Special Operations Forces take surveillance arsenal to war

New tools and equipment help safeguard elite and redeploying troops

Any military draw down, such as what we’ve seen in Iraq and will experience in Afghanistan, is an especially hazardous time. The asymmetric enemy, ever adaptive and certainly emboldened, is alert to any hint of slackened security. Combat arenas are experiencing an ominous uptick of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and shoot-and-scoot attacks.

As U.S. conventional forces draw down in Afghanistan, Special Forces are tasked with multiple responsibilities. Special Forces personnel reportedly now must help watch forward-operating and air bases, staging areas, truck parks, ammunition depots and other facilities.

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To enable this, personnel employ a burgeoning array of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) technology to gain timely, actionable intelligence on enemy movements, and beyond-the-wire situational awareness.

More than ever, the watchwords are "small," "light," "durable," and "energy-efficient." Instrumentalities and applications range broadly and include Android mobile devices and other tablets, micro-mini comms units, satellite-orientation and uplink capabilities, electronic warfare/counter-electronic warfare, and cyber solutions.

Ground-based intel tools meld with small, tactical unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as the hand-launched Raven UAV. Output from the large “persistent-stare” Global Hawk, and other strategic UAVs, also is likely accessible to special operators.

New Tools

The new release of a promising combination-tool garnered a lot of attention at the March 2012 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla. General Dynamics’ Itronix GD300 wearable computer, with its Tactical Ground Reporting software and specially configured AN/PRC-154 version of the Rifleman Radio, enables inter-squad communications. (The company also makes the PathMaker, a commercial, first-responder radio for Special Forces.)

Deployed in operational assessments with the 75th Army Rangers, the GD300 lets soldiers mark maps and view situational awareness information. What’s more, it can send text messages and situation reports.

Users can connect to different tactical networks while sharing the same computer, data, user-interface and mission-critical radios. Gateway options let it communicate to cell phones, satellites, UHF/VHF radios and IP-based devices such as an Internet-connected laptop.

The 8-ounce, rugged GD300 computer runs on the Android OS and boasts smart phone-like capabilities. General Dynamics says the device's reduced size, weight and power consumption give SpecOps forces “evolving capability.”

“The warfighter has an enhanced individual situational awareness that when I was part of the force was only available at the platform level,” said Mike Iacobucci, a former special operations officer and special operations account manager for General Dynamic’s C4 Systems. He said that users can create their own network in remote locations where no infrastructure exists or where it has been destroyed or overloaded. 

“The majority of the feedback on this system is positive with some [mildly negative] comments in relation to battery life and some minor configuration management - but overall the Rangers were very satisfied with this setup,” said Ken McGraw, Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spokesman.

Similar systems being studied are tethering smart phones to Harris’ PRC-117G radio, for applications like geo-location, McGraw said.  The data is passed across a tactical radio network, from the operator on the ground to the operations center.

Hungry for ISR

With ISR appetites ever growing, SOCOM and conventional forces are hoping to quickly transition toward Defense Department organic-satellite capabilities like the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation, McGraw said. 

Not that this will happen overnight. 

While a lot of funding goes to things such as antenna/modem development, integration and air-net worthiness certifications, the big money advantage of migration for the manned/unmanned assets “from a predominantly commercial Ku band satellite backhaul architecture to the DOD’s WGS Ka/X-band capability” is often overlooked, he said.

And then there’s the "drowning in data" phenomenon, which National Security Agency directors increasingly warn against.

There is no easy way to mitigate the problem since “the military gets better and the ability to gather more data in regards to missions, the amount of data will continue to grow,” McGraw said.

SOCOM is looking into storing and sharing data across a disparate network via distributed data centers.  In keeping with federal mandates, it’s trying to establish a data-centric architecture that lets information be stored “at the tactical edge, regional service centers and the distributed data centers for specified time limits," he added.

This should lead to easier searches and retrieval.  

Overall, speeding up secure tactical air-ground links is getting easier, he said, adding “the data rates at which it is executed are increasing every day.” 

Of course, growing bandwidth only encourages more linkages – and the desire for more tactical data. “Future architectures are moving toward the ability to provide the same level of service -- no matter where you are located on the globe,” McGraw said.

C4ISR Interface

In December 2011, the DOD awarded a $48.6 million contract to Florida’s DRS Tactical Systems for upgrades to a vehicle-mounted computer, the Joint Platform Tablet (JPT). According to the DOD, JPT acts as a common control-and-monitoring interface between all C4ISR systems within the family of Special Forces vehicle platforms. 

Multiple branches of the U.S. military are using it, according to Brian Gallagher, a DRS spokesman. Besides Special Forces, he said Marine and Air Force tactical and forward-air controllers, as well as the conventional Army welcomed the computers. 

"The tablet computers act as a man-machine interface to control remote sensors and minefield munitions, and also display fire-control data," said Gallagher. The most important theme in all applications, he added, is an ability to perform regardless of environment or operational problem set, and across the spectrum of conflict.

Some of the features include embedded a Selective Availability Anti-spoofing Module, Global Positioning System, 1.2 Ghz M-Class processors, increased processing speed, a removable hard-disk drive, emergency alert or 911 button that can signal an urgent situation back to the command and control center, and a 10.4-inch night-vision imaging system-capable display.

Under the Army’s GPS/satellite-based Movement Tracking System logistics program, the company delivered 25,000-plus JPTs, docking stations and peripherals, Gallagher said. In addition, the tablet has been enhanced with new technologies such as the Intel Core i7 Processor.

Also aiding situational awareness is stealthy technology, such as image intensifier-based observation devices, a staple since the 1970s and 1980s, when night-vision technology ballooned. ITT Exelis’ Enhanced Night-Vision Goggle (ENVG), an improved version of the company’s compact  night-vision goggle which is now used by Special Forces and other Army troops, is sensor-fused and combines thermal-infrared imagery and image intensification.

“This gives the dismounted soldier a greater situational awareness,” said Mary Dudley, a geospatial communications spokeswoman with ITT Exelis. 

Exelis also has a new night-vision line called i-Aware, which allows soldiers to “export and import battlefield information from goggle-to-command post, real-time video from a UAV, and mapping information and still photos,” Dudley said.

Douglas Graham, a spokesman at the DOD’s Program Executive Office Soldier, which oversees such contracts, added that his office also has an iteration of the ENVG paired with the company’s AN/PSQ-20 Dual Sensor Night Vision Goggle; combining night vision with thermal-sensor capability.

“It allows you to see perfectly camouflaged people and machines because they still give off heat, and detect targets through fog, smoke or dust," said Graham. "Standard [night vision] cannot penetrate obscurants. The thermal sensor gives you useful day or night capability.”

In the meantime, the product manager for Soldier Maneuver Sensors is working on a range of weapons sights. These will link the standard M4 soldier rifle sight to a modified ENVG “to permit you to, literally, shoot from the hip,” said Graham.

Israeli companies, meanwhile, are busy showcasing latest iterations of sense-through-the-wall solutions for Special Forces and urban operations. Josh Levontin, director of business development at radar-based imaging company Camero-Tech, said the company’s Xaver 400 and 800 can observe multiple stationary and moving objects, including people behind walls or barriers.
The lightweight devices are used globally in the hundreds by U.S. and British Special Forces, among others, Levontin said. The aim, of course, is to save the lives of tactical entry teams and other special operators. The devices deliver “significant improvements” in information-gathering, anti-terror activities, hostage rescue, anti-narcotics operations, and other urban missions, according to the company. 

The devices have a range of 65 feet, with onboard data-recording capability. What’s more, besides disclosing “invisibles,” they can be made to broadcast video remotely and need no warm-up. The “800” offers “true 3-D imaging” at high resolution and from many angles.

Next-generation Vehicles

General Dynamics is gearing up to introduce its next-generation Flyer tactical vehicle. Multiuse and modular, the Advanced Light Strike Vehicle resembles a Humvee but is one-fourth the weight, aircraft transportable and leagues more versatile. 

The Flyer is capable of a full gamut of mission profiles, notably reconnaissance and other C4ISR. Components and gear apparently pop on and off, Lego-like, greatly simplifying configuration.

Sean Ridley, General Dynamics’ deputy program manager for Flyer, said that it is designed to fit in an V-22 Osprey and aboard CH-47 and CH-53 helicopters. 

Certainly, the broad-beamed Humvee can’t, and especially today’s up-armored Hummer, which weighs 16,000 pounds. Flyer is just 60-inches high, 60-inches wide and 180-inches long. Curb weight is 4,000 pounds and payload capacity is 3,500 pounds. Top speed is 85 miles per hour with a 450-mile cruising range.

And with Flyer coming in at 9,000 pounds less, with terrain-smoothing struts and sophisticated shock absorbers, there’s less pounding to compromise computer electronics. 

“You get a lot more terrain covered in a lot less time,” Ridley said.

Other variants include command and control, offensive/defensive fire, rescue, injured warrior transport, and a cargo hauler. Armored and unarmored iterations are in the works as well.

SOCOM and the Marines each owned two Flyer prototypes in 2010.

In a mid-April 2012 contract announcement AAI Textron Corp’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems division said SOCOM had selected its Aerosonde UAV for its command’s Mid-Endurance Unmanned Aircraft Systems (MEUAS) II program.

The three-year, $600 million contract award for the MEUAS II includes support operations using AAI’s Aerosonde Small Unmanned Aircraft System. Total initial funding for these activities is $20 million, according to the company.

The high-performance system boasts these key traits:

  • A heavy-fuel engine for superior endurance.
  • A single electro-optic/infrared payload delivering day-and-night, persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
  • A large payload size, weight and power, accommodating another payload of choice for multi-mission flexibility.

The system uses AAI’s one-piece Launch and Recovery Trailer and Expeditionary Ground Control Station for expeditionary land- and sea-based operations.

For the Special Forces' unique expeditionary operations requirements, the Aerosonde system can “provide the required performance regardless of operational and environmental constraints,” said Stephen Flach, AAI’s vice president of small unmanned aircraft systems.

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