Special Ops Forces Want New Tech to Fight Threats Before They’re Seen

A Special Forces soldier assigned to 10th Special Forces Group transitions from his rifle to his pistol during a live-fire range at Panzer Kaserne.
US Navy photo by Lieutenant Robert Kunzig

  • US Special Operations Command is looking for the kind of gear it needs to fight future battles.
  • Urban combat is expected to be a major focus, just as it has been in past and current fights.
  • SOCOM is looking at a non-line-of sight targeting system that would allow operators to track and eliminate threats without being detected.

Consider a hypothetical. China has invaded Taiwan. After a few tense hours of deliberation, the US decides to come to the island’s defense, prioritizing freedom and the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific.

Beijing gambles on a rapid seizure of Taiwan and throws everything it has at it. The Chinese military manages to achieve temporary air superiority over the battlefield and launches a large-scale amphibious assault. Soon, Chinese tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are rolling onto Taiwanese soil.

US special operations forces on the island join their Taiwanese comrades in major urban centers, getting ready for intense urban combat.

Although a fictional scenario, this is something US commandos could be facing in the future. It is, after all, a situation they’ve trained for, along with other high-intensity conflict scenarios. Looking toward potential future fights like this, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is after new tech that would help its special operators survive and thrive in urban warfare.

A futuristic sight

In October, SOCOM released a solicitation for a non-line-of sight targeting system for urban combat. The system would allow commandos to track, target, and even engage enemy fighters without exposing themselves directly.

Working with SOFWERX, a technology testing and innovation platform, SOCOM will facilitate a series of feasibility studies and rapid prototype events to explore and test technology with the goal of creating a piece of gear that will “enable rapid, precise, operator-controlled Non-Line of Sight (Non-LOS) targeting in urban, surveilled environments.”

Green Berets with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), maneuver through a building while conducting room clearing and close quarters battle training.
US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Moeller

As the solicitation mentions, recent battlefield advancements, such as autonomous systems and remotely placed sensors, have made it difficult for ground troops to access and operate in “static, fixed locations with line-of-sight of opposing positions.”

The system will rely heavily on artificial intelligence and will use a lot of data and machine learning to understand different scenarios and give the operator on the ground the right picture. Essentially, SOCOM is looking for a sensor that will be able to tell a special operator exactly where an enemy fighter is during urban combat and allow him to target the threat from a position of safety.

The program focuses on four areas: sensors, data networking, data processing, and data analytics and artificial intelligence.

As with most of the Pentagon’s new programs, SOCOM requires that the system have an open architecture to allow for the insertion of new technology as it becomes available.

Modern Urban Warfare

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has shown that urban warfare remains as deadly as ever.

The Kremlin, for example, lost more than 100,000 Russian soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries, counting killed and wounded, during its 2022-2023 winter offensive, much of which was focused on the siege of Bakhmut in the Donbas. The proliferation of drones and electronic warfare systems has amplified the classic dangers of urban combat, such as snipers, artillery, and close-quarters fighting.

“When I hear the words ‘urban warfare’ I think of buildings, close ranges, challenges in fires support, CAS [close air support], or MEDAVACs [medical evacuations]. These are the things that concern me going into an urban setting,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.

To be sure, American commandos aren’t new to urban combat.

Green Berets with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), maneuver through a building while conducting room clearing and close quarters battle training.
US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Justin Moeller

“Wherever you look, there is combat in urban settings. Afghanistan was really the exception to that with engagements at longer distances,” added the retired commando, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his ongoing work with the government.

During the industrial counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi insurgency, US special operations forces got a good taste of urban warfare and its complexities. Despite world-class training, elite units like the Delta Force lost commandos that this new sensor might have saved. In the fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, US commandos fought once more in a brutal urban warfare setting in Mosul.

“We train extensively in close-quarters battle, but even the best training isn’t always enough. A non-line of sight such as the one described can definitely help guys on the ground better navigate the urban battlefield and see threats before they see them. We already have some gadgets that help us,” the retired Delta Force operator said.

But with the rapid advances in technology, new systems are necessary to stay ahead of the competition.


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