Despite a wealth of contracts, MacDill struggles to find matches of competency and security clearances

Initiatives are underway to reduce the compliance costs and the psychological barriers of federal contracting. But opportunities from MacDill abound — especially in a Tampa Bay defense business community that likes to compete and cooperate.

Read more at:

Firm aims to grab market share behind new software patents

Visual Awareness Technologies & Consulting could be on the verge of a major breakthrough.

by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Although she was born at Fort Bragg, Sara Moola never served in the military. But a new software product made by her company, Tampa-based Visual Awareness Technologies & Consulting, could improve the effectiveness of U.S. armed forces worldwide.

VATC, which also has offices in St. Petersburg, recently received two patents for the software. It's called EPIC Ready, a cloud-based, Software-as-a-Service platform that allows users to collaboratively assess mission readiness.

“It’s more of a gestalt approach. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Sara Moola, co-founder of Visual Awareness Technologies & Consulting

Moola, 50, says EPIC could also be a useful tool for private-sector clients like mining and telecom companies that need to develop and test plans to protect strategic, high-value assets. But in an industry dominated by giant defense contractors like Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, how will VATC, with just 200 employees, break through?

“It’s hard to compete with the traditional system integrators,” Moola says, using an industry term for firms that do big business with the U.S. Department of Defense. “They usually corner the market because they have the right contacts, the right connections and the money to get in front of the customer.”

Moola has fought back with her hiring strategy. She and her co-founder and husband, Mike Vaughn, go out of their way to hire veterans — particularly men and women who’ve been members of U.S. special operations forces, such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs, as well as former employees of intelligence agencies like the CIA.

Some 80% of VATC’s workforce is veterans, Moola says. “They have the knowledge of lessons learned in the field to apply to our training scenarios.”

Although ex-warriors program and deploy EPIC, and current warriors are intended customers, Moola says the ultimate objective of EPIC Ready is peace. EPIC Ready improves mission effectiveness because of the three-tiered approach that sets it apart from competing products in the marketplace.

First is EPIC Builder, a program that allows users to create ultra-realistic geospatial environments. That’s Moola’s specialty, having trained in geographic information systems mapping — a high-tech, data-centric approach to organizing, visualizing and assessing an environment.

The second part is EPIC Media, a threat-assessment tool that lets users monitor social media and internet chatter that could point to a possible attack.

“The media piece is critical because nothing just happens on the ground anymore,” Moola says. “You can determine a threat well beforehand, via the internet, and you can determine what the response is to your action in the field — was it negatively or positively received?”

That’s an area where Moola sees private-sector marketing potential. EPIC Media can collect what’s known as open-source intelligence, publicly available data that can be useful for security and cybersecurity purposes.

The third leg is EPIC Plan, the program that brings all the inputs together and allows leaders to plan, execute and assess a scenario.

“By integrating all three, it’s more of a gestalt approach,” Moola says. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

VATC has been first to market with this kind of holistic approach to cloud-based, collaborative mission and exercise training — hence, the patents, Moola says. And because it’s a subscription-based SaaS platform, EPIC Ready generates a wide range of steady fees for VATC. Depending on the size and needs of the customer, Moola says EPIC can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a quarter of a million dollars. (She declines to disclose specific firm revenue figures, citing privately held VATC’s recent introduction of EPIC Ready.)

VATC, founded in 2003, also handles more conventional services for the DoD. A prime example is Emerald Warrior, an annual U.S. Special Operations Command exercise focused on irregular warfare tactics. Emerald Warrior training scenarios, which take 12 months to plan, can involve coordination of up to 2,500 military units.

Emerald Warrior represents one of VATC’s two major contracts with the U.S. Special Operations Command. It also makes money from a handful of other deals, such as a $99.7 million Air Force contract, awarded in 2015, that VATC shared with six other companies.

Although it might not be the primary revenue driver, Moola expects EPIC Ready, with its appeal to the private sector, to be a big part of the company’s future, particularly if she can find investors to come onboard.

“Not just from a monetary perspective, but investors who can open doors,” she says. “Vertical-specific investors who can really leverage this technology.”


2019 TechConnect Innovation Awardee

TechConnect World, June 17-19 2019, Boston, MA

 Geoanalytics Platform for Special Operations Mission Readiness

Organization: EPIC Ready

Congratulations!  Geoanalytics Platform for Special Operations Mission Readiness is recognized as a 2019 TechConnect Innovation Awardee at next month's TechConnect World Conference in Boston, MA.

You received this Award because it placed in the top 15% of submitted technologies as ranked by the TechConnect Corporate & Investment Partner Committee.  TechConnect Innovation Awardees are listed on our Awards page:

Admiral Farragut Academy to Offer $48,800 Scholarship in Partnership with SOFWOLF

TAMPA, Fla. - Special Operations Forces Warrior Outdoor Leadership for the Future, a nonprofit organization based in Tampa, Florida, offering college and career outdoor leadership opportunities for teenagers of fallen members of the Special Operations Forces community, announced today its partnership with Admiral Farragut Academy to offer a full-year scholarship valued at $48,800 to a SOFWOLF student with outstanding academic, personal and leadership qualifications.

“This is a remarkable opportunity to support a SOFWOLF student in a way that could change their life for the better,” said Sara Moola, co-founder of SOFWOLF. “This partnership with AFA is proof of what is possible when a community comes together.”

AFA is a college-prep military academy based in St. Petersburg, Florida, serving students in grades pre-K-12. With a math and science core curriculum, AFA emphasizes outdoor leadership skills, including sailing, aviation, team sports and more. Its upper school, which starts in eighth grade, is also known worldwide for its boarding program and its naval science program’s military structure. Recent graduates of AFA have continued their educational studies at prestigious private universities, including Stanford, Princeton and Duke.

“We’re excited to be partnering with SOFWOLF on this initiative,” said Tony Sloan, chief development officer for AFA. “We admire the work they’ve done to help teens of Special Operations Forces warriors whom we have lost, and we look forward to welcoming a deserving student to AFA.”

To learn more about SOFWOLF, visit


SOFWOLF is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that offers a college and career outdoor leadership program for the teenagers of the fallen Special Operations Forces community, which includes Air Force Commandos, Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Marine Special Operators. The mission expands beyond being a summer camp. SOFWOLF provides the opportunity for these teens to participate in outdoor leadership, team-building activities, career mentoring, resume-building, community outreach and networking for internships. For more information, visit us at

VATC President & CEO, Sara Moola, awarded 2018 Enterprising Women of the Year

Sara Moola is president, CEO and co-founder of Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting (VATC), which provides global strategies, joint training and exercise, and geospatial solutions for secure operations around the world. Since the company's founding in 2003, Sara has grown VATC from a two-person team supporting two government contracts to a 300-employee organization with more than 36 locations worldwide.

In addition to her role at VATC, Sara founded Warrior Outdoor Leadership for the Future, or WOLF, a nonprofit organization that provides college or career-bound children of fallen Special Operations soldiers with a summer leadership program, including resume workshops and introduction to industry leaders for mentoring and future career opportunities. She's been recognized by the Tampa Bay Business Journal's Business Woman of the Year Awards, and was awarded the Business Woman of the Year Award in both the Technology and Community Service categories.

Sara currently serves as a director on the board of the Economic Development Council. She became a member of the Young Professional Organization (YPO) in 2017 and works with the U.S. State Department in Women and Entrepreneurship, primarily in Africa.

Source: VATC President & CEO, Sara Moola, awarded 2018 Enterprising Women of the Year

Industry Developing New Social Media Simulation Tools for Military Analysts

As Black Hawk helicopters transported Navy SEALs to Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, an IT consultant working late into the evening heard the spinning of the aircrafts’ rotors.

To hear choppers flying at that hour of the night was unusual, so he went to Twitter to share his thoughts: “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event),” he said from his handle @ReallyVirtual. A few minutes later he fired off another tweet, “Go away helicopter ­— before I take out my giant swatter.”

Sohaib Athar was unknowingly live-tweeting a covert raid to take down one of the most sought-after terrorists in the world.

Since then, social media has only become more intermingled with military operations. Not only can average citizens tweet about them in real time, but military analysts can now also use platforms such as Twitter to find nuggets of information about persons of interest, or gauge the political temperature of a region. To meet that demand, industry is developing new training software to help analysts better comb through piles of data taken from websites like Facebook and Reddit.

One such system is SimulationDeck, a software platform developed by Nusura, a Denver-based technology company. The system is able to replicate traditional media such as radio, television and newspapers, along with web platforms including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“We talk about it a lot as the internet in a box,” said Mark Amann, Nusura’s CEO. “We took a lot of the common social media [websites] and emerging digital technologies and put them in a hardened and private place online.”

Organizations can practice using social media for crisis response and military and intelligence operations, he said.

SimulationDeck has its own versions of popular websites. Instead of Facebook, it has SimBook. Instead of Twitter, it has BleatDeck, he said.

Nusura is able to replicate social media posts from real-world events to help train users. One example could be the Petya/NotPetya ransomware virus that struck earlier this year, or the Arab Spring, Amann said.

The company works with the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security and state and local emergency management agencies, he added. Nusura has participated in two exercises with U.S. Southern Command, including Integrated Advance 2017, and a mass migration exercise in 2017 with the government of Panama called Panamax.

Nusura is able to create new content or pull in real posts from the internet, he said.

“Where we’re going in the future is to be able to dynamically pull real-world content” into SimulationDeck, he said. “There are a lot of challenges that we have to confront to … [do that] because much of our customer base, from DoD to DHS, to civilian state and local agencies, have significant concerns about personally identifiable information.”

The company must scrub personal information from posts before they can be used. That takes a lot of man-hours, he said. It hopes to create an automated solution soon. 
Cubic Global Defense, working under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contract, has also developed a platform that can be used to train military analysts, said Michal Simek, senior program director at Cubic’s subsidiary Intific.

The social media analytic replication toolkit, or SMART, is primarily operated on the Amazon cloud server and is offered as a service, he said. That allows the company to continuously update the system with new tools.

It replicates social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook and others like Craigslist. There are plans to eventually include Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp, Simek noted. 
“It’s starting to replicate more and more sites,” he said.

The company uses the product primarily to assist customers with exercises, he added.


VATC’s digital media replicator is used during a recent military exercise. (VATC)

“When an exercise is about to go forward, … we do a scrape of the internet data which we then anonymize,” he said. “We don’t actually take people’s names and put them out there for people to train with.”

Cubic then securely creates a custom “sandbox” for each exercise and generates a script that helps the user train for a certain objective, Simek said.
Users can then scour SMART to find out what caused a particular event to happen, he said.

“It’s not as simple as doing a search and going, ‘Oh yeah, here’s the thing that caused the event,’” he said. “You actually have to use the tools that you use as an analyst in the military.”
Cubic has secured multiple contracts with the Pentagon for the system, but Simek declined to discuss specific details. The company is pursuing opportunities with Australia, the United Kingdom and Singapore, he noted.

VATC, a Tampa, Florida-based defense company, is also in the social media training business. Its digital media replicator system, under its EPIC Ready line of products, doesn’t simulate social media, but replicates it, said Sara Moola, the company’s CEO.

VATC’s vision “is to actually replicate, not simulate … the operational environment as much as possible for the operator in the training and exercise environment,” she said. The company takes real information from a certain area and injects that into its system, she added.

“That means that if you want to train in an area in Africa, you can actually extract that specific area of interest and have that … feed going into the exercise, which is in a closed environment,” she said.

The system is platform-agnostic and can be used on a laptop or a tablet, she added.

The digital media replicator was recently used during the Flintlock 2017 exercise in Africa. The event brought together 2,000 military personnel from 24 African and Western nations.

VATC used its system in Chad, where it took a set of Twitter feeds and injected it with information about a person of interest, said Tony Perez, director of VATC’s EPIC division.

If “the person they are looking for is named Fred Martinez, we’ll inject tidbits” of information about him into the system, he said. That could include the name of his wife or family members, or information about his property such as a boat. “Then we put those out there so the intel units can look and … use that as training and try to find that needle in the haystack, so to speak,” he said.

The company can also input positive messages into the system, Perez added.

During the exercise, the U.S. Agency for International Development “wanted us to [send] positive tweets out,” he said. “They wanted actually to put tweets out that say, ‘Hey, we’re delivering … water out to these folks, and we want people to know that we are doing a good thing for the public.’”

The system was able to create chatter about the deliveries, he said.

Mike Vaughn, VATC’s chief operating officer, noted that the company would use its system at eight large exercises and numerous smaller events in 2018.

This type of technology will only become more popular as time goes on, Amann said.

“We’ve barely cracked the surface,” he said. Data found on social media can be used for a variety of missions including psychological operations, intelligence gathering and public affairs, Amann added.

“It has myriad applications, and I think people are seeing now — especially [with] everything from the Arab Spring through Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria — how important this information is,” he said.

Without systems such as SimulationDeck or other social media replicating software, military analysts will not be able to realistically train for certain situations, he said.
Paul Scharre, director of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said social media is increasingly becoming an important component of warfare.

“There is this whole new information landscape that is layered on top of the physical world that we need to be paying attention to,” he said. “It’s vital for information about what’s happening among the population, but also for information that others might have about U.S. troops.”

The military must be able to monitor websites to see if something is trending that might be harmful to a mission so they can respond in a timely fashion, he said.

The Defense Department needs to invest more funds into tools and platforms that can help military officials monitor social media and also understand its implications, but the Pentagon’s antiquated acquisition process is an obstacle to that, Scharre said. The Army, in particular, has struggled in this regard, he said.

VATC honored with 2017 TechConnect Defense Innovation Award for EPIC Ready

TAMPA, Fla., Oct. 6, 2017 – Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc. (VATC), a leader in delivering advanced Distributed Missions Operations training environments to government and commercial customers around the world, announced today that they have received the 2017 TechConnect Defense Innovation Award for EPIC Ready™ at the Defense Innovation Summit (DITAC) in Tampa, Florida.

“Tony Perez and his team have worked tirelessly creating the newest EPIC Ready features,” said Sara Moola, CEO and co-founder of VATC. “The incredible team has dedicated themselves to ensuring that EPIC Ready is a top tier mission readiness technology. It’s an incredible honor that their hard work has been recognized from the defense community for being such an important innovation supporting our nation’s forces.”

EPIC Ready is a breakthrough technology platform designed to quickly and cost effectively create a fully integrated training experience that blends realistic replication of Human Dynamics, a 3D common data visual environment, and quantifiable and objective assessment of performance. Proven in demanding special operations, joint, and conventional force training environments, as well as support to Geospatial database development, EPIC Ready is the first product-based training solution that combines geospatial analytics, human dynamics factors, and data-driven performance analysis to create the most realistic and effective warfighter experience possible. Learn more about EPIC Ready at

The Defense Innovation Summit (DITAC) in collaboration with NSTXL presents a new innovation acceleration model made to rapidly prospect, vet and fund state-of-the-art technologies in alignment with war-fighter needs. The TechConnect Defense Innovation Award is presented to companies whose technology placed in the top 15 percent of all submissions.

About Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting, Inc. (VATC) 

For more than a decade, Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc. (VATC) has combined its joint training experience, innovative engineering talent and intelligence expertise to pioneer the development of the most advanced Distributed Missions Operations (DMO) training environments available anywhere in the world. Combining the latest open geospatial data standards with an integrated suite of innovative DMO training solutions, VATC offers a legacy of proven performance, leading subject-matter expertise and the most innovative technological solutions to the modern military’s growing challenges. For more information, visit us at, or on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Sara Moola represented in the Florida High Tech Corridor

ST. PETERSBURG, FL — Ms. Sara Moola, VATC CEO and President, was recently interviewed in the Florida High Tech Corridor Magazine. She was featured in the section titled, “Future Faces of Technology” where they cover the most innovative and ground-breaking figures in the technology space. The article discusses Ms. Sara Moola’s expertise and background in the GIS space and how it has fueled the creation of VATC’s EPIC Ready product, a cloud-based / physical appliance designed to improve realistic training for the warfighter. Its patented technology platform allows for multiple military forces from land, air, or sea to collaborate on the same training exercise providing better training measurements for top level exercise planners to analyze. The Florida High Tech Corridor also produced a video piece covering Ms. Sara Moola and her vision for transforming training for the future warfighter.

The magazine article can be found on page 18 of the publication. VATC in Florida High Tech Corridor.

With New Office Open, VATC Turns Training Expertise into Technology Product

Contractor Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting, which has long specialized in military training, has opened a new division in Florida and is selling its first product.

The company's new division, based in St. Petersburg, is focused on applied research and technology. The first product released through this division is known as EPIC Ready and is meant to bolster the realism of training and quantify readiness.

Sara Moola, VATC's chief executive, told Inside Defense the company has sought to marry the expertise of its workforce with technology. About 90 percent of the company's employees previously served in the military or worked for government agencies.

The EPIC system incorporates a common database builder, which provides command and control and geospatial visualization; a digital media replicator, which aggregates media information; and a planning and analysis system, which measures performance against objectives.

In an interview with Inside Defense, Mike Vaughn, the company's chief operations officer, said the new product "opens doors" for VATC.

"There's a requirement across a lot of different areas in government, and you could even push this out into the commercial sector," he said, noting the product is relevant for any industry that must prepare for risk.

By Marjorie Censer  

February 7, 2017 at 11:54 AM


With new office open, VATC turns training expertise into technology product

Contractor Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting, which has long specialized in military training, has opened a new division in Florida and is selling its first product.

The company's new division, based in St. Petersburg, is focused on applied research and technology. The first product released through this division is known as EPIC Ready and is meant to bolster the realism of training and quantify readiness.

Sara Moola, VATC's chief executive, told Inside Defense the company has sought to marry the expertise of its workforce with technology. About 90 percent of the company's employees previously served in the military or worked for government agencies.

The EPIC system incorporates a common database builder, which provides command and control and geospatial visualization; a digital media replicator, which aggregates media information; and a planning and analysis system, which measures performance against objectives.

In an interview with Inside Defense, Mike Vaughn, the company's chief operations officer, said the new product "opens doors" for VATC.

"There's a requirement across a lot of different areas in government, and you could even push this out into the commercial sector," he said, noting the product is relevant for any industry that must prepare for risk.

Faces of Technology: Preparing the Nation’s Protectors

Sara Moola will never forget 2003. At a conference in Tampa, the geospatial information systems expert crossed paths with Mike Vaughn, a veteran and contractor with more than 20 years of experience in military special operations. Their shared passion to make a difference would become the foundation for a successful business partnership and, two years later, a successful marriage.   

“We started the company because of a vision and a passion for this,” said Moola, CEO of Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc. (VATC).  

VATC provides cutting-edge tools for simulation and training, intelligence, research and human performance.  Its patented technology platform allows multiple military forces from land, air and sea to collaborate on the same training exercise.  One of its latest developments, Digital Media Replicator, integrates simulated data from news, blogs and social media to replicate the real-time data soldiers review and respond to on deployment.  VATC’s unique platform also enables mission planners to determine the allocation of resources for a simulation.  Their decisions are measured during the training exercise and evaluated post-training.   

“We’ve been researching, developing and testing this for quite a few years, but not until recently had we developed a testable solution that’s now productized and will be coming out at I/ITSEC in Orlando,” Moola said, referring to the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference, the world’s largest modeling, simulation and training conference hosted annually in Orlando. 

Geospatial data, one of the foundational elements of VATC’s technology, is driven by Moola’s expertise.  She was first introduced to a GIS laboratory while working for an environmental management firm. The technology inspired her to complete a master’s degree in GIS at Clark University and, later, she transitioned into GIS roles for military intelligence.   

Moola oversees more than 150 employees at VATC’s 36 locations worldwide, including its headquarters in Tampa, which were established to serve the local military presence at MacDill Air Force Base and to facilitate collaboration with research partners in Orlando. The region’s capacity for research and development is a primary reason Moola believes defense partners should look to Florida for innovation. 

“The technology corridor is so powerful in two areas:  Orlando, which is our military research arm, and Tampa, which has Special Operations Command and Central Command,” Moola explained.   

She and Vaughn are committed to serving the region’s large defense community. Ninety percent of VATC’s employees are veterans and the couple has established a charitable leadership program for children of fallen Special Operations Forces. 

“The long game is important to us and the difference we make in the operational environment is important to us,” said Moola. “I enjoy seeing the commitment of our employees to our customers and knowing we’re making a difference.”

Find the original story here:

Defense tech security firm to hire more than 50 amid opening new St. Petersburg 'incubator'

ST. PETERSBURG — Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting, a Tampa-based defense security firm, plans to hire more than 50 additional employees amid opening a new "tech incubator" in downtown St. Petersburg.

VATC, which employs more than 200 people in Tampa and in satellite offices around the world, is basing the incubator in the newly renovated First Central Tower, the former Florida Federal headquarters.

The company said the St. Petersburg operation will serve as a "hub of innovation" for developing technology solutions to help its customers in the military, intelligence and law enforcement sectors.


"This new office opening is representative of VATC's present growth and vision," company co-founder and chief operations officer Mike Vaughn said in a statement.

"As mission environments become more complex, technology must enable realistic training conditions in a rapidly changing environment. This new division will allow VATC to create innovative, top-of-the-line technology that keeps our clients the best prepared in the world."

Heading the new division will be Shands Pickett, vice president of Applied Research and Technology. His team will include technology engineers and developers with experience in the Department of Defense and intelligence communities.

As with past expansions, VATC expects to hire many local veterans for open positions.

For information about job openings at the company, visit

DHS Awards Potential $1.5B PACTS II Non-IT Services Contract Vehicle

The Department of Homeland Security has awarded 30 companies spots on a potential five-year, $1.5 billion contract vehicle for program management, administrative, operations and technical support services.

PACTS II is a set-aside program for service-disabled, veteran-owned small businesses and designed to help DHS accomplish mission objectives and cross-organizational missions through non-information technology services, according to a FedBizOpps summary.

Twelve of the winning vendors can vie for program management and technical support task orders under functional category one of the indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract while the remaining 18 can compete for administrative and operations services orders under functional category two.

The awardees for FC1 are:

  • Agile Homeland Security Group

  • Archimedes Global

  • Flatter & Associates


  • Harkcon

  • Integrated Finance and Accounting Solutions

  • ITility

  • Management and Technical Services Alliance JV

  • Old Dominion Strategies

  • Pathfinder Consultants

  • ScaVet Technologies

  • Strategic Operational Solutions

FC2 awardees include:

  • Aktarius

  • Analytic Strategies


  • Information Technology Coalition

  • Interior Systems, doing business as ISI Professional Services

  • Lukos-VATC JV


  • ProTech Services Alliance USA

  • Sciolex

  • Strategic Alliance Business Group JV

  • Systems Kinetics Integration

  • Szanca Solutions

  • TechOp Solutions International

  • The Reger Group

  • TMC-TeleSolv

  • Totally Joined For Achieving Collaborative Techniques

  • Vision Centric

  • X Corp Solutions

Special Operators Seek New Social Media Tools

As terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State embrace social media, government entities are seeking to exploit open-source information to improve their own operational tactics.

U.S. Special Operations Command is researching how it can use social media to mine critical intelligence data, said Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who at the time was serving as the commander of SOCOM.

“SOCOM is currently carrying out a series of technology demonstrations to assess innovative tools designed to detect previously unseen patterns in complex social media data; integrate and visualize vast information; and allow warfighters to sense, understand and respond to changes in the information environment in real time,” he said during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in March.

Additionally, the command could also use social media to attempt to undermine the Islamic State’s propaganda, he said.

“The ability to conduct effective messaging, as well as counter-messaging, will only grow in importance, given the evolving nature of conflicts,” he said.

Industry is ready to help SOCOM better sift through social media posts to distill nuggets of information, said M. Shands Pickett, director of applied research and technology at Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting Inc., a Tampa, Florida-based small business that focuses on training and operational solutions for special operations forces and other government organizations.

Social media offers the military, and particularly SOCOM, a way to gauge how certain operations affect a local population, he said.

“What we saw throughout conventional forces, special operations forces and partner forces [in Afghanistan] is an inability to really understand how their operations were having an effect on the local population,” he said.

During conventional operations, it is obvious when a military has won — tanks leave and soldiers surrender, he said. But “when you’re operating in a … counterinsurgency environment or in a irregular warfare environment … the only way you know that is if the local population thinks that you’ve won … because they are determinant of your victory.

“With the proliferation of cell phones, even in areas like Afghanistan, you can get a pretty good sense of what people think about what you’re doing,” he said.

Earlier this year, VATC launched a special operations variant of its simulated intelligence training environment platform, or SITREP, to help SOCOM train its intelligence officers. The system works by pulling information from social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and overlaying it with simulated operations.

“You’re seeing all this data … of whether you are achieving the right effects or not achieving those effects, and then it allows you to attenuate your operations in order to improve,” he said.

VATC can simulate a number of target areas around the world, including in Asia, South America and Africa. It also pulls information from social media platforms that are frequently used in certain regions. For example, in China a website known as Weibo is popular.

An intelligence officer can pull up SITREP on a non-classified Internet protocol router network and “it will bring up what looks like Twitter except for it’s the scenario Twitter,” he said. It’s mixed with a synthetic environment that draws on real-world events “plus our scenario variables that we introduce. So it’s realistic for the analyst. … It’s not hokey.”

For example, in one case study, special operators go into a village and conduct a direct action mission and detain a target. The program tells the users whether or not the locals in that area are supportive of this person based on social media data and what the effects of removing him would be.

The company has met with Special Operations Command and Naval Special Warfare Command to discuss the product, Pickett said.

SITREP was originally developed for the Joint Multiple National Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany, he said. It has been used in exercises since 2013. Because it was created to work alongside partner nations, it can be translated into languages such as French, Spanish and Serbian.

During the summer of 2015, VATC began work on developing a SOF variant. There is an “order of magnitude difference, because with a conventional force training audience you’re focused on … the basics and you’re getting an intel captain who may or may not have ever deployed,” he said. “Working for a SOCOM audience, the customer is a lot more demanding in terms of the level of fidelity that we produce and also the level of realism that we can replicate.”

Kitware, an open-source software company based in Clifton Park, New York, has developed technology that could be used by special operators to analyze images and videos on social media platforms.

“We can detect images or identify images that have military vehicles in them versus images that don’t,” said Anthony Hoogs, senior director of computer vision at the company. “It might be an image of someone smiling at the camera in the foreground but in the background there is a military vehicle. Or it could be soldiers taking pictures of themselves sitting on their tank.”

Using a software system powered by a concept known as deep learning — advanced algorithms that can enable human-level accuracy in data analysis — analysts can quickly sift through large amounts of data, he said. The algorithms can pick up on camouflage paint on vehicles, or even recognize certain sizes and shapes.

“Deep learning has enabled a significant leap forward in accuracy of image understanding, so now it becomes much more conceivable to have automated analysis of just random media content in social media … and get something useful out of it,” he said.

Images and videos make up most of the data on social media platforms but only recently has there been significant steps toward analyzing it, he said.

Images and videos “for the past couple of years have been, really just as far as the algorithms are concerned, mostly black boxes,” he said. “But with better algorithms that have come along lately we can do more and we can tell whether a photo is an indoor scene or an outdoor one [or] has military content.”

The system could help an analyst detect if certain people are involved with terrorist groups, he said.

“Most of the data in social media is not of intelligence value. It’s a classic needle in the haystack problem,” he said. “If you’re asking your analyst to spend his precious time digging through social media to find something, then they have to have a very targeted search. What algorithms can do is a much more broad-based search.”

Images are only one piece of the puzzle, he said.

“We’re offering this imagery and video analysis piece of it. I think what really is required is a complete solution that also looks at the other two main aspects of this — so one is the text, the Twitter messages and so on that people are sending around, and then also there is a third dimension which is the network itself — so social network analysis and … who is friends with who and who is communicating with whom.”

Kitware is looking for partners for that endeavor, but none have materialized so far, he said.

The U.S. State Department has been one of the most high-profile users of social media in its effort to undermine propaganda disseminated by the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS. In January, the department stood up the Global Engagement Center, which replaces the former Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. Officials at the CSCC — who would reach out directly to ISIL-affiliated social media users and try to counter their message — was criticized by some as being ineffective and bogged down by bureaucratic red tape.

“This new center will shift our paradigm for countering violent extremist messaging. We will move away from a focus on direct messaging and toward an emphasis on empowering and enabling partners, governmental and non-governmental, across the globe,” said Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIL at State. “We will also plan social media campaigns to provide fact-based content and information (such as testimony from defectors) that undermines ISIL propaganda.”

But Muslim countries will have to take the lead on countering these messages, McGurk said. The United Arab Emirates has been “key” in this effort and recently established the Sawab Center, which he described as a “24/7 counter-messaging platform.”

“I visited the Sawab Center last year and was impressed with the dedication of the young Emirati citizens engaged in this campaign,” he said. The organization has highlighted testimony from Islamic State defectors that is meant to shine a light on the brutal nature of the organization and what it is like to live under its rule.

Malaysia is also setting up a center that will focus on the Asia region, he said.

Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said regional partners are better equipped to handle messaging toward Islamic terrorist organizations.

“It’s very difficult for the U.S. government to counter that kind of ideological and theological propaganda because first of all we are infidels” in ISIL supporters’ eyes, he said. “We don’t really have the standing to provide a damaging critique, so perhaps in some ways it’s best to work through or work with Muslim governments or NGOs or experts that would have a greater facility in zeroing on some of the weaknesses of their theological arguments.”

Successes within the State Department’s new effort can already be seen, McGurk said. “When ISIL was overtaking major cities, it had a successful messaging campaign — and our counter-campaign struggled. That is no longer the case. ISIL is increasingly on the defense. Its spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, is no longer touting great victories but rather seeking to explain away defeats. There will be more defeats to come — on the ground and in cyberspace.”

While the group used to claim it had its sight on places such as Rome, for example, it can no longer say that with credibility, McGurk said.

“The messaging gets a lot easier when we are making progress. If you are doing a messaging campaign for the Washington Redskins, it is easier when the team is winning than when the team is losing,” he said.

The State Department is working closely with social media organizations such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, he said. Twitter recently closed 125,000 ISIL-affiliated accounts, he added.

Never Be Surprised By Surprises

Sara Moola and her husband Mike Vaughn met the night before our country invaded Iraq.  That’s significant because that meeting not produced a great marriage and family, but also a fantastic business that better prepares our troops to execute strategy on the battlefield.  Sara, Co-Founder and CEO of Visual Awareness Technologies and Consulting (VATC, Inc.) describes the company inception:

We debated on the night we met whether or not the US would invade (Iraq).  Mike was working for systems integration for the military and is a retired Special Operations Veteran.  I have a background in International Development/Geographical Information Systems (ID/GIS) and I was working with the military in missionplanning systems.  We both thought regardless of what the USA decided to do, there had to be a better way to serve our military with faster, innovative solutions to prepare them for better coordination and execution on the battlefield.  I wrote the Business Plan for VATC and we started our business on this premise in 2003.  We married in 2005.  As of 2012 the company has over 160 employees in over 20 locations worldwide.  We support Integrated Training Environments and Integrated Training Systems to better prepare our troops and coalition partners in irregular scenarios.

Mike and Sara make a dynamic team.  She brings business savvy to her husbands extensive experience with battlefield execution.  Together with their team, talented individuals who also have Special Forces experience, they help our troops to fight the fight better.  They equip our military elite to stay excellent at what they do and stay ahead of the curve in a changing (world) environment.

But Mike and Sara don’t stop with helping those fighters in the field.  They are staunch supporters of  those soldiers who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice during their service.  Sara describes their mission behind the mission:

Mike introduced me to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that provides free education and other support to the children of the Special Operations Warriors Killed in Action.  I wanted to do more for these kids other than going to the fundraising events.  I founded the Warrior Outdoor Leadership for the Future (W.O.L.F.), which provides week-long outdoor leadership camps led by active duty and retire Special Operations Forces. We are currently trying to initiate a human resiliency support program.  This entails hiring social workers and psychologists worldwide to support our military troops.  As the suicide rate of our US soldiers hits one per day, we find it troubling that we cannot fill these positions.  We need the psychology community to mobilize and help us in this critical area.

Sara and Mike have won numerous awards, including Inc. 5000 in 2012, Lead Women Entrepreneurs, 2012 SBA Team of the Year, etc., and they are destined to win much more.  VATC is a great company with a great service, a great mission and a great team.  They train other organizations to do what they do on a regular basis; plan and execute effectively in the midst of a changing environment.  ”Never be surprised by surprises,” Mike states.  Sound like valuable advice to a business as well as a strike team?  You bet.  That’s in the works.  For now, this husband and wife team is dedicated to protecting our nation and providing for those who’ve given all for that protection.