A visitor tries the TCL RayNeo X2 augmented-reality glasses during the Mobile World Congress 2023 on March 2, 2023, in Barcelona, Spain.

A visitor tries the TCL RayNeo X2 augmented-reality glasses during the Mobile World Congress 2023 on March 2, 2023, in Barcelona, Spain. Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tomorrow’s Special Operator? Less Iron Man, More 007

But first, SOCOM must reverse a trend of “falling behind, not just linearly but exponentially” to Chinese and Russian tech.

TAMPA, Fla.—A couple of years after Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Adm. William McRaven announced a bold new vision for special operations. Troops in Iron Man-like exoskeletons would burst through walls, facing down a pelting rain of bullets before dispatching terrorist cells in seconds. That vision never came to be, but 10 years later, U.S. Special Operations Command is pursuing a new list of superpowers, topped not by bulletproof suits but by something like omniscience.

There are practical reasons for the shift in focus, not least the difficulties of recreating comic-book physics in real life. But they also reflect SOCOM’s changing expectations about where its operators will be and what roles they will play.

Speaking at Global SOF’s SOF Week conference here, Col. Jarret Mathews laid out the command’s effort to create hyper-enabled operators. 

“I'm going to try to orient you to the competition space, the gray zone, the integrated deterrent,” said Mathews, who leads SOCOM’s Joint Acquisition Task Force. “A possible mission set will be for internal defense under a [theater special operations command]-driven irregular warfare campaign and with the objective of integrated deterrence with our partners.”

Operators on future missions, especially ones meant to train foreign partner forces, will likely lack some crucial tools of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, such as missile-armed drones overhead.

“Everyone's talking about UAVs and theater-based assets,” said Mathews, but: “The SOF teams that are in these 80 countries” where special operations are deployed quietly, “they don't have the benefit of those tools. So picture [Special Operations Forces] in any country without, you know, unblinking UAV assets and we're still there to, you know, to help our partners achieve their objectives.” 

Mathews went on to present a video where an operator used augmented-reality glasses to look around their environment and immediately translate all written language, collect data from nearby sensors on the location of adversaries, and rapidly change or hide electronic signatures. Matthews described it as the ability “a little bit to see around corners.”

Artificial intelligence will play a big role in that. SOCOM’s Automate the Analyst effort aims to produce a kind of always-on advisor in an operator’s ear or sightline.

Of course, the general public now has access to something a little similar. ChatGPT and similar generative AI and large language models can answer virtually any question, if often incorrectly. But those require access to key public datasets and enormous cloud capabilities, things SOCOM operators can’t count on having. 

That’s why SOCOM is working on an instant translator that doesn’t require the internet to operate. A demonstration on Tuesday showed that the effort remains a work in progress. Some of those constraints are hardware-based. SOCOM is working with Nvidia and other partners to build devices that need not resort to off-device computation. 

In some tech realms, SOCOM is playing catch-up to China and Russia, said Brian Sisco, the command’s Futures team leader. His office was established in 2020 to identify how adversaries might develop new technologies and where the United States needed to go to counter. 

“We're falling behind not just linearly but exponentially,” Sisco said. 

The reason is that the United States was too rooted in the counterterrorism mission when it should have been pivoting to counter high-tech adversaries. A big part of his job: “Moving [SOCOM] a little bit away from the concept of effects-based work and how to blow people up and blowing things up, and turning it into something that looks a lot more like what Q does for James Bond.” 

The United States is only beginning to realize that some adversaries develop tech faster than others and so the U.S. military must increase its rate of innovation. “Our adversaries are not increasing their capability now at the same level they were over the course of the counterterrorism play. If you think of the bad guy with the AK-47 and the IED and maybe some remote-control devices, they didn't have the same increase in capability year over year as people who have dedicated science and technology labs. We have dedicated government programs for increasingly new technology, buys, and research,” he said.