SOF LEADER: A Salute to Special Operators, with Concern for Fraying of the Forces


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

Admiral Eric T. Olson
U.S. Special Operations Command

Admiral Eric T. Olson is the eighth commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. USSOCOM ensures the readiness of joint special operations forces and, as directed, conducts operations worldwide.
A native of Tacoma, Wash., Olson graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1973 and qualified as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer in 1974. He has served operationally in an Underwater Demolition Team, SEAL Team, SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team, Special Boat Squadron, and at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. He has commanded at every level.
Olson has participated in several conflicts and contingency operations, and has served as a SEAL instructor, strategy and tactics development officer and joint special operations staff officer. His overseas assignments include service as a United Nations military observer in Israel and Egypt, and as Navy Programs officer in Tunisia. He served on the Navy staff as assistant deputy chief of Naval Operations (Plans, Policy, and Operations).

Q: As your tour of duty as Commander draws to a close, what are some of the major accomplishments of your command since you took the helm?
A: While USSOCOM has accomplished much over the last few years, what I am most proud of and what I will cherish most after leaving USSOCOM are my interactions and relationships with the members of our force. The men and women who make up Special Operations Forces are the most capable, competent and professional that I have ever had the privilege of serving with. And while much of what our force has accomplished these last few years has been on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, most of which will never be known, one recent accomplishment effectively captures the breadth of what USSOCOM can accomplish when we combine our operational expertise with the innovation that defines the SOF’s mindset. In September 2010, USSOCOM initiated a series of acquisition summits that speak well to the support and cooperation between USSOCOM, the services, and the support from USD AT&L [under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics]. These discussions were initiated to minimize programmatic disconnects, better align requirements, and co-sponsor development opportunities and draw expertise from across every area of our force. This allows us to seek funding efficiencies, eliminate redundant testing, and optimize contracting actions among MFP- 11 programs and service-related/dependent programs. These periodic meetings offer a level of transparency among all our accounts that enables us to seek common solutions for Service-wide requirements and to better invest in SOF-peculiar modifications or special capabilities.
Q: Plans are underway at USSOCOM to create a SOF force generation system to better synchronize with the services to provide combatant commanders with optimized force packages. Can you tell me about the progress here?
A: While the Special Operations Force Generation (SOFORGEN) system is still in development, we are making progress toward having a workable model by summer. We are working closely with the services to develop this sourcing solution and I will be updating the chairman in the coming months.
The overall purpose of SOFORGEN model is to develop a process, synchronized with the services’ force generation models and the global force management process, to provide a predictable, reliable and sustainable SOF force package that incorporates service provided capabilities while meeting GCC-validated force requirements. As we develop this system, we are also taking steps to more effectively support our deployed forces. We are working closely with the CENTCOM J3, SOCCENT J3, and CFSOCC-A on requirements for Afghanistan to better align service provided capabilities with established SOF rotations. Additionally, we have made progress in accounting for the pre-mission training for those forces and are working to coordinate pre-deployment training for force rotations in February 2012. Ultimately, SOFORGEN will formalize this process with the services and provide the predictability the services need to make the long-range force structure decisions required to fully support SOF.
Many of our forces are deploying at an unsustainable pace, and we need to move toward a 1:2 deployed-dwell rate. We have to better control the OPTEMPO to preserve and protect the health of the force. SOFORGEN will help us reach this goal.
Last, but certainly not least, SOFORGEN is key to the command advancing the ‘Presentation of the Force’ concept. SOFORGEN will enable the process USSOCOM will use to build and deploy the Special Operations Joint Task Force (SOJTF). SOCOM will maintain joint SOF within an available force pool to address the GCC’s enduring steady-state requirements. These forces will serve as the initial sourcing solution for establishing up to two baseline SOJTFs with a preponderance of regionally aligned forces, postured to meet emerging contingency requirements.
There is still much work to do to fully develop and implement SOFORGEN, but we are certainly making progress. It will take time to fully realize the full benefits, but it will be worth the effort.
Q: USSOCOM’s FY12 budget request reflects a seven percent increase over FY11 including significant overseas contingency operations funding. What do you think the budget will look like in the following years and how will USSOCOM manage the transition when OCO funding is reduced?
A: The Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request Overview of February 2010 calls for SOF funding to continue to increase sharply over the next several years. This increased support is designed to strengthen core SOF capabilities; provide additional equipment; and improve and increase ISR, training and communication capabilities. Budget plans also call for all SOF funding to be included in the base budget by FY 2015, thus preserving this needed warfighting capability independent of any ongoing OCO requirements.
As the number of SOF deployed in support of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan decreases, USSOCOM anticipates a much more widely dispersed global presence in support of the geographic combatant commanders’ persistent demand for SOF. It is also likely that the cost to employ SOF in Iraq and Afghanistan will increase as more general purpose forces redeploy from those areas. Without the combat service support and enabling capabilities provided by the general purpose forces, SOF will become more reliant on commercial sources of support in the areas of base operating support, logistics and infrastructure.
Q: AFSOC’s fixed wing aircraft represent an aging fleet of -130 series platforms. They recently took delivery of their first MC- 130J to join the EC-130J already flying. Tell me about the plans to recapitalize and/or replace the remaining -130s including the AC-, MC-, and EC- aircraft.
A: The first MC-130J was rolled out of the Lockheed Martin production facility on 29 March. The aircraft will be delivered to AFSOC in September. This is the first of 37 aircraft funded to recapitalize the 14 MC-130E Talon I and 23 MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft. All 32 MC-130J Combat Shadow II aircraft will be delivered by fiscal year 2017. AFSOC has also funded the recapitalization of the AC- 130H Spooky fleet. A total of 16 new AC-130J gunships will replace the eight AC-130Hs and grow the fleet with an additional eight. These 16 aircraft will also complete delivery in FY17.
Q: You are poised to award contracts this year for the Combatant Craft-Medium, which will replace RHIBs in order to provide special operators a smoother ride without injuries. How will the CCM improve maritime mobility? Separately, what are the plans to find a replacement for the MK V?
A: The Combatant Craft Medium (CCM) will improve Naval Special Warfare’s maritime surface mobility by producing a craft that decreases shock-related injuries experienced by crew and combat-equipped SOF while operating in a wide range of maritime environments. Additionally, the CCM Capabilities Development Document has specific requirements for shock exposure limits—a first for any of our combatant craft.
The CCM is one of four lines of effort of USSOCOM’s and NSW’s larger combatant-craft strategy. It will partially merge Naval Special Warfare Rigid Inflatable Boat (NSW RIB) and MK V Special Operations Craft product lines to meet operational requirements. The CCM will replace some of the capabilities of the NSW RIB and will approach payload and range requirements of the MK V. Additionally, we will begin analyzing alternatives for a Combatant Craft Heavy next year.
Q: There is still an expressed need for a dry submersible for NAVSPECWARCOM. How is that project proceeding?
A: The Undersea Systems Program Office has been testing and examining commercial submersibles and preparing to solicit industry for specific inputs to the technical requirements and design concepts for the Technology Development (TD) phase of the Dry Combat Submersible-Light (DCS-L). We anticipate entering into the TD phase in FY11, with a strategy that includes rapidly designing, building and testing multiple advanced prototypes. These projects are designed to evaluate state-of-the-art commercial submersible technologies to produce a family of dry submersibles.
The DCS requirement is comprised of two variants: a DCS-L and a Dry Combat Submersible-Medium (DCS-M). The DCS-L and DCS-M will operate from surface ships and submarines equipped with either the modified dry deck shelter or the next generation shelter. The two variants will be equipped with varying capabilities that address the gaps left from the Advanced SEAL Delivery System and Joint Multi-Mission Submersible program. These submersibles will transport Special Operations Forces in a dry environment, ensuring they are fully capable and mission ready upon arrival at their objective area.
Q: In communications, could you describe in some detail the expeditionary SOF Information Environment, and how this major advance in connectivity will aid special operators in executing their mission?
A: Over the course of the last 10 years, SOF’s communication capabilities have evolved and consolidated from a handful of separate local area networks into a single enterprise wide network domain, the SOF Information Environment (SIE). This dramatic transition has reshaped the battlefield and enhanced almost every area of special operations, from how we shoot, to how we move and most importantly, how we engage our partners and our enemies.
In the process of developing the enterprise network, we established a set of strategic entry points into the SOF Information Environment in order to place IT services closer to our deployed SOF operators and shorten the communications path.
These geographically distributed entry points provide SOF operators with the ability to reach back from around the globe with higher bandwidth and shorter response times.
As the SIE capability has matured, the demand from the field has steadily increased, and our communications capacity has expanded. Initially supporting several dozen expeditionary communication kits, the SOF Information Environment has grown into a globally available and highly reliable communications system capable of delivering sustained support to nearly 600 tactical network nodes operating in isolated remote locations and supporting critical SOF missions. No matter how remote the operating area, today’s deployed SOF operator has a rich suite of technology services available.
Expeditionary SOF can now reach back from austere locations and access email, data, maps, and geospatial imagery. Not only that, they can reliably make voice over IP phone calls around the globe, share intelligence information, and even participate in video teleconferences to conduct time sensitive mission planning.
Looking forward, SOF Information Environment advances will continue as we establish streamlined access to all SOF IT services through a single sign-on to the network. We are also working to introduce remote high-speed playback of sensor and video feeds which will allow the SOF operator to take greater advantage of our rich store of ISR data to rapidly observe their adversaries’ patterns. So in summary, the SIE has made huge strides over the last decade to improve our ability to meet the spectrum of SOF missions and we will continue to evolve and improve what we have already delivered as we take advantage of new technologies.
Q: Tell me about USSOCOM’s Rapid Exploitation of Innovative Technologies for SOF [REITS] program. What do you consider some of its more significant developments?
A: REITS is a USSOCOM Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate- funded initiative that focuses on rapidly inserting new technologies and capabilities into the battlefield. REITS takes hardware and software items and adapts, modifies, integrates, and assesses their ability to rapidly meet SOF operational needs. REITS supports top-down and bottom-up approaches for our components, theater Special Operations Commands, and Special Operations Task Forces to assess technology recommendations. REITS is making USSOCOM S&T more agile and responsive.
Projects which are currently at a low technology maturity level, but which have the potential to rapidly transition to support warfighter needs, become REITS projects. When the technology is demonstrated, the project can transition to a program of record or a Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) project, which occurred with the Mobile Smart Power Initiative (MSPI) effort.
REITS has developed vehicle shock mitigation systems currently in evaluation on SOF mobility vehicles, and MSPI solar power generating systems currently in evaluation with our deployed forces. The vehicle shock mitigation system is expected to improve vehicle performance and reliability and can be used across SOF ground mobility platforms. The MSPI project is providing power to two forward operating base locations during its user assessment. MSPI has transitioned to the JATF Agile Dagger for management and is expected to transition to a Service-wide program of record.
Other REITS development efforts include an advanced digital multi-spectral night vision goggle; the Common Remotely Operated Weapon System (CROWS) II integration into our mobile force protection systems for remotely deployed SOF; and a system that will improve SOF’s capability to detect, identify, locate, and defeat threat signals of interest.
Q: Another program I’d like to hear more about is the Joint Acquisition Task Force. What has it added to SOF capabilities and how does it function differently from REITS?
A: The Special Operations Research, Development, and Acquisition Center (SORDAC) established the Joint Acquisition Task Force (JATF) for high priority and complex urgent acquisitions. The JATF executes rapid acquisition using a SOF operational construct analogous to a Joint Task Force. JATF employs direct reporting combat acquisition detachments to develop and produce much of the hardware. The first JATF project, Dragon Spear, stood up in May 2009 and the second, Agile Dagger, in April 2010. JATF projects include pre-planned transition paths to USSOCOM program executive offices.
Project Dragon Spear was our first implementation of the JATF approach. It augmented existing capabilities on SOF MC-130W aircraft with combat proven modular intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and precision strike packages. Three capability spirals were delivered in 90 days each, with the first two aircraft in deployment configuration delivered in March and April 2010. To date, 10 of the 12 MC-130Ws have been modified, with several of them deployed in combat today.
Project Agile Dagger is our second stand-up of a JATF. This project manages the Special Applications for Contingencies (SAFC) program, Mobile Smart Power Initiative (MSPI), Mobile Technology and Repair Complexes (MTRCs), and the non-lethal Kibosh program providing direct acquisition support to forward operating forces. SAFC provides near-term material solutions for contingency-based requirements and Joint Chiefs of Staff-directed high priorities. MSPI is assessing the utility of alternative power generation technologies at remote SOF operating bases in Afghanistan. MTRCs are also deployed in theater and are providing a rapid means to stimulate innovation in the battlefield by providing the ability to quickly repair, modify, and enhance SOF systems, subsystems, and other organic assets. Kibosh is a 40 mm non-lethal round that can be used to interdict and stop vehicles.
While both the JATF and the REITS program rapidly deliver capabilities to the user, the JATF is activated in response to high priority, complex urgent requirements when necessary, whereas REITS is an on-going program that is funded within S&T’s technology budget.
Q: You have a significant MILCON budget requested for FY12. Why the increase and what are some of the major projects?
A: USSOCOM’s investment in MILCON effectively supports SOF operations, training, maintenance, and storage facility requirements. This effort addresses MILCON shortfalls attributable to new capabilities and missions, force structure growth disconnects, and antiquated legacy infrastructure. For Fiscal Year 2012, USSOCOM has requested $631 million to fund 33 major construction projects in eight states and planning and design for 21 projects in Fiscal Year 2013. The command’s overall MILCON program identifies planning, design, and construction requirements for 118 prioritized projects in 13 states totaling over $2.4 billion.
Q: Understanding local cultures and languages is vital in conflicts of the 21st century. What are the major initiatives required to generate operators skilled in the languages and cultural skills for the AORs?
A: Success in today’s conflicts is increasingly hinged on an acute understanding of societal and cultural forces at work in the dark and distant places where special operations forces operate. To facilitate this understanding, SOF units strive to establish and maintain effective working relationships with our allies and key partner nations. This cooperation enables SOF to discreetly access regions where overt U.S. military presence may not be possible, train with indigenous forces, and ultimately shape the environment well ahead of the sound of guns and the start of major combat operations.
On a practical level, the initiatives in this area all require the thorough review many of our military personnel policies with a focus on areas for innovation. For example, the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI) program is an illustration of how much capability can be recruited within the United States if we open our aperture to innovative personnel solutions. This concept should be broadened and institutionalized across DoD. The Afghanistan-Pakistan (AFPAK) Hands Program is another example. Many of the personnel currently in this program are having operational and in some cases strategic impact due to their unique micro-regional expertise on the planning, intelligence, KPN coordination, and execution on the battlefield. Plans are more realistic, operational results more predictable, and communications between U.S. and KPN staffs, interagency, and NGOs are greatly enhanced. Military personnel systems must change to include and incentivize competitive, regionally oriented careers in language and culturally-focused specialties.
Within SOF, we are uniquely organized and trained to develop language and regional expertise, but we are still not as proficient as we should be. We must also find ways to more effectively optimize our language, regional expertise, and cultural awareness (LREC) capabilities. Options that will enhance our LREC capacities include increasing the use of KPN LREC specialists in our deployed SOF units, expanding the availability of LREC opportunities to a wider variety of military specialties, and finally more effectively structuring military language testing processes to incentivize this specialization.