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Special forces, commandos are Tampa trade show's target market

TAMPA

This is not your typical, run-of-the-mill convention.

Start with the mockup of something called a Viper-E at the Tampa Convention Center. It looks vaguely like a space fighter from Star Wars. A television screen sitting next to it shows the missile blowing apart a series of vehicles in an endless loop.

Not far away, several guys in military fatigues look at a display of miniature cameras that can be easily hidden just about anywhere.

A salesman waves off a reporter. "We really don't give out public information on these devices," he said.

This is the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference, an annual gathering of defense contractors vying for the attention — and the dollars — of U.S. special forces. The convention opened Tuesday and continues through Thursday with 336 companies displaying their wares.

The event is held in Tampa because U.S. Special Operations Command, which directs the nation's special forces, has its headquarters at nearby MacDill Air Force Base.

And the convention isn't open to the public.

"We're here to make new connections," said J. Eric Corban, founder of Guided Systems Technology, an Atlanta-area company that makes unmanned helicopters. "We're hoping to meet military units who will see a need for our units."

The conventions comes during tough budgetary times for the military, which is coping with billions of dollars in sequestration cuts. But SOCom is expected to fare better than the military branches as the Pentagon shifts to a strategic vision emphasizing small, capable and maneuverable forces to combat terrorism.

SOCom's commander, Adm. William McRaven, has said he nonetheless expects his command will be affected by cuts regardless of the nation's strategic shift to special forces.

SOCom granted more than $3.3 billion in defense contracts last fiscal year in 15,500 separate contracts even as the U.S. prepared to pull its forces out of Afghanistan by the close of 2014.

"Sometimes we look at declining funds as a challenge," James Cluck, SOCom's acquisition director, said in opening remarks to the convention. "But it's a real opportunity. It's a real opportunity because I think the less money we have, the more innovative we become."

McRaven told the gathering that U.S. special forces need to be agile and ready to deploy quickly anywhere in the world. He said forces must network not just with other U.S. agencies and commands, but also with their foreign counterparts as the world becomes more interconnected.

"There's no such thing as a local problem anymore," McRaven said "If you have a problem in Mali, I guarantee that problem will manifest itself in Europe. … You can't run from these local problems. … The world is linked. Therefore we need to be linked."

Weapons of every type and caliber were on display back at the exhibit hall, giving the convention the feel of a gun show.

But many of the weapons here aren't close to being street legal — handguns with silencers, automatic weapons, platform-mounted guns operated by remote control and missiles galore.

James Overton, founder and president of Virginia-based High Threat Concealment, was hoping to win customers for his company's collection of smart-looking tactical gear to carry guns and ammunition. The gear is designed to be low visibility, worn under a suit coat or jacket.

"You can carry pretty much everything you need to fight your way back to your vehicle," Overton said.

JetLev master flight instructor Mike Traster demonstrates a water-propelled jetpack Tuesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa. A military version lets the user remain submerged for up to 40 minutes. See video of the demonstration at Links in Today’s Times on tampabay.com.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

JetLev master flight instructor Mike Traster demonstrates a water-propelled jetpack Tuesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa. A military version lets the user remain submerged for up to 40 minutes. See video of the demonstration at Links in Today’s Times on tampabay.com.

Special forces, commandos are Tampa trade show's target market 05/14/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 12:10am]
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