Cool gadgets, new ideas on display at SOFIC, Tampa’s annual commando conference

EaglePicher Technologies shows off its remote cameras that can roll on land or in the water at the 2014 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa. More than 10,000 individuals and 400 companies are expected this year.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times (2014)

EaglePicher Technologies shows off its remote cameras that can roll on land or in the water at the 2014 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa. More than 10,000 individuals and 400 companies are expected this year.

For the next four days, the Tampa Convention Center will become a commando big box store, where the nation’s Special Operations Forces can shop for much-needed equipment and services.

The annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) convenes at the convention center starting today. A collaboration between U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, and the National Defense Industry Association, the conference is also a marketplace of ideas. SOCom officials will meet with industry and academia to lay out the kinds of goods and services they need in an increasingly challenging world. It’s a world where commandos have been on the tip of the spear for the past 15 years in the fight against jihadis. And they now face new threats from countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

“Folks look to this conference as a premier venue bringing everyone together to look at the tough problems the nation, as well as special operations, is facing,” said Jim “Hondo” Geurts, SOCom’s acquisition chief, whose unit spends billions a year from its headquarters at MacDill.

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This year’s conference will be the biggest ever, said Geurts, with more than 10,000 individuals and 400 companies expected to attend.

It’s an important juncture for SOCom and its industry partners.

Constant fighting since 9/11 has taken a toll on the Navy SEALs, Army Green Berets, Delta Force and Rangers, Marine Raiders and Air Force commandos, and the equipment they use. On top of that, potential adversaries like the Russians and Chinese have advanced weapons that, unlike current foes, can neutralize the advanced communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems that have helped give commandos an edge.

Geurts said SOCom leaders will be asking industry professionals for equipment with a wide range of uses that’s also sharable with allies. Among other things, the command is looking for tools that can help commandos:

• Quickly analyze huge caches of data and utilize machine learning;

• Thrive on battlefields under attack by electronic warfare weapons that interfere with communications;

• Move quickly and quietly through enemy territory on and above the surface, as well as below;

• Locate the enemy from safe distances and locations.

Now that SOCOm has been given responsibility for synchronizing the efforts to prevent proliferation and use of weapons of mass destruction, Geurts said the command may look for products and services that address those needs as well.

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There will be a few new elements at the conference this year, said Geurts.

Traditionally, SOFIC has been geared toward big companies like Lockheed and smaller defense contractors who can partner up with them or perform small business set-aside contracts.

This year, an “innovation showcase” will allow 30 entrepreneurs and start-up companies to display their wares to people making billions of dollars in purchasing decisions.

Also new this year is a panel discussion by heads of SOCom’s units, known in military parlance as “J-Codes,” dedicated to functions like intelligence, operations, strategy plans and policy.

That, said Geurts, will give industry partners and others attending an even more nuanced view of what SOCom commanders are seeking.

Unlike last year, there will be no massive display of military might downtown. The capabilities demonstrations are usually held every other year when the International Special Operations Forces conference runs concurrently.

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Though the conference officially begins today and runs through Thursday, there will be an associated “hackathon” held at the Sofwerx facility in Ybor City. Teams will compete to solve data, social media and location challenges. Winners will be announced during the conference. The top prize is $5,000.

There will also be several networking events and fundraisers. One will be held tonight for the Global SOF Foundation at Port Tampa Bay, Cruise Terminal 2. And on Tuesday night , there will an event for the SS American Victory ship, and one at the Tampa Museum of Art for the Stay in Step Spinal Cord Injury Center, created by Romy Camargo, a combat-paralyzed Green Beret, and his wife Gaby.

The conference and its ancillary events means an influx of about 7,000 room nights and nearly $3 million in additional spending going into local coffers, said Kevin Wiatrowski, a spokesman for Visit Tampa Bay.

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.