16th Annual NDIA SO/LIC Symposium & Exhibition
By Robert Bruce

“US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are playing a critical role in this war, by bringing terrorists, their supporters, and their state facilitators to justice, or by taking justice to them.” US Special Operations Command Posture Statement

Most readers of Small Arms Review know that America’s SOF are not the rampaging Rambos that Hollywood and the news media delight in presenting.

Such ugly slander has never been more false than today as United States Special Operations Command is demonstrating tremendous success in the ongoing Global War on Terror (GWOT). There can be little doubt that this cutting-edge military organization, with nearly 50,000 highly trained and motivated specialists deployed to every corner of the globe, generates the worst nightmares for a rogue’s gallery of terrorists and the tyrants, despots, and criminals that back them.

Now well along the path of transformation to meet the novel and ever-changing threats from rabid enemies of freedom, SOCOM’s core task listing includes:
  • Counterterrorism
  • Counterproliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Special reconnaissance
  • Direct action
  • Unconventional warfare
  • Information operations
  • Psychological operations
  • Foreign internal defense
  • Civil affairs operations

The means to execute these very different but closely intertwined taskings include elite formations from each military branch. While the best known of these are Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALS and Special Boat, Air Commandos and Pararescue, SOCOM’s full spectrum warfare capabilities include increasing numbers of specialists to conduct more subtle types of warfare.

Such tremendous diversity in missions and means drives many urgent needs including an exchange of ideas within the SOF community, fast and efficient acquisition of specialized hardware, and a search for technological solutions to a host of current and future challenges.

This process is assisted immeasurably by the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Division. NDIA SO/LIC is a partnership of industry and government specifically dedicated to supporting the special operations community. Its annual symposium, now number sixteen, has earned tremendous respect in the SOF community as evidenced by strong and growing attendance, increasing numbers of exhibitors, and presentations from top personalities such as the commander of USSOCOM, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict.

The forum is international in character; this year including perspectives from Great Britain, Australia, Netherlands and France. All major areas of special operations are addressed including civil affairs, psychological operations, contributions of industry, and the role of contractors. Briefing slides from many of these presentations are available at www.dtic.mil/ndia/2005solic/2005solic.html.

Most compelling to this correspondent was inconspicuously titled in the official agenda as “Low Intensity Conflict - Capabilities and Gaps.” This category is usually where the tools and techniques of current front line SOF directly engaged in the Global War on Terror get an honest appraisal. This year’s sharply frank assessment was given by J. Frank Wattenbarger, head of US Special Operations Command’s Advanced Technology Directorate.

In a riveting presentation titled “THE SOF WARRIOR: A disruptive Force in a Complex Environment,” Wattenbarger began by explaining USSOCOM’s anti-terrorism operational focus template as ‘Find, Fix, Finish, and Follow Up.”
  • Find using the full range of sensors, analysis, and human intelligence.
  • Fix using superior fire, mobility, agility, and pervasive communications.
  • Finish terrorists wherever they are operating - eliminate safe havens, leadership, training, and membership via lethal/direct action capabilities.
  • Follow up to achieve stability and erosion of base for future terrorists.

Wattenbarger contends - and no doubt this is in synch with the top leadership - that USSOCOM is “very good at finishing but needs to improve find and fix.”

While other USSOCOM directorates are working in their particular areas toward improving the find and fix parts, Advanced Technology is looking to science and industry to help the SOF operator in the field. Short-term solutions are often found in COTS (Commercial Off the Shelf) items such as surveillance electronics developed by private firms at the request of national intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Ongoing research and development by many Department of Defense entities are also lucrative sources of solutions. The latest in remote sensors, unmanned aerial reconnaissance platforms, and less-than-lethal weapons are now, or will soon be, available for adoption and employment.

Directed energy experimentation is of particular interest. Wattenbarger highlighted some rapidly maturing technologies such as the Phased Array Laser System, High Power Microwave Attack, and Air Force Research Laboratories’ work on Active Denial devices.

Industry participation in these and many other initiatives is urgently invited, Wattenbarger says, so that their development and fielding can be accelerated.

The second half of his presentation zoomed ahead into what some might dismiss as “science fiction stuff.” That would be a serious mistake.

An exponentially growing reservoir of ideas is being fed by researchers in every imaginable area of science. Yesterday’s crackpot theories are often today’s cutting-edge technologies and the Advanced Technology Directorate is working hard to identify the most promising and put them to work. Some specific areas of interest include:
  • Tunable Directed Energy Weapon. Traditional firearms offer only the options of intimidating, wounding or killing. Why not give the operator the widest range of options from momentary stun to complete atomization? (Ala Star Trek phasers.)
  • Carbon Nanotube Armor and Adaptive Intelligent Laminates. Body armor that is indistinguishable from native dress and undetectable by physical search or security scanners.
  • Enhanced Biological Sensors. See, hear or otherwise better sense in day, night and through obscurants and noise. Detect stress or unusual behavior. Going way beyond vitamins and other performance accelerators, are sensory enhancing nanobots a way to improve the SOF Warrior?
  • Tactical Neural Nano-Implant. Medical researchers are already using electronic neuromuscular stimulation for simple body movements and brain functions. Isn’t it possible that the future SOF operator may get a brain chip implant for instant language skills and cultural assimilation?
  • Persistent and Pervasive Sensors. “Recon Roach” type microbots and other sensors might provide long term video, audio and other hyper-spectral/extra-spectral coverage.
  • Signature Management. Provide technologies that enable SOF platforms, equipment and operators to be invisible in all media (land, sea, air) from all senses and sensors in any environment. This builds on work in progress on full spectrum masking, adaptive nano-fabrics and other nanotechnologies.

Those who scoff at Wattenbarger’s vision for the future SOF warrior should take heed of a particularly relevant statement made by Thomas O’Connell, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, in the symposium’s keynote address. “Disruptive challenges may come from adversaries who develop and use breakthrough technologies to negate current U.S. advantages in key operational domains.” His words were carefully chosen and rich with possibilities. The cliché that “science has no boundaries” is particularly true in the information age.

O’Connell didn’t say it but SAR will. Think beyond North Korean nukes and Red Chinese robotics to Jihadist super-germs and other horrendous prospects. Also, will anybody bet there aren’t traitorous adversaries working right now in any of the universities and laboratories doing top-secret US government programs?


Perhaps equally important to those who attend is the opportunity to view exhibits showcasing the latest developments in support of USSOCOM’s worldwide missions. The Wardman Park Marriott’s cavernous display halls were filled once again this year with a dazzling array ranging from water purification straws to thermobaric smart bombs.

Some prominent names among the more than one hundred firms and organizations included Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Smaller companies had just as much opportunity for face time with attendees, so Range Systems could show off its innovative shoothouses and Militec could proudly point out increasing success with its weapon lubricant technology.

But, of course, SAR went right to the ones with guns and gear. First stop was Program Manager Soldier Weapons where Major Trevor Shaw cut a fine figure in the brand new Army Combat Uniform. He explained that its distinctive gray-dominant digital pattern is optimized for the widest variety of operational environments (urban, desert, etc.) and boasts a number of very practical features.

It has lots of pockets (astonishingly, the Army has re-rediscovered slanted ones for the chest) and the turn-up collar fastens high and close on the neck for sand and snow seal. So far the “garritroopers” haven’t imposed starching and ironing and insignia is attached with Velcro. If procurement stays on track most of the Army will be wearing it by the end of 2007.

Shaw has been with PM Soldier Weapons for a couple of years now, so he has an excellent perspective on the very beneficial effects of the Rapid Fielding Initiative (putting COTS gear in the hands of combat soldiers) and the companion efforts toward making current guns and gear better. A case in point is the handy little C-More shotgun that 10th Mountain Division got to clamp under their M16s and M4s for initial deployment to Afghanistan and other hot spots in Central Command’s area of operations. While it did the job, there was room for improvement in overall ruggedness and issues to address user complaints such as the box magazine getting in the way. Two fixes were quickly implemented, Shaw explained. “We bought a lot of Mossberg 590s (standard military and police 12 gauge shotguns) and we opened a competition for all manufacturers to offer their underbarrel shotguns for testing.”

Other small arms testing by PM Soldier Weapons is well along including possible replacements for the venerable M203 grenade launcher, and a new Semiautomatic Sniper System. (Editor’s Note: SAR will report on results of the Modular Assault Shotgun System trials which are expected to be released in mid-March and other programs as announcements are made.)

Doomsayers predicting the impending demise of the “smart grenade” weapons programs get no comfort from the PM Soldier Weapons team. Front and center at the exhibit were the shoulder-fired XM25 Airburst Weapon and its crew-served brother; the XM307. Similarly, the .50 caliber XM312, the latest long awaited possible replacement for the incomparable M2HB, is still marching up the hill of test and evaluation.

The XM8 family of 5.56mm weapons also seems to be alive and well despite legal challenges from proponents of guns that didn’t make the cut. Originally the “kinetic energy” half of the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (the XM25 evolved from the other half), this modular system continues to be refined based on lessons learned as it gets wrung out on test stands and soldier trials.

On a related note, USSOCOM had announced selection of the FN candidate as its Special Operations Capable Assault Rifle (SCAR) several weeks before NDIA SO/LIC. So, it was surprising that no representation of this important milestone could be found in any exhibit in the show. Asked about this, Shaw carefully explained that SCAR was not a PM Soldier or JSSAP (Joint Services Small Arms Program) solicitation and suggested we direct the inquiry to SOCOM. (Editor’s Note: SAR has since been invited by FN to do an in-depth, live-fire evaluation of the prototype SCAR. If all goes as scheduled, this will be prominently featured in next month’s issue)

Heavy Weapons

While the 40mm MK47 Stryker grenade machine gun is intended as a replacement for the MK19, a Vietnam War era design, it will be quite awhile before most of the old “chunkers” get turned in. In the meantime, significantly improved performance is promised by a sophisticated fire control system shown at SO/LIC by L3 Communications Brashear.

The new XM116 offers laser-ranging, day or night operation (uncooled thermal), and computerized ballistic solutions based on target distance, air temperature, weapon cant, and atmospheric pressure. An automatically adjusted aimpoint is relayed to a video display clipped to the gunner’s helmet, freeing him from the discomfort and loss of situational awareness inherent in constantly peering through a weapon-mounted display.

Bunker busting and wall banging reach new heights with a new rocket for a popular shoulder type launcher. Army Rangers are particularly fond of the accuracy, range and hitting power of their 84mm Carl Gustaf stovepipes but recent urban combat showed that more “behind the wall” lethality was needed. In response, Saab Bofors Dynamics now offers the MT 85X round, a distinctively wasp-waisted warhead with a devastating dual-action effect. The precursor charge explodes on contact, blasting a hole in layered brick or reinforced concrete big enough for the main charge to fly through. A fraction of a second later the main charge detonates, sending out plenty of pre-fragmented steel and extreme blast overpressure to deal with unlucky inhabitants.


Many of the “new and improved” items for small arms at SO/LIC centered around devices to help the operator put pistol and rifle rounds precisely on target in a variety of intense situations.

Diversified Optical’s TADS 114 (Thermal Augmented Day Sight) is actually a night sight that clamps piggyback to the operator’s preferred choice of primary day optics. This is said to allow repeated removal and replacement without affecting boresighting. Proprietary uncooled technology requires no ambient light to generate high quality images. All of this in a relatively light and compact unit with moderate power consumption.

Meyers Electro Optics’ brand new Mini Green Beam laser illuminator/designator is intended for mounting on individual weapons. Activated by a pressure pad switch, its capabilities are similar to the larger GBD III which is well known in certain government and military circles for its efficiency as a weapon director, long range underwater pointer, commander’s battlefield pointer, and even as a rescue beacon.

USSOCOM’s own Advanced Technology Directorate had an elaborate display with many of the clever devices and systems that had been highlighted for symposium attendees in J. Frank Wattenbarger’s compelling technical paper previously detailed.

Fusion Goggles should be of particular interest as they offer the best solution to date to the vexing problem of multispectral observation under extremely reduced ambient light or obscurants. Or more plainly put, combining the best qualities of starlight and thermal imagers. Electroptical wizardry delivers to the operator’s helmet-mounted video display high quality, color images of his surroundings. An added bonus is the ability to switch input for such things as electronic weapon sights, computer maps, detailed technical information, and video feed from remote recon platforms.

Among other Advanced Technology items to contemplate were two representative robot warriors, MAV and TALON. The first is a Micro Air Vehicle, a tiny birdlike spy plane, and TALON is a ground robot scout. MAV’s are rapidly getting smaller and robot scouts are getting guns.

Gun Gear

We’re always on the lookout for slick slings, handy holsters and other clever contrivances that give the good guys a better chance at winning the gunfight. Plenty of these were on display from big names in the gear world like Blackhawk, Diamondback Tactical and others. For example, Blackhawk’s new Tactical Serpa holster is a thigh rider version of their popular pistol packer with its patented one finger speed lock. Two drop straps form a “Y” which allows pocket access while eliminating annoying bunching when seated.

Diamondback’s sprawling exhibit was built around a Prowler RTV, the world’s meanest GWOT golf cart. Built by ATV Corporation and distributed exclusively by Diamondback, the original Prowler and the new Dragoon platforms are powerful, nimble and sturdy four wheelers built from the ground up for special operations and capable of being weaponized with innovative hardpoints and mounts.

New at SO/LIC ’05 was Diamondback’s “Fast Attack Rack” for the Armored Warrior body armor system. This modular accessory gives the operator additional soft armor protection and load carrying capacity in the underarm/side area. Also, the Armored Warrior system holster kit lets you pack your favorite pistol in the right Safariland pocket, attached to ballistic drop leg armor.

Long in the SPECOPS training arena but relatively new to the gear game, Blackwater’s line of products has just been expanded with introduction of the Universal Holster with MOLLE Adjustability System. This mouthful of nomenclature covers a clever pistol pouch that snugly accommodates a wide range of handguns with or without tactical lights. Strategically placed Velcro backed straps allow it to be expanded or contracted, hung from any background with MOLLE type loops, and reconfigured for southpaws.

Shock and Awe

An underbarrel shotgun or M203 grenade launcher is great to have in most combat situations. But - even loaded with “stingballs” or foam grenades - gives Aljazeera camerapersons too much incendiary video when used as “less lethal” alternatives.

Aegis Personal Defense Systems has a great alternative in the MK 63 Trident, an integrated riot control multi-tool with shrill noisemaker, high intensity light, and powerful shock baton. It can be used alone or clamped under the barrel of one’s fully lethal M4. This handy combo, according to its fact sheet, allows users to “facilitate their transfer up and down the force continuum.”

Anytime a combatant’s life is saved by body armor is an awesome event. Until very recently most American troops were equipped with vests that - at best - were effective only against relatively low velocity pistol rounds, grenade and artillery fragments. Rifle bullets would zip right through. “Chicken plates” could be added to certain vests, but these tend to be thick and very heavy, restricting mobility and contributing to fatigue. Protective Products International, well known for military and law enforcement body armor, showcased an excellent new lightweight tactical plate that should be of interest to SOFs. The 8 x 10 inch single curve Polyethelene III weighs just 2.3 pounds but gives NIJ Level III protection (stops 7.62mm NATO). Add this to PPI’s new ST-2000 Floatation Vest for waterborne operations in unfriendly territory.

NDIA Small Arms Division

NDIA is dedicated to direct support of many different programs within the US military. The Small Arms Division should be of particular interest to SAR readers. Watch for our report on the 2005 Symposium, Exhibition and Firing Demonstration for the latest in infantry weaponry for the War on Terrorism and Future Combat.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V8N9 (June 2005)
and was posted online on May 17, 2013


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