Special Forces: Why use a Cadillac when a Ford will do?

Like any other military organization, the U.S. Special Operations Command wants to use the best tools available to carry out its mission. But in time of tight budgets, commanders are starting to wonder if they always need them.

In a newly released intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) roadmap by SOCOM unveiled at last week’s U.S. Special Operations Forces Industry Conference commanders signaled that they will be realigning their portfolio investments to better align with the threats at hand, according to National Defense.

“In the post 9/11 environment there was really a dizzying investment in ISR as folks rushed capabilities to the field in huge numbers and often with not a lot of foresight,” said Col. Matt Atkins, SOCOM’s head of intelligence capabilities and requirements division. “Now in the new more austere fiscal environment, we sort of have to make sense of what’s in the inventory.” 

Atkins framed SOCOM’s new approach as relying less on “Cadillac” quality assets to perform most ISR duties and buying more “Ford”-quality platforms that focus on “sustaining and improving the capabilities of high-end platforms” already used, National Defense reported. “A field commander would say, 'Hey I need an MQ-9 high-end Reaper to do something that a far smaller and less capable platform could do,’” Atkins said, noting that SOCOM lacked nuance in its requirement process.

Atkins’ comments echo somewhat the sentiment of one of the top counterterrorism chiefs in Yemen. Navy Capt. Robert A. Newson, who formerly led strategy and concept development for the Naval Special Warfare Command and commanded the Special Operations Command (Forward) in Yemen, advised against using high-tech solutions for low-tech adversaries. “I am very concerned that we are pricing ourselves out of small wars... . And what you are eventually going to do is price us out of the ability to engage,” Newson said earlier this year in an interview with the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. “We just cannot afford to fight the number of engagements we need to using F-22s, F-35s, and other expensive weapons systems that are not necessary against this adversary [non-state actors]. Why can’t we fly…armed tactical UAVs that can do a better job of supporting at a much lower price?”   

Atkins told conference participants that SOCOM is interested in investing in more affordable, less complex concepts that will enable the United States to complete mission goals and enable interoperability with international partners. 

While adversaries such as ISIS pose a threat in the cyber domain, as evidenced by hacks of Central Command’s Twitter page, nation states pose a much greater challenge in this emerging contested environment, according to many officials. The military has taken steps to bolster its cyber force within the last few years and poured significant resources into online defenses. The cyber domain is an example of an area in which the military does require higher-tech solutions.

China’s advanced capabilities in the Pacific, which military officials have said pose significant anti-access area-denial (A2/AD) challenges are another area that could require more resources. China’s recent aggressive posturing in the Pacific region—a military build-up on manmade islands that China claims sovereignty over and the recent acquisition of improved missile and anti-aircraft defenses—require a more robust resource and technological pivot than that of other threats facing the U.S.   

Atkins alluded to the need for more ground-based and maritime-based platforms as a means to save on costs and diversify the portfolio. Furthermore, he indicated that the command is going to require the assistance from industry and tech hubs such as Silicon Valley in the future, which aligns with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s recent push to court the tech hub for cyber and innovation efforts.

In terms of industry help, the Army recently issued a sources sought notice for a program that seeks to test industry’s ability to provide intelligence, operations, logistics, planning, communications and training support for combatant commands, theater special operations commands and other elements engaged in small unit operations, expeditionary warfare or special operations. There is currently no procurement history for such a program, the notice stated.   

The military has tried to operate under confined fiscal environments to make the most of budgets and resources, as evidenced by the Better Buying Power initiative to “do more without more.” However, the other side of the coin is a balance between matching these procurements, acquisitions and resources to the necessary threat facing U.S. interests. “[A]t the rate we are spending, disengagement will be forced on us. So how do we engage on a much more economical basis,” Newson rhetorically asked. “It is not a question of high-end or lower-end but of the right tool for the right job—having a balanced took kit and using it efficiently.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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