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Dedicated Army Force Speeds Technology To Warfighters

June 2006
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

 
A U.S. Army unit prepares to deploy a Marcbot to examine a possible improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. The soldier second from left is carrying the Marcbot while the soldier alongside him assembles the operator control unit. The Marcbot system was provided by the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which is adapting new technologies to address warfighter needs in real time.
Clearing acquisition hurdles brings innovations directly from laboratories.

A U.S. Army organization has found a way to move badly needed technologies and capabilities to soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is adapting existing products such as leaf blowers to meet vital requirements in the field, and it is inserting technologies such as advanced sensors directly from military and commercial laboratories to accelerate the evolution of combat capabilities.

This Army element seeks out technological solutions to pressing needs by tapping almost any available resource in government, the military and the private sector. Many of its solutions have proved to be highly cost-effective in that they save the Army money by forestalling attack damage on equipment and by reducing casualty rates.

Known as the Rapid Equipping Force, or REF, this group has been so successful in its efforts that it now is drafting proposed changes to acquisition regulations. The goal is to revamp Army regulations to allow better support to the warfighter in real time.

“We have an operational mindset instead of a bureaucratic mindset,” declares the REF’s director, Col. Gregory Tubbs, USA. Instead of following an acquisition road map, the REF strives to follow an operational road map by rapidly supplying Army forces with vital technologies in the field.

One of the REF’s main activities is to accelerate acquisition and deployment time schedules. The colonel states that the existing rigorous, disciplined approach to acquisition was borne of necessity in the Cold War. But, it was designed to support a Cold War military. A new way is needed to fit today’s requirements, and that entails both processes and approaches.

“We want to change the regulations and potentially change some laws,” Col. Tubbs declares. “It may become necessary in order for us to continue to adapt to an adaptable enemy … over the next 50 years.”

Meanwhile, the REF continues to speed new technologies and systems to the field. Col. Tubbs notes that an ongoing program may aim to field a system in 2012, but the REF will work to get it into the warfighter’s hands right now. It has done this several times, he relates. Officials at the REF perform a mission analysis to help ensure that it moves the right technologies to the warfighter in the right way.

Accepting risk and failure in pursuit of a solution does not come naturally for the Army, Col. Tubbs offers. But, that too must change.

“For innovation to succeed, you must accept failure,” he warrants.

Potential REF solutions are not limited to Army research. The colonel emphasizes that his organization will partner with anyone who has a capability that can support soldiers in the field. He notes that he visits other service laboratories, and the REF maintains a U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory expert in its organization. The Joint Robotics Program also has placed a GS-15 staffer in the REF, and other military research-oriented organizations maintain direct contact. In addition, the REF has two direct-support relationships: with the Joint IED (improvised explosive device) Defeat Organization and the Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group.

The REF also maintains contact with private industry, which is a font of innovation. “I want to get into your [company’s] back room and find out what you’re going to bring out in five years, in 10 years,” the colonel declares. “If I can go into the future and pull it to the warfighter today, I’ll do that—and we have done that.

“We don’t want change for change’s sake, or better for better’s sake,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘Is it game-changing?’ If it’s not game-changing and it doesn’t provide an incremental marginal utility, then why do it?”

To find solutions, the REF networks among military resources and the private sector. For example, to find force protection technologies, the REF may put out an all-points bulletin for advice from experts on potential enablers or solutions. Or, it may telephone a program manager for force protection and ask about new and innovative approaches. “I have a multitude of different options of what I can do,” the colonel states. “The last thing I want to do is start a [program]. I would rather find somebody who’s doing it and pile onto them.” The REF can be an overt or a silent partner, he emphasizes.

These technology hunts are run concurrently instead of sequentially. When the REF sets out to seek a solution, its partners may be working with other government laboratories, companies or academia. This connectivity may lead to new relationships.

“I want to harvest the best of what everyone has, and every organization has good and bad things,” the colonel states.

Before the REF seeks out solutions, however, it must determine what the soldiers need. A key element in the REF’s retinue is its functional teams. Personnel are deployed forward among warfighters ranging from sergeants to lieutenant generals in theater. These teams see the warfighters’ challenges firsthand, and they relay that information back to the REF.

While these teams evaluate technologies in the field, their primary purpose is to be scouts for soldiers’ requirements. They look for where technologies can be applied to help warfighters. “My people go out on combat missions … so that they can see how to make it better,” Col. Tubbs states.

REF personnel in theater seek perspectives ranging from privates and specialists to brigade commanders as well as those of commanding generals. These field personnel provide the necessary input for defining both a requirement and a potential solution.

Their expertise is combined with that of a bank of experts both within the REF and among outside groups. The goal is to formulate a workable solution that can be implemented in real time.

“I have built an organization where we are constantly curious but still have some discipline,” the colonel explains. “I hire Ph.D.s and engineers to take us through that scientific process that gives us a rigorous answer. However, we look everywhere for opportunities where other people may not see them.

“I don’t have a big filter,” he continues. “I can say no rather quickly, but if I don’t look at all the ideas, I never will know which are good ideas.

“I’ve never seen an idea I didn’t like,” he avers.

 
Soldiers in Afghanistan launch a handheld tactical mini unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The REF is able to skim several years’ of acquisition time off the fielding of a UAV so that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan can benefit from its capabilities today.
The REF has a database to keep track of technologies that already have been examined to avoid wasting time on inappropriate approaches. Technologies are assessed with technology readiness levels. However, Col. Tubbs relates that the rapid advance of information technologies—especially those covered by Moore’s Law—can change a technology from not yet useful to workable in a year.

Providing soldiers with vital tools or capabilities now avoids the problem of inherent obsolescence. Even a five-year gap from development to implementation can result in warfighters receiving outdated equipment, especially with information technologies that advance a generation every 18 months.

“I’m trying to kill an Army program right now that costs a billion dollars,” the colonel allows. “Eighteen months ago it was a great idea. Now, we have done all the work; we are ready to give it to the warfighter; but do we stop, step back and look at the environment—not through 18-month-old lenses but through the lens of today with the latest technology and against the backdrop of what’s extant? You must do another analysis of alternatives and say, ‘Are we mature enough to grade it again before we make the final determination, and would we make the same decision?’

“Our old way of doing things is ‘by God, we made a decision to do this and we are sticking to our guns.’ We must be flexible enough to abandon a failed strategy at some point if it merits that, and I think we are building an organization in the Army where you can have that type of dialogue,” the colonel declares.

Many REF technologies inserted into the force provide instant assistance but do not represent a successful development until soldiers receive more advanced versions. One noted case involved a private first class who was wearing a face shield provided by the REF when he was struck by shrapnel. The fragment dug a large chunk out of the face shield, and even though the soldier was wounded elsewhere, the face shield prevented a fatal head wound. That shield was only the first version of what ultimately will be stronger and lighter protection, but it already has saved at least one life.

One REF success story has been the Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. This effort was started in the REF, the colonel relates, and several hundred of the vehicles have been deployed to theater. If normal procedures had been followed, that capability would not have reached the warfighter until 2010 or 2012, he suggests.

Other successes have featured small robots, including Packbots and Marcbots. Packbots are small, remote-control sensor-equipped tracked vehicles that weigh only 42 pounds and can be operated by one person. Marcbots—for multifunction agile remote-control robots—are designed for platoon- or squad-size elements. Two years ago, the REF deployed Marcbot 1. Now the troops have Marcbot 4. These advances represent how the REF can improve technology because of insertion.

“We initially put in 32 robots costing about $6,000 apiece, and they were sorry,” Col. Tubbs relates. “But one of those robots in one week interrogated 32 potential IEDs, and of those 26 turned out to be IEDs. To me that is game-changing. So we put approximately 300 more in theater last year.” Some of those robots have been destroyed by IEDs that they were investigating, but their destruction meant that soldiers’ lives were saved—and those savings are priceless, the colonel emphasizes.

In addition to the robots, the first up-armoring kits for vehicles in Iraq were developed in the REF, the colonel says. Now, more than 10,000 high-mobility, multipurpose wheeled vehicles have benefited from the up-armor project. “A lot of times we are a catalyst,” he states.

Atop the organization’s wish list is force protection. This encompasses IED detection and defeat, and traffic control point/entry control point (TCP/ECP), fixed-based protection and nonlethal escalation-of-force technologies. Other work focuses on soldier protection and enhanced survivability, including robotics.

Other areas the REF is concentrating on are situational awareness, particularly enhanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; persistent surveillance; and timely information analysis and dissemination. Short- and long-range communication are on the list along with alternative power sources, which include innovative energy management technologies.

Medical technologies attracting the REF’s interest include hearing protection, battlefield life-saving equipment and areas involving stress on the force. And, the REF is looking at training aids such as mission rehearsal training technologies and mockup training devices.

While various forms of hearing protection have existed for years, new technologies offer ways to protect soldiers’ hearing without compromising their capabilities. The colonel relates that four soldiers in Iraq suffered bleeding ears after an IED explosion, while the fifth suffered no hearing loss whatsoever because he was wearing active hearing protection.

“From 1977 to 2000, we spent $4 billion on [treating] hearing damage,” he reports. “From 2000 to 2005, we spent another $4 billion. In addition to that $8 billion, we [now] spend a billion dollars a year on hearing damage in addition to half a billion on tinnitus, and 23 percent of injured soldiers have permanent hearing damage.”

The REF may equip a company-size unit with active hearing protection and then compare it in combat with a control group lacking that same protection. If, for example, the force can equip everybody in theater with active protection for less than 10 percent of that annual $1 billion price tag on hearing damage, then the financial savings alone would be considerable. The human savings would be even greater.

“When you have hearing loss, we pay for that forever,” the colonel emphasizes.

Full spectrum conflict is not just at the high end with satellites, Col. Tubbs observes. Soldiers now must be full spectrum. For example, the military has invested considerable funds in hands-free translation devices capable of speaking 15 dialects used in Baghdad. These devices permit soldiers to enter phrases into the translator, which then will speak those phrases in the selected dialect. The phrases currently are geared toward generating a “yes or no” limited type of response from local citizens.

The REF continues to seek improvements in translation devices. The organization has placed hundreds of the devices in Iraq, and efforts continue to improve the state of the art. “One soldier thanked us, saying, ‘Now it takes me 40 seconds to say what used to take 40 minutes to do with pantomiming.’ You say the phrase hands-free, and it pops to the guy,” Col. Tubbs says.

He continues that the REF has paid a corporation to place Pashtu and Dari into a translator for use in Afghanistan. “We will never be able to build enough human translators for the Arabic language in the    United States,” he declares. “It is just not going to happen. So, there is a need for a universal translator.”

Some projects involve relatively simple technologies that have substantial effects. The REF recently deployed a small spotlight that can detect IEDs on the roadside at night. It already has saved lives, according to troops in the field.

Another project placed industrial leaf blowers on the front of 5-ton trucks. These blowers clear huge amounts of trash and other lightweight debris from roads that frequently are traveled by U.S. forces but also covered with litter. Often, harmless trash is blown away to reveal IEDs sitting in the road. The leaf blowers are saving time—no need for dismounted forces to clear a road by hand—and lives.

The colonel says that private industry must be persistent with its innovative ideas. He strives for technologies that can be implemented within 90 days, so if a corporation brings up a system that will not be available for 24 months, the REF will not be interested. “I am interested in industry’s innovations, but in my organization it must be something that I can provide to the warfighter very quickly. There are other institutions that can provide it in a year or two.”

Speeding new technologies and systems past the acquisition process opens up the potential for programmatic conflict. While Col. Tubbs acknowledges that problems can arise, he denies that conflict exists and instead offers that the REF’s efforts can be disruptive. He notes that his access to senior leaders helps the REF carry out its mission with a minimum of disruption.

The colonel adds that the REF is sensitive about avoiding implementation of stovepiped systems. It tries to synchronize its efforts directly with those of high-ranking generals to prevent stovepiping.

 

Web Resources
U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force: www.ref.army.mil
U.S. Army Asymmetric Warfare Group: www.awg.army.mil