NDIA's 2006 Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium & Exhibition
By Robert Bruce

“Today’s war is against a global web of terrorist extremist networks and their state and non-state sponsors. This asymmetric challenge to the United States has sparked new interest in irregular warfare, which lies ill-defined at the nexus of insurgency, counterinsurgency, special operations, clandestine human intelligence collection, paramilitary operations, and strategic communication. In this form of warfare, the Department of Defense cannot and does not fight alone, but rather in partnership with other government agencies and nongovernmental organizations - including commercial enterprises - in a global battlespace that extends far beyond the traditional combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Thomas E. “Tim” Davidson, Colonel, USAF (Ret), Chairman NDIA SO/LIC Division

Long time readers know that Small Arms Review is committed to presenting not only the latest in military weaponry but also information on related developments that maximize combat effectiveness. This is why, year after year, we make the arduous trek inside the beltway of our Nation’s Capitol to cover the thoughtful presentations and diverse exhibits hosted by the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict (SO/LIC) Division of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).

The theme of the 17th annual gathering, “An Interagency View of the Global War on Terrorism,” was supported by a distinguished lineup of top level speakers from the US and allied nations representing government, military and industry. The site was well chosen in Crystal City, just minutes by car from the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, Embassy Row, and the notorious K Street coven of lobbyists. Thus, the posh Hyatt Regency’s efficient and capacious exposition center enjoyed attendance and participation by a remarkable number of real stars, supporting players, and essential backstage technicians in the deadly drama that plays out daily in GWOT, the Global War on Terror.

Two of the most prominent were Thomas W. O’Connell, Assistant Secretary of Defense for SO/LIC, and General Bryan D. Brown, top man at US Special Operations Command.

O’Connell, in his sobering and thoughtful presentation “A War Unlike Any Other,” put GWOT into perspective by citing the many interlocking elements that must be factored. While conducting two simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns halfway around the world, he noted that the US and our Allies must contend with hostile media, limited funding, political infighting, vulnerabilities in oil supplies, and the myriad opportunities for terrorists to acquire and use WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction).

During a riveting address headlined “No Borders, No Boundaries,” General Brown surprised many among the capacity crowd in the hotel’s enormous auditorium by publicly acknowledging a major shift at USSOCOM from Direct Action (traditional smash and grab operations) to Unconventional Warfare. UW is an umbrella term covering broad spectrum military and paramilitary operations in partnership with local or surrogate forces.

Fueled by a reported $9 billion budget increase over the next five years and strong endorsement in the newest Quadrennial Defense Review, Brown’s 52,000 person command is slated to grow by 13,000. Lobbyists and other industry reps leaned forward intently to note items on his wish list including dramatic modernization of aging aviation assets like C-130s and CH-47s, old warhorses that need to be put out pasture. He welcomed the exciting new CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors but wryly noted that full delivery on present contracts won’t be complete for another ten years.

Anti-Terror Technology

Big picture and big policy presentations provide the framework for all those bits and pieces that are needed to actually get things done. Generals give the orders, it is said, but soldiers have to carry them out. Fortunately, soldiers - in this case special operations professionals - of the world’s most technologically advanced nation can look forward to some remarkable developments entering the supply pipeline or under development for the near future.

This year’s techno-guru was Ms. Sue Peyton, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, Advanced Systems and Concepts, who outlined efforts underway to put the best new COTS (commercial off the shelf) gear into the hands of SOFs. This includes the FCT (Foreign Comparative Testing) Program and among several examples she cited we found the HK-Benelli M1014 Joint Service Combat Shotgun most compelling. Marines took the lead in fielding this semiautomatic shotgun and it quickly found favor in USSOCOM, particularly with Army Rangers and the new Marine Corps Special Operations Command.

But the spookiest hardware is stealthily moving along under the ACTD (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrations) banner, “Bridging the gap between scientist and warfighter.” Some interesting items from the long list of initiatives that Peyton described:
  • The Biometrics tool using retina scanning to instantly identify known insurgents.
  • Expendable and Micro UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) that are manportable, easily launched and maneuvered, providing real-time situational awareness.
  • Global Reach PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) to expand the range of current activities.
  • Directed energy platforms, now including an amazing rifle-like manportable system. Also, work is ongoing toward the goal of replacing traditional gun systems on the AC-130 “Spooky” gunships with laser weaponry.
  • Thermobaric munitions for a wider variety of weapons - down to 40mm grenade launchers - giving warfighters dramatically increased lethality.

Readers are urged to access briefing slides from many of the symposium’s presentations at www.dtic.mil/ndia/2006solic/2006solic.html. Of particular interest should be a video clip on a hot link right below the title to Ms. Peyton’s “Advanced Systems and Concepts for the Global War on Terrorism.” Watch how the new AT4CS (Confined Space) literally “lights up” a hideout for some now-ex Iraqi insurgents.


Running concurrently with high-level presentations in the auditorium, exhibits showcasing the latest developments by industry and government in support of USSOCOM’s worldwide missions were shoehorned in somewhat smaller space this year at the event’s new location.

SOPMOD Central The highest priority on SAR’s to-do list at SO/LIC is always a visit to the exhibit booth of the Crane Division of Naval Surface Warfare Center. These are the fine folks who make sure all of Uncle Sam’s most elite warriors - Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant Craft units, Army Rangers and Green Berets, Air Force and Marine Corps Special Operations - are armed with the best weaponry available for high-stakes missions under the worst conditions encountered worldwide.

There, we were fortunate to find the affable and thoroughly knowledgeable Mike Jones, an acquaintance of several years by virtue of his senior position in Crane’s Research, Development and Acquisition office for the SOPMOD (Special Operations Peculiar Modification) Program. Drawn by the rack of exotic long guns at Jones’ elbow, we pulled alongside as he talked with a lean young officer in a dress uniform that was most notably adorned with a gold Trident.

Both men acknowledged our presence with a friendly nod while warily noting the conspicuous PRESS badge. SAR could listen in, it was tacitly understood, but such conversation that followed would be carefully phrased. It was later emphasized by Jones and others at the Crane booth that everything said was strictly off the record and the courtesy of an official review of this portion of SAR’s report was requested. Oh, and absolutely no pictures at the booth.

We are pleased to write that little of substance was subsequently deleted by USSOCOM from what follows. But less so to note that a formal request for photos common to several “Cleared for Public Release” SOPMOD and SCAR Program briefings, widely disseminated on publicly accessible websites, was not supported. It needs to be said in fairness to the very practical folks at Crane that this puzzling decision was apparently made at levels substantially above theirs.

Accordingly, graphics that accompany this portion of the narrative have been supplied by industry sources as well as some official military imagery that has been separately cleared for press release. Anyone who might be tempted to accuse SAR of aiding our nation’s many enemies by publishing these photos is likely far less computer-savvy than your average American teenager or al Qaida operative ....

Returning back to the conversation between the SEAL lieutenant and Jones, who was explaining how some urgent requests from operators were being addressed by the Crane team. The rack of rifles served as a hardware show ‘n tell for current solutions as well as some competition-sensitive items under evaluation for near-future fielding under the MDNS (Miniature Day/Night Sight) program.

Occupying top position on the rifle display at the Crane booth was a flat-top M4A1 Carbine with much of the standard SOPMOD items like Knight’s suppressor, rail accessory system and flip-up rear sight, a SureFire white light, Tango Down foregrip, and Lewis sliding stock. But two other accessories on the weapon were getting closer attention, the Insight Technology LA-5/PEQ ATPIAL (Advanced Targeting Pointer Illuminating Aiming Laser) and EOTech SU-231/PEQ Reflex Sight.

Smaller and lighter than current models, the ATPIAL boasts enhanced performance with combined visible and IR pointers and illuminators, as well as half MOA adjustments.

The SU-231, ruggedized and improved over EOTech’s very successful 500 series holographic day sights, is night vision compatible with an increased optical field of view and powered by standard GI issue DL 123 batteries.

Just below the Carbine was a flat-top M16 with a heavy, rifle-length barrel, free-floated inside a quad rail accessory system. Known in Navy circles as the MK12 Special Purpose Rifle, it is usually topped with a Leupold day scope but this one was carrying an unusual piggyback day sight combo.

It seems that operators like reflex type sights a lot for CQB (close quarter battle) but don’t want to sacrifice the target identification and precision engagement capabilities of the tough and bright Trijicon ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight). So, Crane is evaluating the SU-237, an eminently practical solution consisting of a tiny Docter red dot reflex that is hard mounted atop the 4 power ACOG.

Jones showed another contender along the same lines, an ELCAN Specter DR that also mounts a Docter topside. Designated the SU-230, this clever day scope is uniquely switchable from 1 to 4 power with the throw of a lever, going from wide field red-dot aiming in CQB to precision shooting out to 600 meters. This also works particularly well in both magnifications when used in-line with night vision devices.

By the way, ELCAN’s website allows us to test drive this remarkable switch-sight on a virtual target detection range found at http://elcan.phpinternet.com/specter_DR.

Another notable item on hand was Insight Technology’s SU-234 PAS Thermal Sight, a strong presence in Crane’s CNVD (Clip-On Night Vision Device) program. With 1 to 2 power zoom and VGA or RS 170 output, it takes uncooled thermal imaging to new standards of miniaturization and reduced weight without sacrificing target identification and engagement capabilities.

Conspicuously absent at the Crane booth was any manifestation of the high-speed new SCAR (Special Operations Forces Combat Assault Rifle) Light, Heavy and Enhanced Grenade Launcher Module family of weapons that is rapidly clearing all hurdles on the way to production and fielding. Jones prudently declined to offer any explanation and, knowing FNH USA would show the entire line in a few months at NDIA Small Arms, SAR decided not to send the question up the chain of command.

A Few Good Guns

Kudos to Beretta Law Enforcement and Defense Group as the lone gun manufacturer with an exhibit booth; particularly interesting given the character of the event and its attendees who run the full spectrum from operators to general officers. There, Pat Gallagher and Jay Connors took full advantage of their place in the spotlight to show off several weapons including the impressive PX4 Storm carbine and pistol. They told us that the handgun component, a thoroughly modern polymer frame design that is currently available in classic 9mm and newer .40 S&W, is undergoing conversion to .45 ACP in anticipation of USSOCOM’s Joint Combat Pistol trials. www.BerettaLE.com.

We usually walk right past any display that doesn’t have an actual weapon prominently on display but the opportunity to talk with EWA’s Jason Pizzillo at the UCT Defense booth proved the exception. SAR had noted reports that their proprietary ULTRACHEM Nickel Boron coating process has been applied to a variety of small arms that have undergone exhaustive testing and field evaluations for USSOCOM and other Defense Department entities.

Published results show ULTRACHEM has successfully demonstrated superior performance in lubrication-free operation as well as dramatic extension in barrel life. Pizzillo says it’s already making a difference in the real world of special operators, understandably intolerant of the limitations of conventional lubrication and well known for pushing their firearms beyond design limits. www.uctdefense.com.

The veteran M72 LAW (Light Antitank Weapon) has been overshadowed in recent times by the AT-4, but complaints from the field about the newer weapon’s size, weight and firing signature vs. warhead performance have turned the tables. Larry Sanks of Talley Defense Systems was proudly showing the new FFE (Fire From Enclosure) LAW that Uncle Sam is buying for a variety of urban combat applications. Its novel Confined Space Propulsion System, initiated in 2003 for the Crane folks, boasts firing noise below 150 dB with no smoke or flash. www.talleyds.com.

Ring Airfoil Projectiles, irreverently called ballistic Frisbees by some, have been around for quite awhile but as not much more than novelties. Now, this concept is being developed by Aegis Industries in collaboration with the National Nuclear Security Administration as a way to send “less lethal” payloads to greater range with better accuracy. John Hicks, Defense Systems Program Office Manager at Department of Energy’s Kansas City Plant, says these capabilities may prove valuable in certain situations where a perceived threat needs to be stopped at a safe distance without having to resort to deadly force. www.aegispds.com.

Gear Up and Go

The biggest displays of real gear for real operators were put on once again by rivals Diamondback Tactical and Tactical & Survival Specialties, both jam-packed with everything from boots to brain buckets.

Plenty of examples from the no-nonsense products found in Diamondback’s impressive 350 page catalog were on display but we went right to a bullet-scarred “chicken plate” and picked it up for a closer look. David Ledbetter came over to explain that the surprisingly thin (5mm) DBT Ultra Concealable Level 3+ Stand Alone Ballistic Rifle Plate defeated two hits from 5.56mm green tip then two 7.62 x 39mm mild steel core AK rounds. Seems a good choice where light weight (4.5 pounds) and thin profile are priorities. www.diamondbacktactical.com.

TSSI (Tactical & Survival Specialties Inc.), teamed with SPSA (Special Projects Special Applications), offers both a staggering array of combat components as well as expertise in working with the government’s various procurement bureaucracies. Tom Little showed us uniformed mannequins sporting a wide variety of accessories for operators and their weaponry, explaining that this unique partnership of companies gets gear from the shelf to the field in record time. www.tacsurv.com and www.spsa.biz.

Wide Ranging Discussions

Training special operators takes a lot of expense and range time so several firms were on site to show how their products and services can maximize the investment. Range Systems builds sophisticated custom shoothouses for USSOCOM and other demanding users and offers a full line of targets and accessories. Additionally, their OUTPOST Mobile Shooting Range was a standout, rolling right up to your specified location all ready to go inside a 53 foot tractor-trailer rig. www.range-systems.com.

Leslie Duke of Ballistics Research Inc. showed us what looked like a giant black LEGO block that can be configured in any number of ways for force protection against projectiles or energetic fragments. The 3-Dimensional Interlocking Protection System is made from an advanced plastic-like compound with the astonishing ability to actually gain density, becoming stronger as multiple projectiles are absorbed, reportedly including .50 caliber armor piercing. Molded into a super dense cube with locking slots and tabs, it can be assembled in unlimited configurations. www.ballisticsresearch.com.

Five paramilitary companies under the banner of Blackwater USA at its 7,000 acre headquarters and training facility give the North Carolina based firm worldwide capabilities and a reputation for taking on the toughest assignments. While Blackwater’s VP for Strategic Initiatives was giving his “Contractors on the Battlefield” perspective to symposium attendees, the inimitable Hershel Davis, Blackwater’s “Corporate Master Chief,” was holding down the fort in the exhibit hall. Davis, sporting a handlebar moustache that’s a weapon in its own right, pointed with pride to the BEAR, a modular, mobile, multi-target steel range system that can be customized to meet user preferences. www.blackwatertargets.com.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V10N3 (December 2006)
and was posted online on December 28, 2012


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