TAMPA - One thing that makes the Special Operations Command special is the authority it has to develop and buy its own equipment and services. That autonomy takes center stage this week as thousands of commandos and defense industry representatives flock to Tampa for the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference at the Tampa Convention Center, Tuesday through Thursday. With budget constraints and the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, many military industry conferences have seen a drop off in attendance. Not here.
So many companies want to show their wares that the conference could fill a venue twice as large. Headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, the Special Operations Command, or Socom, provides personnel and synchronizes planning of global operations against terrorist networks. To carry out this task, the command, created by Congress after the failed attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, was given its own budget and acquisition authority. It is a budget unlikely to see drastic reductions even as the Pentagon cuts troops, grounds aircraft and takes other measures to get by on a trillion dollars less during the next decade. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the command's acquisition office handled more than 15,000 contracts worth more than $3.4 billion. For contractors, the Tampa conference is a rare opportunity to hear directly from Socom leaders about their needs and to show off what they have to offer. “This is probably one of the most important conferences we attend,” says Greg Celestan, chairman and chief executive officer of Tampa-based Celestar Corp., a Socom contractor. “The command usually keeps the veil pretty tight for security reasons. This is the one time where they lift the veil a little bit. It is important for us to see what the requirements are so we can start planning.” After more than 12 years of large-scale warfare, the U.S. will rely more on the capabilities of special operations forces around the globe. At the same time, the military is expanding its attention beyond the Middle East and Southwest Asia to the Pacific. These changes present opportunities for companies supplying commandos. With fewer conventional troops available, and with help farther away, commandos will need more effective intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communications systems, says Barry Bates, vice president of operations for the National Defense Industry Association, the trade group co-sponsoring the Tampa conference with Socom. And still, commandos will need to get into and out of the places their missions take them. “As we reduce footprints and we begin to look at operating in theaters where there may be longer distances involved, special operations forces will need even greater communications capabilities,” says Bates, a retired Army major general. “And always, with special operations forces, there will be a continuous desire to improve the insertion capabilities whether by fixed wing or rotary wing aircraft.” Another growth area, Bates says, will be language and culture training services. Commandos are best known for missions like the raid on the Pakistani compound of Osama bin Laden, but they spend much of their time training foreign forces and even teaching skills like governance and farming. All this requires a strong working knowledge of local populations and languages. “The language and cultural training aspects that are truly unique to special operations force missions are some areas that will enjoy a high priority,” Bates says. This year, as in the past, the Tampa Convention Center exhibition hall will be crammed this week with unmanned aerial systems, high-tech imaging equipment, small arms, rocket launchers, armored vehicles, flight simulators and equipment to lessen the load on commandos, who routinely carry more than 100 pounds of gear into battle. The conference would be smaller and less important if held elsewhere, Bates says. “If we were doing the conference in Huntsville or D.C., it would not have the draw is has now,” he says. “By doing it in Tampa, the Socom folks can participate without travel costs and we get a good turnout from them.” The conference is always a “learning experience” for Socom, says Army Col. Lee Ransdell, an assistant to the head of the command's acquisition's office. People working in acquisitions get to hear from commanders and commandos in the field, as well academicians and the industry about needs and availability, Ransdell says. “This is a good set up,” he says. “We need the operators' perspective on what kit and equipment and capabilities they need.” Co-hosting the conference has two benefits, Ransdell says. It reduces expenses in a time of tight budgets and fosters greater cooperation. “What makes this conference so great is that you also have some members from academia, who offer a pretty neat perspective,” he says. “We start to combine all these good ideas on innovation and creativity, and the operators come out a winner.” The conference also helps fulfill a main priority of Socom commander Adm. William McRaven – the mental, physical and spiritual needs of men and women who have served overseas during the past 12 years as well as the needs of their families. Ransdell says it is too early to talk about the command's specific needs, some of which will be addressed during the Tampa conference in open sessions and in private, invitation-only meetings. The conference is a boon for the industry as a whole, but for local contractors, hotels, restaurants and other businesses, as well, says Celestan, who also is president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “The importance of the conference is that we look at it as a way to help companies that are planning to do more with the command, either those that are here or looking to move down here,” he says. Bates, the industry association vice president, says he expects 7,000 people to visit Tampa for the convention, with more than 300 companies setting up booths in the exhibition hall. “The convention center will be packed,” says Celestan. “Trying to get a hotel room during the conference is very difficult. All the bars and restaurants will benefit from having the influx.” So will the area's special operations forces community. “This is really about getting the community together,” says Dave Scott, a retired Air Force major general who served as deputy director of Socom's Center for Special Operations. “This is a very broad collaboration between uniformed service people, government civilians, defense contractors and the retired SOF community. Everyone interested in special operations comes here to talk about their required capabilities and the challenges of their future operating environment.” Scott will probably play a role in after-hours collaborations. As one of the owners of the Bad Monkey, a military-themed bar in Ybor City, Scott says he expects a good deal of commando traffic. “This is a homeroom for the boys,” he says. “We should have a good turnout.”