TAMPA, Fla. — Keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists has become a key technological area of focus for special operations, according to the Army general recently nominated to head U.S. Special Operations Command.
Noting concerns over the safeguarding of old stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons around the world, Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel said the “nightmare is them falling into the hands of Sunni extremists or other extremist ideologists who have no problem using them.”
“We do see violent extremist organizations and others continue to exert a desire to acquire these types of weapons. So our ability to detect and neutralize them effectively will be a key piece for our country,” said Gen. Votel, an Army Ranger who heads Joint Special Operations Command, which includes elite units such as Delta Force and SEAL Team 6.
On June 24, President Obama nominated Gen. Votel, 56, to succeed Navy Adm. William McRaven as commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. His nomination awaits Senate approval.
“I am deeply honored to be nominated as the next commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, and, if confirmed, I will work tirelessly on behalf of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, civilians and families of USSOCOM to ensure the command continues to provide the American people the world’s finest Special Operations Forces,” Gen. Votel said.
Rarely mentioned or quoted by the press, the general offered some insight into his command’s current and future missions while answering questions at a special operations industry conference recently in Tampa, home to MacDill Air Force Base and SOCOM headquarters.
Gen. Votel said that, as the U.S. military draws down in Afghanistan and becomes more involved in other regions, the challenge for special operations is “how do we take that great methodology we refined over the last 12 or 13 years and apply it to areas outside of declared theaters of active armed conflict?”
He described that “methodology” as a “kind of ‘find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze’ process — a way of looking at a problem and applying resources against it to come up with solutions. Then use those solutions and what comes out of that — those particular operations — to kind of continue to drive operational tempo that allows us to achieve the desired end state.”
To that end, he highlighted three areas of technological focus for special operations.
“First and foremost, I think is maintaining the situational awareness, resolution and reach, and access that’s been provided by the resources that we’ve been using here for the last 12 or 13 years, in places where we do have large bases, where we do have solid infrastructure,” he said. “But being able to maintain that level of situational awareness in areas that don’t, aren’t necessarily characterized by all those aspects, is a key piece for us.”
Precision, accuracy and minimizing collateral damage has become even more important when the U.S. military operates in areas outside of declared combat zones, Gen. Votel said.
“Second of all, we have to continue to improve our finish capability — whether it’s a lethal finish, or whether it’s a nonlethal finish, or whether it’s enabling someone else — to be as precise as we possibly can,” he said.
The third area of concern includes detecting and neutralizing chemical, biological and nuclear threats to U.S. interests.
“This will continue to be an area we will want to pay a lot of attention to. We will only have very limited opportunities to get that right, when the situation is presented to us,” the general said.
Gen. Votel noted that other specific areas of technological and defense industry interest include the production and deployment of tactical sensors with longer range and better fidelity.
“Certainly we benefit from our aerial platforms out there, but in some cases we will not be able to operate aerial platforms because the host nation will not allow us to do that. So we’ve got to continue to look at long-range, high-fidelity tactical sensors that allow us to see and understand what is happening,” he said.
Operating in areas outside of declared theaters of armed conflict also means that special operations forces must minimize their visibility, or “footprint,” he said.
“Signature reduction — things that can reduce the individual vehicle or vessel’s signature or profiles — will always be very, very important to us,” the general said.
Special operators are always looking for nonlethal means to stop vessels or vehicles, he said.
Nonlethal weapons “give us great options on how to solve problems, get control of the situation. So we always want to look at areas like that and how we can do that better,” Gen. Votel said.