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  1. Military

At Special Ops conference in Tampa, all kinds of guns, drones and more

TAMPA — Warriors have been looking for a technological edge since ancient times, when someone came up with the bright idea of attaching a sharpened rock to the end of a long stick.

Henry V's archers used the longbow to mow down a larger French army at Agincourt in 1415.

Warriors are still looking for the more-lethal mousetrap.

The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference opened Tuesday at the Tampa Convention Center as more than 300 companies displayed the latest weapons and technology available to the U.S. military. More than 10,000 people from industry, the military and the greater defense community are expected to attend the three-day event.

The convention is held annually in Tampa because U.S. Special Operations Command, which directs the nation's special forces, is headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base.

The event allows high-tech weapons manufacturers and other defense industries producing everything from boots to machine guns and unmanned aircraft to hobnob with military and industry leaders, pitch their wares or seek input in the needs of the nation's war fighters.

"This gives us an international audience," said Kristi Hunter, a government and military sales representative for Colorado knife manufacturer Spyderco, which boasts it was the first firm to offer a serrated folding knife. "And we rely on them to tell us what is coming next and what the needs of special forces will be in the future."

The nation's military is shrinking. But SOCom has actually been increasing research and development as the nation shores up its commando forces and the Pentagon shifts to a strategic vision emphasizing small, capable and maneuverable forces to combat terrorists.

The convention has become one of the premier gatherings for defense contractors. Estimates indicate the convention provides a $3 million boost to the local economy.

SOCom's chief, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said during the keynote address that SOCom is working to be more nimble as it develops new technologies and capabilities in the face of an ever-changing and agile enemy.

"Our technological superiority has never been guaranteed," Votel said. "And today it is increasingly challenged. Technology and weapons that were once exclusive to the United States … have now become available to a broad range of state and nonstate actors.

"To that end, we must leverage industry to lean it forward and help develop the technologies that are not just incremental improvements but monumental improvements," he said.

Forget spears and longbows in 21st century warfare.

A walk through the exhibit hall reveals a hodgepodge of the latest weapons systems and technologies. Very few of these wares are available at or your local hardware store.

On one end of the convention hall, a company called iRobot offers "robots that make a difference." Another firm displayed what it calls the GAU-21 — the "next generation of heavy machine gun." Drones of every shape and description hang from the ceiling. One weapon is advertised as "a full-spectrum area-denial system."

SOCom procures weapons and technology much unlike most of the military. The command often works with industry to build technologies designed for the specific needs of special forces.

That might mean building helicopters adapted to fly at higher altitudes or designing vehicles that Navy SEALs can use to travel underwater.

"Sometimes SOCom will buy something off the shelf," said Brian Dalgliesh, military market manager for Mustang Survival, a Maryland firm that makes survival gear. "If they can't find what they need, they work with industry to develop a solution."

Votel said the command is working to reduce waste and bureaucracy so that it can move faster to get new technology into the hands of its fighters.

"We're in this together," he said. "We're a team."

Contact William R. Levesque at Follow @Times_Levesque.