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Special Operations Convention works its psychology ops

Some of the world's most coveted new military gadgetry has been loaded and locked — into storage containers, in preparation for exfiltrating the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in Tampa, Florida.

This year's conference at the Tampa Convention Center brought nearly 400 defense companies into close contact not only with one another, but also with Special Operations commanders in search of solutions to evolving problems.

The annual convention is a forum for international military partners in government, industry and academia to strategize how best to support Special Operations Forces (SOF). The conference is sponsored by the Arlington, Virginia-based National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA).

The four-day confab was driven by a pressing need for technological solutions to fast-emerging threats. Unlike in years past, solutions came not primarily from government but from industry.

“During the Cold War, the Department of Defense drove industry technological initiatives,” said Special Operations Command chief General Raymond A. Thomas III, in comments before a packed audience. “But in today’s environment the paradigm has flipped, with industry-led technology initiatives pushing forward at a rate that far surpasses DoD’s initiated efforts.”

Speaking at their own panel, the four service's SOF component commanders and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deputy commander talked about their industry wish lists.

Air Force commandos "want more of everything," said AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold. At the top of the list is a high-energy laser for gunships.

Army special operations could use an all-new war room, said USASOC commander LTG Kenneth E. Tovo. “We’ve got endless amounts of data but we still have not found what I call ‘The Holy Grail’ of the ops center,” LTG Tovo said.

“That’s the ability to seamlessly integrate and aggregate all these data streams; improve the speed and ease at which we synthesize information of tactical operations relevance and then put it on a single pane of glass.”

Industry participants who do not have ready solutions to those items on the wish lists say the conference was well worth attending.

"I sat in a 45-minute session from a program manager, and got the requirements they are looking for," said Eileen Parise, an aviation industry consultant who runs The Hawkeye Group, based in Arlington, Virginia. "They're candid and direct and clear."

"We are just establishing some contacts and finding potential customers, as well as seeing who's who in the industry," said David Gray, director of business development for Black Diamond, an Arizona company that, among other things, makes software and assault packs that can be worn into combat. "It definitely was worth it to come here."

“This week was a great opportunity for innovators, industry stakeholders and SOCOM to meet in-person and exchange ideas to assist in fulfilling the evolving needs of the warfighter,” said National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) executive vice president Gen. Barry Bates, USA (Ret).

“SOFIC attendees will walk away with constructive information about how to work with SOCOM and a better understanding of what they need to get the job done. It was a very productive week that provided value to all in attendance.”

Exhibitors included companies that make tactical motorcycles, thermal under suits for divers, and of course, rifles and handguns.

"I'll take one of each scary black rifle," said Andrew Rogers, a visitor who lives in Tampa.

The wares were not on sale to individual buyers. Ordinary civilians were, however, not left standing outside the wire: on Wednesday, the general public was treated to an outdoor live action show wherein Tampa's Mayor Bob Buckhorn was "kidnapped" and held hostage by terrorists, and then rescued by an international coalition of special operators.

The high-adrenalin rescue involved Blackhawk and Little Bird helicopters, Navy speed boats, explosives, and plenty of gunfire.

"I was mistreated in captivity," Buckhorn said afterwards, playing along with the scenario. "But these guys got me out safely."

"It was excellent," said the sole participant from Ireland, a special operator who took part in the rescue and who spoke afterwards to AMI while disguised and in the company of a public affairs officer who made sure the operator's identity was not revealed. "It was brilliant."

That was the overall success of SOFIC, then, working the special-operation-style magic: participants thought it was, as the Irish say, "brilliant."

"I got emotional," Parise said. "Watching that rescue, I was so damn proud to be American. I walked out of here fired up. I'm going back to D.C. with such a sense of purpose. I'm so energized to give back."