Industry conference will pair SOCOM with innovation

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has its own budget and authorities to rapidly procure whatever specialized equipment it needs to complete its missions. That’s why the National Defense Industry Association sponsors the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC), to give SOCOM face-time with members of the defense industry to discuss gaps in capabilities and how industry can best fill them.

“The real purpose of the conference is that we do have an opportunity, there are forums that you can get to a level of discussion that both industry and special operators need to be part of as they develop capabilities and systems and products to meet the needs of the SOCOM warfighter,” NDIA President and retired Air Force General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said on Agency in Focus — SOCOM.

And that face-time doesn’t just occur at the highest levels. Carlisle said the conference features individuals from every tier of responsibility mingling together: from the admirals and generals at SOCOM to the warfighters operating in the field, from industry executives and CEOs to the engineers designing new technologies. This leads to a more open flow of ideas and collaboration, from what special operators need to what industry can bring to the table.

“The real value of SOFIC is that we do it together, SOCOM and NDIA, and we really get the opportunity to create that two-way conversation,” Carlisle told Federal News Radio’s Scott Maucione.

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Another benefit and a strategic priority of the NDIA is helping to foster small businesses. Carlisle admitted DoD is not always the best customer, and the barriers to participation in DoD contracts can be high, especially for small businesses. The bureaucracy and oversight, both internal and congressional, take time and resources that small businesses sometimes can’t afford to invest.

That’s why SOFIC presents an important opportunity for these small businesses. While there are companies of every size at SOFIC, small businesses can benefit from the direct face-time that allows them to show off their innovations. Carlisle said the small businesses are often more willing to innovate than larger companies. Part of that is they’re more willing to accept risk than the shareholders of larger companies.

“Much of the innovation in our country comes from small business, and I think it has to do with that they’re hungry, they’re innovative, they’re entrepreneurs, and they have an attitude that they’ve got to come up with the next big thing to build their business. They have a shortened decision cycle because it’s usually only a few people,” Carlisle said.

And that can pay off in a big way; Carlisle said SOCOM is often the proving ground for new technologies that the rest of the military eventually adopts. For example, he said when was still in the service, SOCOM made a particular upgrade to its AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) planes. The rest of the Air Force was then able to piggyback on AFSOC’s efforts, allowing the whole force to upgrade.

Carlisle said this kind of scenario is not uncommon. The military itself is a breeding ground for innovation; industry regularly spins off commercial technologies from military applications. SOCOM is just particularly well-suited to foster this kind of dynamic.

“There is a mentality and an understanding in SOCOM that allows things to happen very quickly, and the entire force benefits from that capability,” Carlisle said.

He mentioned another small business that will be at SOFIC that developed a new type of sensor to allow remotely piloted aircraft to collect data from the weather and other environmental factors around it. SOCOM will most likely be the first to use this technology, he said, but it will probably backfill into the Air Force and Army not long after.