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U.S. Special Operations Command Embraces New Technologies

Across the U.S. Department of Defense, descriptions of future concepts and capabilities are frequently accompanied by a laundry list of technologies that could be embraced, from 3D visualization to artificial intelligence (AI) to artificial reality (AR) to mixed reality (MR) to machine learning (ML) to virtual reality (VR).

U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) representatives have also pointed to many of these technologies for their potential application to special operations forces (SOF) operations. Significantly, as with many USSOCOM efforts, the command has moved quickly beyond the talking phase and is accelerating the application and exploitation of the identified technologies.

A case in point surfaced in early December 2019, when USSOCOM representatives used the annual Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), held in Orlando, Florida, and widely recognized as the world’s largest modeling, simulation, and training event, to highlight the application of emerging technologies against unique SOF mission sets.

Titled “AI Game Theory: Game Changing or Game Over? 3D and AI Technologies Changing the Game,” the USSOCOM presentation was part of a SOF Simulation Technologies Capability Assessment Event (CAE) “prize challenge” conducted in collaboration with SOFWERX.

As described in the original SOFWERX announcement, the goal of the CAE was to allow USSOCOM and other government stakeholders to “assess new, novel and provocative solutions for incorporating advanced technologies into SOF planning, preview, training, exercise, rehearsal, execution, after action review and analysis capabilities.”

“Emerging simulation technologies will be assessed for their technology maturity and risk while providing insight for deciding next steps, such as experimentation, assessment and investment in rapid prototyping to tailor for training and operational use,” it stated.

Identified topic areas of specific interest included: virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality that flow seamlessly across training, operational, live, virtual, synthetic and constructive environments; fused intel and ops capabilities that can be shared with partner forces; AI-enabled workflows that extend and accelerate human capabilities; standards-based solutions that enable machineto-machine automation; and objective metrics for quantitative analysis of team and individual performance.

“The ultimate goal is to support the commander of USSOCOM mission, which is to develop and employ fully capable special operation forces to conduct global special operations and activities as part of the joint force,” said the I/ITSEC event moderator, Randy Jackson, chief of mission preparation, J3 Training and Education, USSOCOM.

Jackson explained that the prize challenge announcement had originally resulted in responses from 112 companies. An initial review pared that down to 40 contenders with a second evaluation of those written submissions reducing the candidates to eight companies that were invited to showcase their capabilities during I/ITSEC.

Each of the companies was provided with six minutes to brief their technologies and solutions, followed by a brief question and answer opportunity. Briefing companies included: Shield AI, Fraym, General Dynamics Mission Systems, Vertex Solutions, NeuroFlow, Battlespace Simulations, Havik Corporation, and a combined team of Entegra Systems and Immersive Wisdom.

Jackson said that the company presentations would help provide the USSOCOM subject matter experts with benefits that include knowledge of commercially developed capabilities, driving SOF components to better interoperability, and consideration of transformative technologies to optimize decision-making and tactical mission planning, and aggregate, analyze, and federate data all to reduce the risk to mission and forces.

Additionally, based on recommendations from USSOCOM subject matter experts, two of the companies would be selected for prize awards and for participation in at least two 2020 SOF warfighter exercise and experimentation events.

Along with Jackson and several command subject matter experts present for the briefings, panelists included Maj. Gen. Robert Karmazin, U.S. Army, director, J-7/9, USSOCOM, and Dr. Lisa Costa, J6/chief information officer, USSOCOM.

“SOCOM is focused on addressing defense and security threats and challenges from emerging great power competitors as well as terrorists and violent extremist organizations, as has been identified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy,” Karmazin began.

“To help enable our objectives, SOCOM needs to expand the use of transformative technologies,” he said. “For mission preparedness, virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, AI ML capabilities are absolutely paramount.”

Costa echoed some of the opening panel comments about USSOCOM readiness requirements to continue both the fight against violent extremist organizations (VEOs) as well as conducting operations against competitive nation states, cautioning that those competitive nation states also could use violent extremist organizations as potential proxies. As a result, she identified a need for what she dubbed “twofers,” or solutions that could be used in both operational environments.

Offering a historic technology example, she said, “SOCOM, by the way, was the impetus behind the first digital cameras. I don’t know if a lot of people know that history, but SOCOM invested very heavily in digital camera technology and that is why you’d have cameras on your phone systems today.”

Continuing to trace a strong pedigree of technology support and adoption, she shifted her talk to a notional future SOF scenario where USSOCOM representatives anticipate that technologies like AI or ML might be employed. She offered the example of a helicopter mission, where one of the helicopters might have experienced mechanical problems that left individuals on the ground in an operational environment.

“Imagine the ability to be able to say that the sentiment in that area where they went down is trending highly nationalistic, so the chances of them being able to walk up to a farmhouse and say, ‘I need help,’ would probably result in their deaths or their imprisonment,” she said.

Instead, she outlined a notional ability to “call in fires” – not the kinetic type of fires from counter-VEO operations, but rather “information fires” that could be used to support local sentiments trending in a more positive direction.

She said that it was all about “digital intimacy,” with the “ability to develop an effective message within hours” driven in large part by AI and ML.

Following the opening remarks by Karmazin and Costa, Jackson set the stage for the industry briefings by identifying four identified focus challenge areas: cyber security information assurance; data management and federation; distributed simulation; and artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The subsequent industry presentations drew many specific questions and requests for elaboration by USSOCOM subject matter experts in the room.

Following the presentations, the CAE resulted in prize awards that were presented to Shield AI and the Entegra Systems/Immersive Wisdom team.

In Shield AI’s early December presentation at I/ITSEC, Brandon Tseng, co-founder and chief operating officer, described his company as a rapidly growing 130-person business built from the ground up to operate AI to protect service members and civilians.


special operations drone AI artificial intelligence

Brandon Tseng commands an autonomous drone during the ThunderDrone Tech Expo at SOFWERX in Tampa, Fla., Sept. 5, 2017. The expo provided an opportunity for industry, national laboratories and academia to discuss and promote new and innovative drone technology with the special operations community. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Barry Loo)


“Our team is a unique mix of experts in artificial intelligence, software engineering, and battlefield operations,” he said, noting that efforts to date have been directed toward autonomous mobile robotics, with the current result being a robot that can explore singlestory structures autonomously.

Applying the company’s AI algorithms toward SOF simulation, the company briefing asserted that it could “run a simulation of a SOF assault millions of times under different conditions, different scenarios, and recommend the best course of action to operators. The AI can learn how operators maneuver through spaces, and also learn how [an] enemy force sets up defenses – then pit the two opposing AIs against each other and simulate this repeatedly.”

The net result of this cross-validation of AI algorithms would be a valuable learning tool to enhance the survivability of human operators.

The I/ITSEC Entegra briefing was presented along with partner Immersive Wisdom, and focused on the two companies’ 3D geospatial real-time collaboration tools and capabilities.

“It allows for collaboration anywhere in the world with a connection,” explained Brian Behling, vice president of government programs at Immersive Wisdom.

Identified as the Dynamic Collaborative Virtual Planning Tool, a team quad-chart description indicates that the concept is based on the commercial off-the-shelf Immersive Wisdom VR/AR/ MR/desktop real-time collaboration product, which provides a geospatially aware environment that allows users to visualize the multi-domain battlespace and leverage multiple integrated, datarich, immersive collaborative workspaces that weave together Multi-INT data, enabling deeper insight and understanding for more efficient and intelligent multi-domain operations, mission planning, execution, and diagnostics.

Behling summarized, “We have the ability to visualize the operating environment, bring in real data, and then synthesize that with terrain data and virtual data, creating a virtual sand table that will allow for pre-mission planning, iteration of the actual mission rehearsal, and then taking that connectivity into mission execution.”

Immediately following the eight presentations at I/ITSEC, Jackson enthused, “I will tell you, I’m very impressed. I was impressed when I read [the written submissions]. I was even more impressed when I heard [the six-minute briefings]. They have all demonstrated significant innovation and dynamics with their capabilities. I wish we could select eight winners out of this, but there will only be two.”

“The use of advanced technologies should help prepare SOF for what lies ahead,” Jackson concluded. “They will increase cognition, optimize human materiel performance, reduce operational risk, and better enable SOF adaptation for a variety of situations. We must harness these ideas, leverage capability, share information, capture the good, smell the bad, navigate data, transfer knowledge, fuse networks, bolster cyber security, and increase interoperability – again to reduce risk, save time, increase cognitive learning, and truly change the way we do business.”

This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook:


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...