Tag Archives: Special Operations Command

Special Operations “Iron Man” Suit Takes Shape

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talos-iron-man-suit

“DEFENSE NEWS”

“It’s getting very real right now,” Col. James Miller, the director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force TALOS.

The team of around 35 vendors, labs and academic institutions are diving deeper on systems engineering, he said, adding, “We are going to start building parts and snapping them together” while testing for functionality and safety.

The informally named “Iron Man” suit that U.S. Special Operations has been developing will start to come together over the next 18 months with a first prototype expected to be fully built by the end of 2018.

Formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, Special Operations Command has spent the past four years tackling complicated technical hurdles to try to revolutionize the performance of a dismounted operator by developing the armored exoskeleton.

Some skeptics have said the project is moving too slowly or that it’s a waste of money to try to develop something only a reality in comic books and movies, akin to the Pentagon building a “Star Wars” Death Star. A few years ago, the suit even made its way into then-Sen. Tom Coburn’s, R-Okla., famous “wastebook” among 100 federal programs he called wasteful.

But for Miller, getting TALOS right would be a revolutionary leap ahead achievement for the future special operator, not meant to be fielded in just a few years. “We are trying to redefine in many respects science and engineering,” he said.

“We are putting a human inside of a robot,” Miller said, which “has to emulate the human itself.”

The program isn’t tackling how to give back capability to someone who is impaired; it’s trying to take an elite athlete and super empower someone with that capability, James “Hondo” Geurts, USSOCOM acquisition executive told Defense News in an interview at SOFIC.

While SOCOM is trying to push the bounds with a full suit, there have already been “great spin-offs both in technology and in business practices,” along the way, he said.

TALOS program officials sat down with industry representatives by appointment for nearly 12 non-consecutive hours over the course of three-and-a-half day conference.

Each layer of the suit presents complicated technical challenges, and integrating all the layers is yet another challenge. Miller sees it as a “system of systems,” like an aircraft or other major weapons platform.

Miller said the base layer of the suit needs to be capable of regulating the operator’s temperature and will have tubes incorporated into the layer delivering chilled water to keep an operator’s core from overheating. Also “junctional fragmentation” will be woven into the fabric to protect the operator where armor pieces won’t cover.

The exoskeleton’s purpose is to displace hundreds of pounds of weight and enhance body movement. It has to be perfectly form-fitting, “kinematically seamless with the body,” Miller said. The individual wearing it shouldn’t notice it’s there.

“If we get that right, then we are good,” he said, adding exoskeletons have been attempted in the past several decades, but some were so big they couldn’t fit through a door. That won’t work for special operators engaging in close-quarter combat, Miller added.

The 800-part exoskeleton is currently being built using carbon fiber plastics, which is strong enough to replicate and prove design, but not enough to be encumbering or too expensive, Miller said.

The program has used rapid 3-D prototyping as it refines the exoskeleton and has managed to cut what was expected to be a billion-dollar project “way back,” Miller said.

For now, the first prototype will be made of titanium, he said, which is lighter and stronger.

Building on the exoskeleton will be an electric actuation system to emulate muscles. The program will develop both upper- and lower-body actuation, Miler said, which is very hard to do, but both are needed.

The final layer of the suit is the armor. The military has mastered ballistic protection on the chest, back and head, but the legs, arms and face continue to lack appropriate protection, Miller said.

The suit can’t be completely armored head to toe because it would hinder movement too much, so positioning the armor is crucial. The current suit would likely have 26 pieces of armor.

The program is entertaining the idea of a removable mandible to cover the lower half of the face and is experimenting with ways to protect the entire face.

“The thing we haven’t gotten to yet is transparent ballistic material glass … that is not so thick you get [dizzy] and want to throw up all over the place,” Miller said.

The entire suit will be powered through a system on the back that is currently configured to use commercially available batteries. That method of power is limiting, but at least it’s not a suit that requires being plugged into the wall like experimental robotic suits of the past, Miller noted.

The power will not only control the suit but also a computer that processes a network of communications systems integrated into the helmet that feeds audio and imagery into some kind of head-up display, possibly at cheek-level, Miller said.

Much is left to be contemplated after the first prototype is built, and Miller stressed this is the first of many.

Questions have yet to be answered, such as how the suit could be employed operationally, how to get it to fit a variety of body types and how an operator would quickly get out of the suit if it broke down. Those would likely be answered once the science and technology piece ended and the program moved into an official program of record, according to Miller.”

http://www.defensenews.com/articles/its-getting-real-special-ops-iron-man-suit-takes-shape-amid-leap-ahead-tech-hurdles

Special Operations Command Opens Doors for Small Firms

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Special Operations Command

Photo:  USSOCOM

“NATIONAL DEFENSE MAGAZINE”

“Unique technology needs mean more opportunities for small businesses and startups to get their foot in the door with SOCOM, program managers have said.

The command has become known as an organization that has come up with some inventive ways to speed up traditional military acquisition regimes.

I would rather play a lot of blackjack than play roulette,” James “Hondo” Geurts, the chief of Special Operations Command’s acquisition, technology and logistics organization said recently.

The analogy spells out his philosophy when it comes to procuring new technologies special operators need to carry out their unique missions. Small, carefully placed bets on niche technologies have a better payoff, in the long run, than spending a lot of funding on any one big program, he said at this year’s National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference.

He wants to fund the technologies “that will transition quickly, then keep moving on,” he said.

“Things are changing so fast we don’t have three years to figure out what we want to do to support an operation. I’m happy if I have three months to figure out some of these things,” he said.

“We want new voices and new ideas,” Geurts said.

One practice SOCOM uses to acquire and discover new technologies is “technical experimentation” venues.

It invites technology developers to bring their works in progress to a hosted event three to four times per year. Each event has a specific theme. Special operators with experience in the field are on hand to assess the technology and provide feedback, which helps them to improve their products, said Kelly Stratton-Feix, director of acquisition agility at special operations forces’ acquisition, technology and logistics office. 

A request for information is posted through FedBizOpps, and advertised on LinkedIn and Facebook pages. Technology providers reply with a white paper, which is then reviewed by users such as components, theater commands and program offices. The users identify the experiments that they are interested in seeing, and the technology provider then receives an invitation to participate, she said. 

Technical experimentations “provide a win-win environment because technology providers can get insight into what’s important to the user early in the development cycle and we get to see technology early on, and often identify additional use-cases that haven’t been considered by the developer,” said Stratton-Feix. 

For those who cannot make it to one of these events, the command launched a web-based technology repository/scouting platform called “Vulcan.”  

This tool, which is searchable and accessible to any government employee, enables technology providers to quickly describe technologies they are offering and to upload supporting documentation to a secure, shared, searchable central database, Stratton-Feix said.

A registered Vulcan user who sees an interesting technology can issue a one-time use “token” to the technology provider who can then upload a scout card containing further information about the product.

“Vulcan is a work in progress,” she said. There are currently more than 1,500 scout cards loaded, with more than 700 registered government users, she added.

There are two other means to initiate contact with SOCOM.

One is the director of small business who provides guidance and information to industry and commercial partners on how to get their foot in the door with the command.

“This office should be one of a small business’ first contacts when initiating communication with USSOCOM,” Stratton-Feix recommended.

The technology and industry liaison office is another conduit to present information on capabilities to the various PEOs, directorates and others responsible for the research and development, acquisition, production and sustainment of materiel and technology platforms. It has a web portal where ideas can be submitted.  

Another high-profile effort to reach out to the larger technology community is SOFWERX, an unclassified, open collaboration facility designed to bring non-traditional partners from industry, academia and the government together to work on the command’s most challenging problems.    

The building located in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was intentionally chosen so those wanting to collaborate with SOCOM didn’t need to go through onerous security checkpoints at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, where SOCOM headquarters is found.  

The facility, and a nearby workshop known as DirtyWerx, conduct design thinking sessions, technology sprints, rapid prototyping and other events with government, academia and innovators in the commercial marketplace. It is also the central node in the command’s efforts to push advanced manufacturing and 3D printing technology to operational units, Stratton-Feix said.

Geurts warned that SOFWERX is not intended to be a “bypass” facility to get around traditional ways for the command to acquire technology. It is intended to be “way left” of that process, he said.

Along with these facilities, events and web portals, SOCOM employs some contract vehicles to speed up the traditional acquisition process, which is normally subject to the time-consuming Federal Acquisition Regulation regime.  

“Velocity is our competitive advantage,” Geurts said. “That is what we bring to the fight,” he added, speaking of the command’s acquisition enterprise.

He returned to the roulette analogy. The four services spend a lot of time writing requirements then they “throw the ball on the wheel and let it ride.”

Cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA) have been used by the military to provide some seed money to potential vendors and kick start technology development.

The command established ways to make that process even more streamlined by creating an “Overarching CRADA,” which has already been signed by Geurts. If firms find the CRADA acceptable they simply add their corporate information and sign the document.

“This process now allows for [Overarching CRADAs] to be established in weeks to months compared to the year-long traditional process,” Stratton-Feix said. 

In addition, CRADA partners can now enter in individual work plans with any of the command’s program executive offices or directorates. There are currently 156 CRADAs and 10 active individual work plans with several more in the works, the command said.

SOCOM must comply with the same statutory and regulatory measures required of the military departments. However, the SOF AT&L team “aggressively utilizes the inherent freedom and flexibility of the DoD 5000 series of directives and instructions by streamlining processes and tailoring documentation in developing and managing SOF-peculiar programs,” said Stratton-Feix.

That directive includes such vehicles as “urgent operational needs” and “immediate war fighter needs,” which allows for more rapid technology acquisition, as long as solutions are not developmental and can be acquired off the shelf with few changes.

Other transaction authorities, or OTAs, allow in certain circumstances for program managers to go outside traditional contracts to rapidly acquire prototypes and forgo FAR requirements as long as the agreement is with a “nontraditional defense contractor” and there is some cost-sharing, as the regulations stated.   

“Non-FAR contracts are a great device but not a panacea,” Geurts said.

Geurts wants small businesses and startups to use these various portals to kick off the process of putting their ideas and products in front of SOCOM. 

He meets regularly with vendors, but “don’t come selling me a widget,” he warned. He wants to hear from potential suppliers when they are having a hard time with the process, or if they have ideas on how the command can be a better customer.

“What keeps me up at night is somebody has an idea that can’t get to me,” he said.”

http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2017/4/20/special-operations-command-opens-doors-for-small-firms

 

The Obscure Company Behind America’s Syria Fiasco

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Image: Aram Roston BuzzFeed News

“Buzzfeed”

“At the heart of the high-stakes U.S. program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS is a multimillion-dollar arms deal that the Pentagon farmed out to a tiny, little-known private company called Purple Shovel LLC.

The U.S. violated its own policy and gave Purple Shovel approval to acquire millions of dollars’ worth of high-tech missiles for the rebels from Belarus.

▸ Purple Shovel, through the subcontractors it selected and oversaw, tried to sell the U.S. thousands of Russian-style rocket-propelled grenades that were considered unreliable because they were manufactured three decades ago, before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union.

▸ The U.S. government rejected them, and that delayed the effort to stand up the Syrian rebel force.

▸ An American contractor, 41-year-old Francis Norwillo, was killed in a weapons explosion in Bulgaria while training with such outdated grenades.

▸  Belarus, which has supplied weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and is accused of human rights violations, is normally off-limits to U.S. arms dealers. But the U.S. military and State Department agreed to make an exception, allowing 700 powerful anti-tank missiles to be purchased, with U.S. taxpayer funds, for the rebels.

A Pentagon spokesperson defended its Train and Equip program in a statement to BuzzFeed News, saying, “We remain committed to expanding the New Syrian Forces and will continue to support those who we have trained.” She said the arms “delivery issues” identified in this story did not “prevent” training, though she said she would “not comment on delivery schedules.” A U.S. Special Operations Command spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Allen, acknowledged that the U.S. had acquired missiles from Belarus for the program.

A lawyer for Purple Shovel wrote that many of BuzzFeed News’ findings are incorrect. She declined to provide details because she said the firm is barred by federal law from discussing its Defense Department contracts. Purple Shovel’s CEO and founder, Benjamin Worrell, said in a brief telephone conversation, “I have absolutely no comment for you. I’m sorry.”

Purple Shovel’s arms contract is at the core of one of America’s top international priorities: thwarting ISIS, the extremist group that has seized large regions of Syria and Iraq, beheaded many of its captives, and helped fuel the ongoing exodus of refugees from Syria. Last year, President Barack Obama gave a primetime televised speech from the White House, calling on Congress to approve his $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels. The program was to recruit moderate Syrians, vet them to ensure they weren’t infiltrators sent by ISIS or other groups, train them overtly using the U.S. military, and arm them. In December, Congress appropriated the funds.

A militant waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa, Syria, in June 2014. Stringer / Reuters

Yet this July, eight months later, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter testified that only 60 Syrians had been trained. Later, in a devastating blow, the Syrian commander trained by the Americans was captured along with some of his soldiers by Islamist rebels from the Jabhat al-Nusra group. And this week, the commander of Central Command, General Lloyd Austin, testified that only four or five of the U.S.-trained rebels were actually deployed and fighting ISIS.

While those fiascoes are known, the problems with Purple Shovel’s multimillion-dollar arms contract have not been reported until now, and they show that troubles with the high-profile effort run deeper than previously realized.

They also illuminate the murky world of arms-dealing contractors behind many of America’s efforts to prop up friendly fighting forces. The United States government is one of the biggest buyers of AK-47s and other Russian-designed weapons, pouring them into Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries. The U.S. provides foreign weapons to groups it trains because fighters sometimes prefer them, because they can conceal U.S. links to an operation, and because they are inexpensive. As BuzzFeed News has reported, the Pentagon and the CIA sometimes use small, untested arms dealers to purchase the weapons.

A Tiny Firm Wins Big Contracts

Incorporated in Delaware in 2010, Purple Shovel was founded by Benjamin Worrell, who worked in Army counterintelligence from 1993 to 2001, according to military records. His company is designated as a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned small business. His last assignment was with the 902nd Military Intelligence Group out of Fort Meade, Maryland. Military websites say the unit runs “full spectrum counterintelligence activities,” which include “detecting, identifying, neutralizing and exploiting foreign intelligence services, international terrorist threats and insider threats.”

From 2005 onward, according to his LinkedIn page, Worrell worked for the U.S. government and a series of contracting companies. He and his wife filed for personal bankruptcy in 2008, the year the financial crisis was cratering the economy. He reached an agreement with the bankruptcy court to discharge the debt, and federal court records show that his bankruptcy case was closed in July 2012. A Purple Shovel attorney, Margaret Carland, emailed that the bankruptcy was associated with medical costs and “is a private matter of no public news consideration.”

Purple Shovel’s big break came in December 2014, when it won two contracts totaling more than $50 million for the Syria program from the Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, which coordinates the activities of America’s most elite military units.

When Purple Shovel was awarded those crucial contracts, according to a federal procurement database, the company had just six employees and annual revenue of less than $2 million.

One contract, for $23.5 million, was not for guns, but rather for training and equipment. Over time, the contract came to include things like “Arabic keyboards,” and swelled to $31 million. Purple Shovel, records show, got this contract as a “sole source” award, meaning there was no competitive bidding — no other companies were able to try to get the work at a cheaper rate. Federal law typically discourages no-bid contracts, and the Pentagon declined to say why one was given in this case, though a federal procurement data system reported that it was because there was “only one source.” Still, according to a performance review Purple Shovel shared with BuzzFeed News, the government gave the company a glowing review of its work on this contract, which was completed at the end of July, calling the work “exceptional.”

The other big SOCOM contract was for approximately $26.7 million and was for “Foreign Weapons and Ammunition,” according to the description. In this case, federal records say Purple Shovel won the contract in a competitive bid against two other companies. This contract eventually worked its way up to $28.3 million.

The equipment Purple Shovel and its subcontractors were supposed to buy for the Syrian rebels, according to documents and sources familiar with the procurement operation in Bulgaria, included 12,640 armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades, of a type called the PG-7VM, along with hundreds of shoulder-mounted launchers. Then there were 6,240 even longer-range anti-tank grenades called PG-9Vs, which are fired from launchers called SPG-9s. (Insiders pronounce it “spig-nines.”)

BuzzFeed News

According to four sources with knowledge of the procurement, there was a huge problem with the effort to get the grenades. Purple Shovel’s subcontractors managed to find rocket-propelled grenades made by a Bulgarian company, but they’d been manufactured in 1984 and sitting in warehouses longer than many soldiers had been alive. “1984 is way past its shelf life,” one arms expert told BuzzFeed News, “unless it’s been refurbished.” But sources say these grenades had not been refurbished. The problem is that components can degrade, making the weapons either unstable, so they can blow up in a soldier’s hand­, or inert, so that soldiers can’t fire the weapons, leaving them vulnerable in battle.

Three of those sources said that SOCOM turned down batches of the grenades that were supposed to be given to the rebels, because they were too old and unreliable. They say that slowed down the operation for the Syrian rebel effort.

SOCOM and the Pentagon didn’t dispute that they rejected substandard equipment, but Cmdr. Elissa J. Smith, a Pentagon spokesperson, emailed BuzzFeed News, “I can tell you that the delivery issues did not prevent training from occurring.”

Meanwhile, Bulgarian arms dealers with knowledge of the deal told BuzzFeed News they are being asked to find newly manufactured rocket-propelled grenades for SOCOM to fill the gap in the Syria program. New weapons are hard to procure, Bulgarian arms industry executives said, because due to the wars around the world, production for Russian-designed grenades and other weapons in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries has reached capacity. The production lines are full.

Syrian rebels with a SPG-9 rocket launcher in 2012. John Cantlie / AFP / Getty Images

Death Of A Contractor

On June 6, the news broke in Bulgaria of a mysterious explosion near the village of Anevo, at a rented arms range just a few miles from a medieval mountain fortress. One American contractor was killed and two were injured. Two Bulgarians were also injured.

Soon afterward, the U.S. Embassy in the Bulgarian capital Sofia released a statement revealing the name of the Purple Shovel and its connection to the Syria operation.

The defense contractors involved in this incident are employees of the company Purple Shovel, which has been awarded a contract by U.S. Special Operations Command, at the request of U.S. Central Command, to support the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria (CJIATF-S). CJIATF-S is the organization tasked to administer the Coalition Syria Train and Equip program.

BuzzFeed News has learned that the man who lost his life was Francis Norwillo, a 41-year-old Navy veteran who was an expert armorer. Sources close to his family say that after leaving the Navy, where he had worked with Navy SEALs, Norwillo joined the ranks of the private military-contracting world.

Francis Norwillo Courtesy of Joe Norwillo

This spring, he was based in Texas and looking for work. Sources say he was hired by SkyBridge Tactical, a subcontractor to Purple Shovel. His job, according to friends and family members who asked that they not be named, was training. They say he told them he would be in Bulgaria for a week and a half. There, sources say, Norwillo was supposed to receive training meant to familiarize him with the rocket-propelled grenades so that he would be prepared to train American soldiers who would, in turn, train the Syrian rebels.

He was killed, according to five sources and Bulgarian news accounts, when he fired a grenade that was old, manufactured in 1984.

The family was told little about the cause of the accident. “All we know is a weapon went off and he got blown up,” said Joe Norwillo, his father, in a phone interview from Texas. The Bulgarian government is conducting a probe, and the prosecutor’s office there told BuzzFeed News that it will be completed in December.

In her statement to BuzzFeed News, Purple Shovel’s lawyer wrote: “Mr. Norwillo’s death was a tragic accident. All of the questions you ask here must be asked of the US Government or the subcontractor who oversaw his actions.”

The SOCOM spokesperson, in an email, wrote that “we have not yet received an official report from the host government, which means we can’t know with certainty what occurred at the time of the incident.” Contradicting the U.S. Embassy statement, he added, “To the best of our knowledge, he was not supporting our contract when the incident took place.”

U.S. authorities said there is no American investigation into Norwillo’s death at this point.

SkyBridge Tactical, the subcontractor that employed Norwillo, declined to comment. The president, Stephen Rumbley, said that Norwillo’s family had been upset by BuzzFeed News’ calls: “If you hadn’t talked to the family to upset them I would talk to you. Write your blog. Do your thing. I’m not going to talk to you.”

Other companies were involved as subcontractors, according to sources and documents. Regulus Global, headquartered in Virginia, was Purple Shovel’s primary procurement subcontractor. It, in turn, arranged to buy the grenades from a Bulgarian firm, Algans Ltd.

In a brief interview, Regulus Global’s president, Lee Tolleson, said, “What we are doing for SOCOM is very good and very needed.” He declined further comment. Algans could not be reached for comment, and the firm did not respond to an email with detailed questions.

U.S. Buys Weapons From A Dictator

In addition to the rocket-propelled grenades, Purple Shovel was also contracted to acquire 700 Russian-designed Konkurs missiles for the Syria mission. Those are anti-tank weapons, which are guided in flight by an attached wire, and they can hit and destroy a target at up to two and a half miles away. In theory, they could be used to blast the heavy armor that ISIS had acquired by conquering U.S.-equipped units of the Iraqi army that fled. Or they could hit the heavily armored construction vehicles that ISIS jerry-rigs to bust through fortified lines.

But there was a problem: finding them on the worldwide arms market. Bulgaria, the source for most of the weapons for the Syria operation, didn’t have any. Ukraine is known to have some stored away but won’t sell because it is in a shooting war with Russian-backed rebels.

A country that has plenty is Belarus. But that country, often called “Europe’s last dictatorship,” is usually considered off-limits for arms dealers who work with the United States. President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has ruled with an iron fist for 21 years, and he has been accused of repeatedly stealing elections and of “disappearing” political opponents. This year, a United Nations special rapporteur found that “the situation of human rights in Belarus has not improved, and that widespread disrespect for human rights, in particular civil and political rights, continues.”

Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko. Afp / AFP / Getty Images

Ironically, along with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Belarus was historically a major seller of arms to the Assad regime from 2006 to 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms sales.

Belarus is on a special “International Traffic in Arms Regulations” list published by the U.S. State Department, of countries with bans or special restrictions. The State Department has to license almost every deal involving US companies, and arms dealers say they are almost always prohibited from buying weapons from Belarus, because it is on that list.

Still, Purple Shovel and its subcontractors turned to Belarus for the Konkurs missiles, according to five sources and SOCOM itself. Formally, the missiles would be acquired by Purple Shovel for SOCOM from a company in Bulgaria — but that company would get them from Belarus. Asked if it knew that the 700 Konkurs missiles specifically came from Belarus, the SOCOM spokesperson answered, “Yes. USSOCOM is required to know all sources of equipment procured for use.” SOCOM and the Office of the Secretary of Defense would not provide further comment on the issue. The U.S. State Department, which licenses private arms deals, also signed off on the transaction, sources say. The State Department declined to comment.

An official at the Military Industrial Committee of the Republic of Belarus, which coordinates military exports, told BuzzFeed News to send questions by email, but a subsequent email received no response.

At the Purple Shovel headquarters in at an office park in Sterling, Virginia, there’s a Purple Shovel logo on the mirrored front door. It shows a globe, a shovel formed from the letter “P,” and the words “Around the world, Around the clock.” Earlier this month, no one responded to repeated knocks on the door.”

http://www.buzzfeed.com/aramroston/the-secret-arms-deal-behind-americas-syria-fiasco#.hdVXaYmwe7