Wearable Technology Could Change How Special Operations Forces Fight

By Harper, Jon | National Defense, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Wearable Technology Could Change How Special Operations Forces Fight


Harper, Jon, National Defense


Special Operations Command is looking for cutting-edge, wearable technology to help its troops maintain the upper hand against future foes. From clothing to armor to sensors, officials are counting on industry, academia and military research labs to equip commandos from head to toe with the best gear.

After years of battling in the desert and mountain climates of the greater Middle East, U.S. commandos are turning their attention to other environments such as the Arctic and the jungle.

"We haven't been fighting in those areas," said Adam Fields, SOCOM's program manager for survival, support and equipment systems. "There are going to be different things that we need."

New cold weather uniforms must enable operators to tolerate temperatures 50 degrees below zero, he said. 'We want to reduce bulk as much as possible so the guys aren't simply surviving in the Arctic, but they're actually able to do their job."

The command is looking for heated gloves with similar qualities, he noted.

In the jungle, uniforms need to counteract heavy rainfall and high humidity, Fields said. "We want to be able to get the moisture off of the operator [and] we also don't want the uniforms to get soaked after five minutes."

Additionally, they must be durable in heavy brush, which can tear materials when troops are on the move, he noted.

Commando uniforms consist of multiple layers and a single company doesn't have to produce the entire outfit, Fields said during a briefing at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, in May.

Oftentimes "the layers are all made by different manufacturers," he said. "We tie them all together with multiple contracts. If you have got a piece [of technology] that may apply to one layer, that's great."

SOCOM could hold an industry competition for new protective combat uniforms as early as fiscal year 2017, he said.

The Department of Defense is pursuing other advanced materials for special operators and conventional troops. It is partnering with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Alliance--a consortium of universities, companies, nonprofits and research organizations across the country--and funding a new manufacturing innovation institute focused on revolutionary fibers and textiles. The institute will be headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"This is a pioneering field, combining fibers and yams with things like flexible integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells, electronic sensors and other capabilities to create fabrics and cloths that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color and much more," Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said in April at MIT when the new initiative was announced. The Pentagon is making a $75 million initial investment in the project with more than $240 million in contributions coming from public and private partners.

"Revolutionary fibers and textiles have enormous potential for our defense mission," Carter said.

Lightweight sensors woven into the nylon of parachutes could catch small tears that might otherwise expand in mid-air and put paratroopers' lives at risk. Electronics embedded in uniform fibers could detect potential chemical and radiological agents, or help power network devices that soldiers carry into the field, Carter said.

Special operators training and assisting Iraqi forces would benefit from this technology during the hot summer months, he noted.

"A number of these fabrics are much more lightweight and shed heat better, and that's not an insignificant matter when you're a soldier and you're carrying around a lot of weight," he said.

In addition to being protected from the environment, commandos need body armor to shield them against enemy fire.

SOCOM will have a recompete for a ballistic plate contract in fiscal year 2019, Fields said. …

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