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Spec Ops Chief Says Elite Troops Will ‘Probably Not’ Skip a Generation of Tech
By Spencer Ackerman
01.29.13 - 12:15 PM
Next to their ability to kill people, advanced technology is one of the calling cards of special operations forces. But their top commander doubts their ability to skip an emerging generation of technology in favor of an even wilder future.
“In this budget right now, probably not,” Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told a special operations confab in Washington on Tuesday morning, in response to a question from Danger Room. Keeping the technological edge that defines “SOF” may likely depend on the unexpected, unanticipated gear that defense tech companies present to McRaven’s forces.
“I’d like to say everything is requirements-driven, that we determine a requirement and therefore we go, OK now we’ve got to build towards that and that’s what it should look like,” McRaven said. “A lot of times someone shows up with the iPhone and says, ‘How would you like one of these,’ and you go, ‘I never thought of that.’… If industry brings us an opportunity to leap over the next generation we will absolutely take advantage of it.”
The mission that arguably defines McRaven’s career offered a rare peek into the advanced technologies that special operations forces employ. Raiding the Abbottabad compound that housed Osama bin Laden didn’t just depend on SEALs that trained for the raid through countless night raids in Afghanistan. It also depended on quiet, stealth helicopters to insert and remove them the compound without detection by Pakistani air defense — something very few outside the spec-ops community knew were even developed. Before the raid, a powerful and super-secret stealth drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, repeatedly swooped in and hovered over the compound to gather intelligence on it.
“Technology is important for us because we have got to have a comparative advantage over the enemy and there is an expectation from our conventional counterparts that SOF [special operations forces] will have a technological advantage in some areas over the conventional forces because we can afford to put more effort, put more money into buying smaller numbers for an elite SOF force,” McRaven said.
It’s unclear how impending budget cuts will effect McRaven’s technological edge. He seemed more concerned about Congress’ inability to pass a budget than he was about potential across-the-board Pentagon budget cuts slated for March 1, a contrast from nearly every other senior military commander. Special operations have been flooded with cash since 9/11, and have grown dramatically — but so has the pace of their deployments, and that’s likely to continue as the shadow wars that largely depend on elite troops proliferate and entrench.
McRaven didn’t want to look at his forces’ ability to innovate solely in terms of tech. “There’s an automatic default to go towards technology: ‘Let’s find a way to, instead of taking a squad out there, let’s put one remotely piloted vehicle out there or let’s put one robot over here,’” he said. “Right now we’re learning how to be innovative organizationally.” That is, flattening the structure of special operations forces;
expanding their integration with the regional military commands that use them around the world; and pushing information to low-level special operators rapidly, even over the public internet using secured connections.
It also depends on “persistent presence,” McRaven said — something he pointedly noted special operations forces lacked in Mali ahead of last year’s military coup, which supposedly cut off partnership with the Malian military. McRaven demurred from discussing support to the French war in Mali. But overhanging his remarks was the news that the U.S. had inked a deal with the neighboring government of Niger to provide a new hub for U.S. drones to monitor extremist activity in west Africa — and, quite possibly, the ability to strike them directly. Persistent spec-ops presence in west Africa is likely on deck.
McRaven also copped to a certain amount of personal technological unfamiliarity. “I’m 57 years old, I don’t have a Facebook account, I don’t Twitter,” he said. Not that he needs to tweet about the far-out tech that his elite forces will likely still develop and use.
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