Special Ops Conference Means Nearly $3 million to Tampa Economy

Original Article: Tampa Tribune (photo credit)

The annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference returns to town this week, highlighting the role of MacDill Air Force Base as a regional economic powerhouse.

Running from Tuesday through Thursday at the Tampa Convention Center, the conference is scheduled to bring in more than 300 companies showing their wares and upward of 10,000 visitors, including top special operations commanders, defense industry leaders and the director of national intelligence.

The conference will pump nearly $3 million into the economy in the short term, according to Visit Tampa Bay, with the potential for much more at stake for local businesses.

The draw, of course, is U.S. Special Operations Command, which is headquartered at MacDill and co-hosts the conference with the National Defense Industrial Association. Responsible for equipping Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Delta Force, 75th Ranger Regiment, Air Force and Marine commandos, the command is one of the few with its own money to spend for research, development, equipment and services.

In his most recent defense spending plan, President Barack Obama, who sees commandos as a key part of U.S. power projection, asked Congress to provide Socom with $2.4 billion to spend on acquisitions, research and development, according to Socom’s acquisition executive, Jim “Hondo” Geurts.

That represents roughly a 20 percent increase over the current budget, according to figures provided by Geurts.

The attraction of SOFIC, which has a theme this year of “Winning in a Complex World,” is easy to understand.

With commandos in more parts of the world than before and potential adversaries like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea ramping up their military technology, Socom wants to see industry “move at the speed of SOF (Special Operations Forces),” says Geurts, who heads up the command’s Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics unit. “One of the things we are trying to do is make sure we stay on the technological edge.”

At the same time, defense contractors are consolidating “as a larger number of companies are chasing a smaller pot of defense dollars,” says Gary Celestan, a retired Army colonel and past president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce who owns Celestar, a Tampa-based defense contractor.

The $2.4 billion in what Geurts calls “investment funds” represents just a fraction of what the command has to spend on goods and services that are designed for commandos.

Of Socom’s roughly $10 billion budget, “between $6 billion and $7 billion are for research and development, procurement, sustainment or support services” like IT services, language support and knowledge management among other items, says Geurts.

“Socom is one of the only departments where research and development funding continues to increase, ensuring the best technology is available for our forces.”

“SOFIC is a great example of how powerful Socom is,” says Rick Homans, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. “This convention comes here every year because Socom is here.”

And it comes despite the Tampa Convention Center being too small to accommodate all the vendors who would like to attend.

There are about 340 exhibitors set to attend and almost as many on a waiting list, according to the NDIA.

“I don’t think that would ever affect the location,” says Barry Bates, a retired Army major general and vice president of operations for the trade group. “I think one of the primary ingredients to the success of this event is the accompanying SOF Week and the existence of the Socom headquarters right there on the doorstep. I don’t envision SOFIC or SOF Week being conducted anywhere but Tampa.”

That’s good news to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The convention “has the short-term impact of heads and beds, but I think the more important impact is exposing the Tampa Bay area to defense contractors and senior leaders of the defense industry.”

But unlike last year, Buckhorn won’t get “captured” by bad guys and rescued by commandos. That was part of Socom’s International Special Operations Forces Week, which is planned as an every-other-year event.

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Aside from the bigger ticket programs already underway — like revamping the fleet of special operations-specific MC-130 special mission aircraft and AC-130J aerial gunships, full production of a new line of combatant craft ships and developing a new line of dry submersible craft, Socom is seeking a number of other technologies, says Geurts.

The command, he says, wants sensors and sensor technology, portable power and anything that can reduce the weight of equipment carried by commandos, who often have to lug 100 pounds of kit on missions.

There is also the next phase of the so-called Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS program. For the first time, a dozen selected vendors will have five minutes apiece to demonstrate their technology at the conference.

Geurts says that if he sees new ideas out of those sessions, they will have been successful.

As the head of acquisitions, Geurts says one of his goals is developing stronger relations with academia and industry, especially smaller businesses, to get things into the hands of commandos as quickly as possible.

Seeking an earlier insight into the development cycle, Geurts says the command has increased the number of research and development agreements from 10 in 2013 to 110 now. The command has also surpassed the percentage of small businesses obtaining contracts, from 29 percent last year to nearly 33 percent so far. And of the contracts awarded by the command, nearly 75 percent last year were full and open competition, with that level expected again this year. All that, says Geurts, adds opportunity for local businesses.

Bates says that from an industry point of view, ­SOFIC is a great opportunity to showcase what the military calls C4ISR capabilities — Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

“These capabilities give warfighters the intelligence and clarity of situation they need,” says Bates.

In addition to sensors, Bates says that unmanned systems and cyber-related technologies will be among the hot items on the convention floor this year.

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One of SOFIC’s greatest selling points, on many levels, is that it serves as the center of gravity for the special operations community.

“From a business standpoint, this is huge for us,” Celestan says of opportunities for local defense contractors. “For us, every major player in the defense industry will be in town.

Celestan says his entire staff will be at the conference all week. With so many influential industry and military leaders, as well as acquisitions specialists and operators in one place, “by attending sessions and social events, we can knock out months of travel to Washington or California in one week, because everyone will be here.”

Larger national firms have a similar take.

“This is one of the most important shows we go to because input from SOF operators is crucial for us to build the best product to ensure mission success,” says Katy Delaney, a spokeswoman for Battelle of Ohio, the world’s largest nonprofit research and development organization.

Attendees will also get to hear from people like Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who will be addressing the conference for the first time as Socom’s commander.

Leaders of Socom’s component and theater commands will also talk about their needs from industry. These are discussions that have often shed light on how the normally secretive commando world operates.

The gala dinner keynote speech has traditionally attracted a lot of attention. A few years ago, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke. This year, on Wednesday, James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, will deliver the keynoter.

“Special Operations Forces have relied on the IC (intelligence community) to give you expert knowledge and visualization of the battlespace, and the IC has relied on Special Operations Forces to be our eyes and ears on the ground, giving us the reality of the situation,” Clapper said in November at a Global SOF Foundation function in Washington, D.C. “That’s been true for all of my 51 years in the intelligence business, and increasingly so in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 13 years.”

Clapper is likely to repeat both that line, and the theme, on Wednesday.

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Those interested in attending SOFIC, which dates back to the ’90s, can register at www.sofic.org. Aside from industry, Tampa and local special operations-related organizations and charities should benefit from the conference as well.

SOFIC is expected to pump $2.8 million into the local economy, says Kevin Wiatrowski, a spokesman for Visit Tampa Bay. The organization conservatively estimates that figure includes 7,200 room nights. And that means increased business for restaurants, bars and retail establishments.

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