SOCOM’s international team expands global reach, strengthens bonds with partners under COVID-19

By: Maj. Ryan DeCamp - U.S. Special Operations Command Public Affairs - 8/28/2020

  • U.S. Special Operations Command’s International Operations Branch, also known as J3-International, hosts 26 nations full time and maintains constant connectivity with more than 35 countries daily. Communications systems like the All Partners Access Network allowed the International Operations Branch and their partners to communicate securely and adapt to the changes brought by social distancing and teleworking during COVID-19. The branch coordinates on topics ranging from training to real-world actions taken by state or non-state actors like terrorist organizations. (Photos by U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jacob Johnson)

Imagine having to coordinate a mission across 16 time zones with as many as 25 different countries and an even greater number of languages. At the same time, state and terrorist organizations are trying to stop you from moving at every turn.


Now coordinate that mission without being able to meet your teammates in person, travel or see the frontlines firsthand.


This is the curveball COVID-19 threw at U.S. Special Operations Command’s international operations team.


“We were faced with a situation where the standard telework tools did not meet our requirements. We needed a capability that was accessible by our partners around the world that also worked for our international partner’s here in Tampa,” said U.S. Army Col. Harold Miller, SOCOM’s International Operations Branch Chief.


Like many businesses across the U.S., SOCOM’s international team had to quickly find encrypted systems allowing them to securely connect with their partners virtually. But unlike some of those businesses, SOCOM’s international team comprises 25 different countries across the globe and various time zones that need to connect at the same time. It took a little flexibility, but not much time to find a platform helping SOCOM’s international team learn to hit the COVID-19 curveball, Miller said.


“Fortunately, we had experience using the Defense Department’s All Partners Access Network (APAN). Noah Schmiedecke, SOCOM’s International Operations Branch Information Technology Planner, was very familiar with APAN and was able to adapt it very quickly helping us continue to connect with our partners while COVID was beginning. Noah is the unsung hero of SOCOM’s APAN success and flexibility.”


Schmiedecke built more than 50 new sites for APAN to support U.S. and partner nations responding to the virus. These include NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters, SOCOM’s network of international SOF partners, SOCOM’s components and organizations in other combatant commands.


Multiple countries saw effects on their units. One used APAN to connect deploying troops with families prior to deploying to Afghanistan for Operation Resolute Support. 


“Due to the COVID-19 situation in my country, our family care events are virtual instead of the usual weekend gatherings,” said a partner country’s special operations liaison officer assigned to SOCOM. “The international operations team here created a tailored APAN portal allowing us to have video teleconferences, share files and chat. They also trained us to host the event and troubleshoot errors.”


The event had a positive effect on morale prior to heading to Afghanistan, the officer said. Overall, the virtual event brought 120 family members together over eight hours allowing deploying troops, families and unit leadership to connect prior to leaving home.


The need to connect virtually and across continents during COVID-19 extends beyond just those heading to traditional deployment locations like Afghanistan.


SOCOM has 25 partner nations with fulltime representatives on MacDill Air Force Base. COVID-19 forced many of the U.S. and partner forces to telework, making it harder to connect to the infrastructure needed to link with partners without liaisons at MacDill. SOCOM could still connect with partners, but it took longer with members having to socially isolate due to the virus. They looked to APAN to provide a faster solution.


The Defense Department’s APAN system came on line in Hawaii in 2001. The original goal was to support connectivity with partners in the Indo-Pacific. Since then, APAN has proved its value in supporting connectivity with US allies and partners all over the world. 


APAN is web based and doesn’t require the standard hardware issued traditionally to U.S. forces and partners. The program is free to use, only requires an internet connection and offers full encryption at a level similar to most modern credit card companies. Most significantly during COVID-19, it can be used by those using Windows and Mac-based computers while teleworking away from DoD facilities.


This flexibility helped the international team and their partners continue to connect despite not being able to travel or meet in person.


Since harnessing the full use of APAN, SOCOM’s international team has routinely held meetings with up to 155 people simultaneously ranging from the Indo-Pacific, the Americas and Europe.


Brazil is the newest member of SOCOM’s international team. Capt. Alan DaSilva has been at MacDill about a year and a half. Prior to COVID-19’s arrival, the international team had APAN, but used other services to communicate. DaSilva said he’s noticed APAN’s effects.


“I started seeing APAN as a more useful tool which could save a lot of money replacing trips for meetings in person. It’s really helped us to continue communicating while COVID-19 has prevented us from reaching out in traditional ways.”


Sgt. Maj. Radek Vadjecka from the Czech Republic has served as the international operations branch’s senior enlisted advisor the last two years. He said, “Investment in development of APAN turned out to be an excellent option for communication with the international community during COVID-19 days. It has helped us stay connected with our militaries around the world. The challenges our partners faced prior to COVID-19 did not go away because of the virus, so finding additional ways to continue working together is vital so we can keep addressing those threats.”


Miller said the team has supported development of more than 50 new APAN sites for the global SOF community since March. The organizations come from countries on at least three continents. Specific countries are not named for security reasons.


A worldwide virus largely shut down regional economies, international travel and forced millions of people to remain in their homes. Given this environment, SOCOM’s international team adapted and found ways to continue the mission and by virtually linking with partners in real time. Miller said the flexibility and availability of APAN has actually increased their ability to coordinate, respond to crisis and function in the long run.  


“From the outset of COVID-19, we knew communication and transparency with our SOF partners were going to be key,” Miller said. “The technology was important, but as we say in SOF, people are more important than hardware. Teammates like Noah Schmeidecke and Sgt. Maj. Vadjecka were able to adapt APAN to meet the needs of a broad international SOF community. We and our partners know what’s on the line: 330 million Americans and the millions of residents in our 25 partner nations and growing are depending on our teamwork and continued success.”

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