For commandos who rely on the latest equipment and technology delivered at the speed of special operations, and for a defense industry feeling the sting of the Pentagon budget axe, this week’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, being held at the Tampa Convention Center, is widely seen as the most important event of the year.
Just how huge is the four-day conference, which will bring about 4,000 attendees to Tampa and more than 300 companies showcasing their wares in the convention center’s exhibition hall?
At a time when defense spending is being slashed, the number of troops is being reduced and entire fleets of aircraft are facing budget-induced grounding, there is still one place where increased spending, though relatively modest, is a real possibility.
Tampa, home of U.S. Special Operations Command.
The command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, has its own budget for research and development and acquisition. SOCOM is seeking an increase of $140 million in research and development money, and about $60 million in acquisition funds in the next Pentagon budget. That would give it about $2 billion to spend on designing and providing products and services for commandos and getting gear into their hands as quickly as possible. Then there is another $2 billion allocated for sustainment of all those things, says James Geurts, SOCOM’s acquisition executive.
“Our number one priority always is supplying effective technology, equipment and logistic support to the deployed operator,” Geurts said. “My operation is in charge of doing that for all (special operations forces).”
SOFIC “is a mechanism to find technologies to help the operator today, about the future and how can we operate on a global scale with all our international partners,” Geurts said. “And then it is about working with industry so that we have an acquisition system that allows us to rapidly contract and obtain equipment, services and technology from our industry partners at the speed of special operations. The interface between the command and industry is what makes this conference important.”
The war in Afghanistan is coming to a close in December, and though special operations forces will play a key role in whatever U.S. presence remains, the command is planning for a future that includes meeting pent-up needs around the globe for Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Marine special operators, Air Force special tactics airmen and other special operators.
Because the Obama administration wants to shift the military’s focus to Asia, SOCOM is “looking to get back into the maritime environment,” says Geurts, and is “focused on making sure we have equipment, whether on the surface or below the surface, that operates well in the maritime environment. We are looking for lighter, more capable, less power-intensive systems to put on both the operator and on any of our vehicles or aircraft or boats.”
SOCOM’s ability to make its own purchases, combined with a potential increase in the money it has to spend, is good news for the defense industry, says Barry Bates, a retired Army major general who serves as vice president of operations for the National Defense Industry Association, the trade group that puts on SOFIC.
“As you look across industry, you see there are balance sheets that are not growing,” says Bates. “They are stagnant at best.”
As a result, more and more companies are looking to merge, “looking for opportunities to purchase capabilities that will place them into the sweet spot, or sweet spots, which are few and far between.”
Special operations, Bates said, is one of those sweet spots, especially for companies selling sensor systems, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment, special ops vehicles, communications systems and miniaturized and lightweight products, especially power supplies.
“Special operations as a capability continues to enjoy preferential and protective budget treatment,” he says. “It has been identified as one of those capabilities that will be used in an increase rate and level in the future.”
But though SOCOM has enjoyed increasing favor, especially after Navy SEALs took out Osama bin Laden, the command is not given carte blanche.
In the current budget debate, Congress has pushed back on several SOCOM initiatives, including one of Admiral William McRaven’s priorities — the development of an “Iron Man suit” called TALOS for commandos.
The House Armed Services Committee “is concerned that these requirements are not being properly coordinated with related or complementary efforts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Command,” according to a recent committee report. “While USSOCOM is the proper authority to define Special Operations Forces peculiar requirements, it may not be the appropriate entity to lead such developmental technology efforts, like TALOS.”
As a result, the committee directed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to “brief the congressional defense committees by Aug. 1, on the TALOS project and similar efforts.”
SOCOM “has always looked hard at the budget to maximize the return and benefit on any dollar we spend,” said Geurts, adding that “we work very closely and very diligently” with Congress regarding TALOS. “We will continue to do so. That’s part of how we do business.”
Geurts also says that it is too early in the current budget process to talk about how the command will fare.
Even with Congress pulling back on the reins, the command pumps money into the local economy, Geurts said.
“I don’t have a direct dollar figure on how much exactly goes here, but it is significant,” Geurts said. “There are a number of large and small suppliers in the local area that are critically important to SOCOM that we have enjoyed an enduring partnership with.”
SOFIC, he said, also has several sessions tailored to help small and emerging businesses work with the command.
Last year, more than a quarter of SOCOM contracts went to small businesses and this year’s goal is to match or exceed that, Geurts says.
The conference itself is beneficial to the regional economy, area defense and hospitality industry officials say.
“One of the biggest benefits with SOFIC for the local economy and for local companies is just the ability to meet with everyone in the community who has an interest in their providing services or manufacturing or building something related to special operations,” says Greg Celestan, chairman and chief executive officer of Celestar Corp., one of many local companies working with SOCOM. “Anyone who is a player in the community will be here for SOFIC.”
The conference, he points out, is a gathering of not only industry, but of a large bulk of the U.S. special operations command leadership, as well as international special operations forces commanders. The fourth International Special Operations Forces conference is also being held at the convention center, bringing representatives from 84 nations to Tampa. The international conference will be highlighted by a public training exercise that will see commandos from 16 nations in boats, helicopters and ground vehicles “rescue” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who will be “captured” by a “violent extremist organization,” according to Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Allen, a SOCOM spokesman.
“This is ‘THE’ event,” Celestan said, “especially since many of the other conferences have cut back.”
Like Geurts, Celestan, past chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Port Tampa Bay Board of Directors, doesn’t have specific figures for the amount of SOCOM dollars spent locally. Nor does the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. or the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance.
But overall, defense spending is a huge and critical sector for the regional economy.
A study conducted last year for the Florida Defense Alliance reported that with nearly $14 billion in gross regional product, the military accounted for about 7 percent of all economic activity in the region.
Regardless of how much SOCOM pumps into the local economy, the conference, which organizers expect will attract about 4,000 attendees, will offer a near-term boost at the very least, community leaders say.
“It will have a direct economic impact to the local economy from lodging, to dining, to local attractions,” says Rich McClain, executive director of the Tampa Bay Defense Alliance.
Visit Tampa Bay says SOFIC will generate more than 7,000 room nights, with a projected infusion of nearly $1.7 million into the local economy.
“In addition to the direct economic benefit, the Tampa Bay area is once again placed in the national and International spotlight as a hub of excellence in the defense community,” says McClain.
Bates, from the NDIA, agrees.
The event is so popular that about 300 companies seeking exhibit space — about as many as will actually set up booths — were turned away because the convention center doesn’t have the space.
But that won’t deter the organization from returning, says Bates.
“There is no danger of it moving,” he says. “Having the event at the command’s doorstep is absolutely the key to this being a successful event.”