The MASS and L-MASS shall keep the operator dry in maritime and terrestrial extremes and all weather conditions without interfering with typical mission movements or compromising range of motion for activities including swimming, running, assault movements and weapons manipulation,” the solicitation reads. “Both versions must be lightweight, fit comfortably and must be able to keep the operator dry while immersed in water without significant weight gain."
According to industry sources, interested companies include the likes of Kokatat, which specialises in the design of dry suit technology for watersports including kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. The California-based company is understood to have designed a MASS variant for USSOCOM based on its Gore-Tex Icon Dry Suit.
This particular system comprises a rear-entry dry suit with triple layer Gore-Tex shell and 330 Cordura Gore-Tex fabric on the legs, shoulders and arms allowing maximum movement and comfort. The suit also includes self-draining and punch-through neoprene neck and wrist over cuffs in line with USSOCOM requirements as well as latex neck and wrist gaskets, zippered chest pocket and front relief zipper for males.
Any USSOCOM variant would also include shoulder, thigh and calf pockets as well as integrated dry suit socks and a capability to minimise the effects of abrasion on key garment stress areas.
Additionally, it must be, “adequately quiet during typical mission movements with ease in donning and doffing,” while also being capable of being dyed in line with environmentally-specific camouflage.
The Command is seeking a solution capable of providing a shelf life of more than three years for the MASS variant, and at least a single year for L-MASS suits. Once awarded, the winning contractor is expected to receive a deal worth anywhere between U$25,000 to $1 million, indicating that an initial tranche of 1,000 systems could be ordered.
Remaining in the maritime environment, USMC’s Special Operations Command (MARSOC) has invested a staggering $150,000 for the provision of combat boots. On 5 July, the Command announced it had awarded a FFp IDIQ contract for an undisclosed number of Solomon XA Pro 3D Mid Forces combat boots available in black, burro black, and navajo colours.
Selection of suitable combat boots has long remained an issue for SOF, with each specific environment posing different requirements for warfighters seeking to efficiently execute a mission.
For example, MARSOC operators conducting maritime interdiction or Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure (VBSS) operations, require a lightweight boot which if becoming wet, would be able to dry out quickly as soldiers transitioned from wet to dry environments.
Conversely, if operating in Cold Weather environments, soldiers require a Gore-Tex combat boot capable of keeping feet warm. However, should such a boot get wet, it then takes much longer to dry out- an important consideration for operators to think about ahead of a tasking.
The Solomon XA Pro 3D Mid Forces model features a non-marking Contragrip outsole and thermoplastic urethane midsole to control flex, reduce ankle strains and enhance stability, a USSOCOM source explained to Mönch.
It also comes equipped with Solomon’s “Walk-It-Dry” technology comprising a breathable mesh lining; quicklace fitting for designed for wearing by rapid reaction teams; protective rubber toe-cap and heel foam; with gusseted tongue.
Deliveries of the boots will be made to MARSOC Raider Teams between August 2016 and July 2018, Command sources confirmed.
Elsewhere, the SOF community continues to focus on equipment suitable for MOUT with companies including Saab continue heavily involved in the development of garments and technology capable of enhancing operators working in built-up areas.
Speaking to Mönch, a company spokesperson explained how Saab was now focused on providing camouflage systems especially suited to such environments, in line with Future Character of Conflict predictions for a rapidly evolving operating environment: “The next step is the development of camouflage systems for use in urban terrain and in a near future more information about this new concept will be available. The demand for advanced signature management during operations in urban environments is constantly growing. The new urban warfare configuration builds on Saab’s well-known Barracuda MCS technology which is a tailor-made, multi-purpose covering with optimised colours, designs and properties for all environments. It enhances survivability, sustainability and logistics of vehicles and equipment, while all the time providing a ‘stealth’ or masking capability in the visual, near-infrared, thermal infrared and broadband radar wavelengths. We have seen an increased emphasis on vehicle protection during operations in urban terrain, and this is our response.”
However, Saab was unable to provide further details as MT went to press, although another company source admitted this latest solution would also comprise a variety of other environmental protection variants including arid and jungle warfare, cold weather operations (CWO) and high altitude missions: “In these theatres, it is vital to have a few extra seconds of decision space, when threats are literally just around the corner. We see a great future for these kinds of configurations.”
Meanwhile, USSOCOM continues to set trends in combat helmet technology with the Command continuing to pursue its next-generation of Family of Tactical Headborne Systems (FTHS) technology.
In the first week of June, SOF AT&L awarded multiple contracts allowing for short term design and development efforts to contribute to a final technology demonstrator for the programme. Industry players include Revision Military and 3M Ceradyne, both of which received contacts worth up to $726,000 including future movement for follow-on options. Gentex subsidiary Ops Core, is also understood to be involved in the programme, industry sources suggested to Monch.
This design and development phase of the concept will see participating companies conducting a Product Development effort to better understand the market ahead of a final decision from USSOCOM with regards to which direction it would like to continue with any prospective procurement programme.
An initial Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) was announced by the Command in December which demanded a SOF-specific helmet system providing operators with lighter, more protected and modular solutions.
According to this BAA, the FTHS winning solution will provide a next-generation replacement of the Ops Core FAST option which will have completed its current contract for USSOCOM by September 2017. By this date, the USSOCOM force elements including the Naval Special Warfare Command and Army Special Operations Command will have received an estimated tranche of 40,000 Ops Core FAST helmets as part of the contract.
The winning solution will comprise a base Bump Helmet variant, especially designed for maritime and ground-based training and operations. Additionally, Ground Combat Helmet and Maritime Combat Helmets will be achieved with optional applique ballistic protection kits capable of being integrated in order to enhance protection levels as and when required. Such kits will be capable of providing protection against small arms fire anywhere between 9mm and 7.62mm in calibre, the solicitation highlighted.
Such modularity, USSOCOM expects, will provide SOF teams the flexibility to re-role FTHS solutions for a variety of mission sets ranging from offensive action and surveillance/reconnaissance operations through to maritime counter-terrorism, military freefall and combat diving serials.
Similar to garments worn by SOF operators, a main theme in the FTHS effort centres around the ergonomic details of the modern combat helmet with Revision Military and 3M Ceradyne paying particular attention to this area of the programme, including mission specific parameters ranging from its use in salt water conditions through to hot weather conditions, high altitudes and low temperatures. Technology Demonstrators are likely to include high amounts of pads and vents for maximum cooling and protection, Revision Military sources informed Mönch.
Exhibited for the first time at SOFIC 2016, Revision Military’s Multi-Use Bump Shell solution weighed less than 1.5lbs and was displayed in a ‘bump’ form with another helmet system featuring the integration of an add-on ballistic protection applique kit. Helmets at the show were also fitted with binocular night vision devices fitted as well as 3M Peltor communications headset and IFF combat beacons and patches as Technology Demonstrators.
The helmets also feature Picatinny Rail Adaptor Systems on the 3- and 9-o’clock positions of the helmet for the integration of tactical torchlights; additional C4ISTAR sensors; and other mission relevant equipment.
With other NATO SOF members participating in the USSOCOM SOF Integrated Project Team for combat helmets and other protective solutions, industry sources explained to MT that it would remain highly likely other Tier 1 and Tier 2 SOF units would follow suit in the near term.
Other helmet options include Savox’ THOR system, which has been designed as a central integration platform for communications and sensor payloads. The helmet, which features Picatinny Rail Adaptor Systems, is currently under evaluation with the Finnish Defence Forces.
According to Mikael Westerlund, Chief Technology Officer at Savox, THOR features ballistic protection Levels II and III with an integrated capability to house audio and data cables with as well as built-in ear speakers, noise cancelling microphone and bone conductive skull microphone. The helmet can also house NVGs.
Pictured above are 3M Ceradyne's and Revision Military's entries for USSOCOM’s next-generation of Family of Tactical Headborne Systems (FTHS) tender, as seen at AUSA 2016. (Photo: Mönch/DPM)
Additionally, USSOCOM’s TALOS programme continues to drive ahead with next-generation solutions designed to enhance utility of combat helmets and garments for SOF. Speaking to Mönch at SOFIC, Program Manager of USSOCOM’s TALOS Joint Acquisition Task Force, Cpt. Baker, explained how his team was considering the development of a prototype TALOS helmet featuring modularity and distributed power options with the integration of both audio and visual inputs: “We are really pushing that [area].”
In development since 2014, following calls for a combat suit prototype for operators conducting dangerous MOUT, TALOS continues to evolve rapidly ahead of an August 2018 deadline for the unveiling of a Technology Demonstrator.
As Baker admitted, the programme has yet to feature a fully defined requirement. However, the effort continues to unearth interesting new technology areas, capabilities of which could not only be rolled out into the TALOS solution but also wider requirements for SOF and conventional units.
One particular area of interest includes a baselayer “skin” suit, capable of housing a series of embedded sensors allowing a tactical operations centre to monitor the biometric data coming from an operator conducting a mission. Such a system would also act as an “interface” between the operator’s skin and TALOS suit, alerting a central processing unit to any medical issues.
One industry source, associated with the NATO Special Operations Headquarters (NSHQ) in Belgium, explained to Mönch how such a solution was already being made available to military units from technology giant IBM. The company has been providing what it calls “Smart Analytics” to professional athletes and sports teams for years, enabling coaches and management to better understand training requirements and regimes using the live transmission of data including GPS tracking. The source explained: “IBM have expressed an interest in using their analytics to help predict how soldiers are going to perform on tasks and when they might need immediate medical attention- even if they do not realise it themselves.”
Unable to provide more details regarding potential military customers, an IBM source informed MT: “IBM has been Smart Analytics in sport for a few years now – in premiership and international rugby with Try Tracker and with Ultra Cycling.”
Despite the proliferation of advanced equipment and garments now in service with the international SOF community, sources within NATO have warned how it must not lead to an over-reliance upon technology.
“The key to any successful unit is to integrate these types of technology into the soldier system without overburdening him/her on the battlefield. If this can be achieved and managed, then the introduction into service of systems such as TALOS will be an important capability hike for SOF and more conventional armed force seeking solutions to counter emerging threats from today’s hybrid warfare [a mixture of high intensity and low intensity conflict] environment,” the NATO source concluded.