Special Delivery for SEALs

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Special operations forces need a better platform to move them underwater, unseen from ships to objectives, said Admiral Eric T. Olson, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
He was asked by Special Operations Technology what hardware and platforms special operators need most. Olson spoke before the National Defense Industrial Association SO/LIC Symposium & Exhibition in Washington, D.C.
“We’re working on revamping undersea mobility,” Olson said. “We’ve been focused on that for a while, revamping that program.”
One example of an undersea mobility platform is the Stidd Diver Propulsion Device. (Please see story and separate Industry Interview on underwater mobility platforms in the December 2010 SOTECH, Volume 8, Issue 9.)
Such underwater platforms permit SEALs to transit from a ship to a distant shore, arriving fresh at the objective instead of being exhausted from swimming exertion and the cold of long exposures to ocean water.
Elsewhere at the SO/LIC conference, General Dynamics Electric Boat proposed a system to deploy submersible special operations craft from converted Ohio Class submarines. Once used as platforms capable of launching nuclear-tipped ICBMs, four of these SSGN subs—Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Georgia—have been converted to perform conventional missions. General Dynamics builds subs at its shipyard in Groton, Conn.
The reconfigurable Battle Management Center on SSGNs can order deployment of a special operations craft from a sub missile tube via the General Dynamics Electric Boat universal launch and recovery module. SEALs would emerge from another missile tube and depart on the submersible craft to head toward the mission objective.
In other areas, Olson said that “we’re revamping one of our maritime surface platforms, the Mark V Special Operations Craft,” which he explained is reaching the end of its surface life. The Mark V—produced by Halter Marine Inc. of Gulfport, Miss.—is 82 feet long and capable of speeds up to 65 knots (74.8 mph).
That high speed can mean a rough ride for occupants, because the aluminum hull of the boat transmits the shocks of hitting waves. Installation of shock-absorbing seats has been partially successful in lessening the jarring ride. (For a story on fast boats, please see SOTECH June 2009, Volume 7, Issue 4. For a story on shock-absorbing seats, please see SOTECH December 2010, Volume 8, Issue 9.)
Olson also said his command is highly interested in unmanned platforms of all types. “We’re continuing to develop remotely piloted capabilities,” whether they are air, ground or maritime assets, he said.
Use of unmanned platforms has increased exponentially during the years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unmanned platforms are able to accomplish missions ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to putting steel on targets, all without placing personnel in harm’s way.
Yet another area where Olson wishes to see further advancements is in providing personnel in the field with more electrical power to answer the insatiable thirst of multiplying systems that combatants carry. Laptops, live video streams from UAVs, hearing protection systems, gunshot detection systems, navigation/satellite telemetry screens, comms and more are increasing weight burdens on dismounted troops to intolerable levels, especially when heavy batteries are used to power the gear.
In response, Olson said, “We have recently developed and deployed one prototype … of field-level solar [power] capabilities.”
With solar power, logisticians needn’t transport as much fuel into a theater. For many military strategists, the holy grail is to invent lightweight electrical generation and storage systems.
Aside from what special operations is moving toward in hardware for the future, there also are success stories in what already has been developed: the MC 130 Whiskey Dragon Spear, a lift aircraft that resupplies special operators, refuels special operations vertical lift aircraft, serves as a sensor platform and more. “It’s been called a gunship,” Olson said. “It’s not, although it has a gun.” He noted this AFSOC-operated platform, based on the C-130, “went from being imagined to flying” in about 90 days, and became operational in 18 months.
As well, he said, special operations organizations have increased their helo inventory of Black Hawks, Chinooks, and manned and unmanned ISR platforms. He also discussed other special operations-related issues, including the difficult challenges that special operators have faced in the years since the September 11 attacks.
In the special operations area, “we doubled our force over the last nine years [and] tripled our budget over the last nine years,” he reported. He estimates there now are about 60,000 personnel, counting all types of special operators. “We have quadrupled our overseas deployment over the last nine years,” he added. Those are significant increases.
And yet there is a seemingly limitless demand by combatant commanders for special operations missions. “So we are doing more with more. But the more we’re doing it with doesn’t match the more we’ve been asked to do,” Olson said.
All of that adds up to heavy demands on special operations personnel. “So we are, frankly, [starting] to show some fraying around the edges,” Olson disclosed.
Personnel face both “pressure on duty, [and] pressure off duty,” he explained. Some of them have voted with their feet, deciding not to re-up when their current enlistment period ends.
Special operations units are “seeing a few more mid-grade people leaving the service,” Olson related. Many entered service in a wave of patriotism, inspired by the September 11 attacks, and were satisfied with what they did in uniform for some eight to 10 years, Olson continued. But they now may feel they don’t want to extend that, being cool to the idea of doing the same difficult work for 18 to 20 years.
The pressure on the force has led to a focus on the problem of just how to lessen stress on personnel, he said. “There is no single solution,” he added. “It’s a thousand different approaches.”
Finally, he noted that special operations organizations increasingly are operating in less developed parts of the world, shifting away from advanced industrialized nations. That presents new challenges, because in those less-developed areas “we generally don’t speak their languages” or possess expertise in their cultures and religions, and it takes time to get to areas that often are in the Southern Hemisphere.
He also noted that major improvements have been achieved in the special operations area, including mobility and communications.
 
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