In case you skipped NDIA’s vSOFIC 2020 because it didn’t involve spending time in Tampa — and you really shouldn’t have — following is a handful of take-aways from our participation this past week.

Take-Away #1 – The inaugural vSOFIC, which ran from 11-14 May 2020, was exceptional and has set the standard for virtual events in the DoD sector

It has taken two months of shutdown for a virtual conference in the defense and aerospace segment to set the bar for virtual conferences, but the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) did just that this week with the virtual edition of the 2020 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (vSOFIC).

The participant portal for accessing conference materials and for viewing presentations was chock-full of information and was exceptionally user-friendly. Presentations from USSOCOM senior leadership, Program Executive Officers, and other uniformed and civilian officials, appeared to viewers from a common studio set. The trains ran on time and the technical glitches were few.

USSOCOM Commanding General Richard Clarke patching in a uniformed King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein II, Supreme Commander of the Jordan Armed Forces-Arab Army (JAF) and USSOCOM champion, from his office in Amman was a nice touch in the Keynote. On-demand vSOFIC sessions on such topics as CRADA formulation and use, pending CCMC cybersecurity compliance requirements, and the ins-and-outs of USSOCOM proposal preparation were timely and pointed.

Presenters, generally standing in front of a USSOCOM backdrop, were flanked on the viewer’s screen by their presentation slides on the right and a running viewer chat on the left. These in-brief chats allowed Government and industry officials to say hello, make comments (generally positive), exchange ideas, share contact information, arrange side-discussions, and promote solutions.

USSOCOM leadership was generally available to industry and media just as at regular SOFIC. There was more vendor interest than PEO availability, but that’s SOFIC-usual… you gotta move fast and lock down that time slot or you’ll be waiting until next year, again.

Bravo Zulu to NDIA and USSOCOM. This is how these events can be / should be run moving forward.

Take-Away #2 – USSOCOM leadership understands that to stay relevant (and robustly funded) SOF must orient towards the “Great Power Competition” well beyond the post-9/11 counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency fight that has occupied its focus for the past two decades. That USSOCOM is realigning its focus, and that it has been realigning it for a while, was a persistent theme of vSOFIC 2020.

President Trump’s February 2020 (pre-COVID-19) FY21 defense budget request included $2.3 billion for procurement for USSOCOM, a full 12% less than the enacted amount for 2020, and 26% less than what it was provided in 2019, according to DoD budget documents.  The FY21 request also included $732 million for USSOCOM RDT&E, about 14% less than the $852 million USSOCOM received in 2020, but well above the $613 million it received for RDT&E in FY19. That’s a budget hit that hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The theme of vSOFIC 2020 was “Expanding the Competitive Space” and the through-thread of the event was how USSOCOM is honing its contribution to that expanded competition. Indeed, General Clarke, who voiced this “USSOCOM is Great Power competition-focused” message at SOFIC 2019, said in his 2020 vSOFIC keynote that DoD and USSOCOM must today prepare for three wars: a war on extremism; a war of influence; and a war for talent and he described exactly how USSOCOM was preparing for each.

An opening slide from USSOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith’s presentation is provided below. Less there be doubt, USSOCOM is not just playing small wars anymore.

Take-Away #3 – USSOCOM’s ambitious Armed Overwatch program to solicit, demonstrate (November), assess, and make a decision on the acquisition of up to 75 light attack aircraft, all within the space of a calendar year, appears a priority, notwithstanding the USAF’s scuttling of its Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) program, the aforementioned USSOCOM budget challenges, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

USSOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith told vSOFIC reporters on 13 May that he is very pleased with industry’s responses so far, but would not reveal how many proposals USSOCOM had received.  When pressed for what he’s looking for in assessing the industry offerings, he offered:

“At the end of the day, I’m going to deliver a weapons system.  So, what’s really important to me is what the vendor brings to the table in terms of their ability to integrate weapons onto a non-developmental platform.  I think the Air Force, you know, there was a lot of focus on the actual platforms. I don’t think you’ll see that from SOCOM. We are far more interested in the integration capability of our eventual industry partners on the platform.”

IoMax (with its Archangel), L3/Air Tractor (with their AT-802L Longsword, pictured above), Leidos/Paramount/Vertex (with their Bronco II), Sierra Nevada/Embraer (with their A-29 Super Tucano), and Textron (with its AT-6E Wolverine) have indicated that they will be be offering aircraft for Armed Overwatch assessment. It should be exciting to watch.

Take-Away #4 – After years of focused effort and investment, USSOCOM is close to fielding a solution to improve the safety of rotary wing operations in brownout / degraded visual environments (DVE)… and the big Army has followed its lead.

In response to DSJ query, PEO Rotary Wing (and AMCOM Special Programs Director) Geoffrey Downer said that the Command’s DVE mitigation efforts “have focused on providing a full system to provide complete situational awareness in a brownout environment.” Mr. Downer explained that, based on work with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and its Degraded Visual Environment Pilotage System (DVEPS), USSOCOM plans for system “user evaluation this summer with plans to make a decision to start procuring the systems to equip the SOF aircraft.”

Take-Away #5 – USSOCOM’s Hyper Enabled Operator (HEO) effort bears little or no resemblance to the ambitious Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program from which it emerged.

USSOCOM began in 2013 with a charge to field Tony Stark’s IronMan suit within five years. The Command’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) program, cancelled in 2019, gave way to the Hyper Enabled Operator (HEO) pursuit, with a focus on technology development and spinning out improvements to SOF operator situational awareness and cognitive load reduction. vSOFIC saw USSOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith and other speakers stress to this reporter and other observers that they are missing the point if they are looking for a HEO product IOC or unveil. HEO will be realized via modest, incremental introductions of enhanced capability to some SOF operators in limited areas of application.

The following vSOFIC briefing chart makes this TALOS-to-HEO migration focus clear. HEO isn’t a Iron Man suit. It isn’t even contributing to enhancing SOF armed conflict. Heck, it’s off-the-shelf and focused on enabling partner nations.

Take-Away #6 – USSOCOM is involved, watchful, and hopeful that the Army’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) programs will provide solutions for SOF rotary wing fleet recapitalization, but USSOCOM is not prone to capabilities compromise and is keeping its options open.

USSOCOM officials at vSOFIC expressed satisfaction that they have been able to have a seat and a voice at the table as the U.S. Army’s Blackhawk-replacing Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) and Apache-replacing Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) requirements and programs have taken shape.

Budget imperatives mean that a FARA variant may need to replace the USSOCOM’s aging MH-6 Little Bird attack helicopters (below) and that, as PEO Rotary Wing (and AMCOM Special Programs Director) Geoffrey Downer noted: “If FARA is going to replace Little Bird, they need to meet some of SOCOM’s key requirements” including the ability to carry 4-6 troops, and to be air-transportable on a C-17.

Depending on what capability sets the Army’s Future Vertical Lift Cross Functional Team (FVL CFT) comes up with for FLRAA and FARA in the months and years ahead, USSOCOM leaders will take a decision on where it goes with its rotary wing force planning: “At that point, we have a decision on which way we go with our fleet. We’ll either go with a 100% fleet of SOF-unique birds if [FLRAA and FARA] doesn’t meet [our] SOF-unique requirements, or we’ll have a 100% fleet of FARA aircraft, or we could potentially have a mixed fleet of FARA and FLRAA aircraft going forward.”

Take-Away #7 – USSOCOM is changing and restructuring its relationship with industry in keeping with changes in technology and DoD acquisition evolution.

USSOCOM is, according to USSOCOM Acquisition Executive James Smith, “reforming for greater performance and affordability.” He spoke specifically of how software-defined systems, data-driven assessments, cybersecurity/CMMC imperatives, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) / Machine Learning (ML) advances will positively impact the relationship between industry and USSOCOM moving forward.

Mr. Smith also discussed how USSOCOM has reorganized its Program Executive Offices (PEO) structure to align with current mission and operational imperatives outlined in the Trump Administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).

Mr. Smith and others highlighted USSOCOM’s meaningful embrace of the Department of Defense’s pronounced recent move towards so-called Middle Tier Acquisitions (MTAs) in an effort to accelerate the acquisition process.

Lastly, and possibly the most important from an industry interface perspective, Mr. Smith and other USSOCOM leadership lauded the introduction of the eSOF (Engage SOF) portal as as replacement for the USSOCOM Technical Information Liaison Office (TILO) as the primary interface for industry with USSOCOM.

vSOFIC News from Industry included the following:

  • Elbit Systems of America outlined its USSCOM-related capabilities relative to Advance Soldier Systems, Hyper Enabled Operator Solutions, Loitering Munitions, Precision Targeting, Night Vision, Sustainment and Support Solutions, and Vertical Lift.
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