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 August 2004 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

Soldiers Benefit From ‘Rapid Fielding’ Mentality

August 2004

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)

The U.S. Army faces enormous challenges today, as it continues to fight wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters. With an overstretched force—currently 165,000 soldiers in 120 countries—and unforeseen future threats, the Army deserves much credit for what troops are accomplishing in the battlefield. Notably, the Army also must be recognized for how it has managed to improve its responsiveness to soldiers’ equipment needs in the field.

Among the organizations that really have pulled out all the stops to get needed technology to the field quickly is the Army Research Development and Engineering Command. Under the leadership of Maj. Gen. John Doesburg, RDECOM, which only has been in existence for about a year, has managed to structure itself to respond to urgent requirements and prepare for the future.

The creation of the RDECOM, although initially not supported universally across the Army, was a wise move that now is paying dividends. In addition to expediting the development and deployment of useful technologies, the command has imbued the Army with a "rapid fielding" mentality that may permanently shape the way the service does business.

The war certainly brought the sense of urgency that helped accelerate the type of business reforms that the Army needed to become more responsive. RDECOM devised a strategy that would allow the command to stay focused on the most pressing priorities but also keep an eye on the future.

This is no small task. The Army, although the most technologically advanced in the world, essentially operates legacy equipment mostly designed and built in the 1970s and 1980s. It has to begin modernizing soon. The Army set a vision for its 21st century force in the Future Combat Systems program. FCS got under way in 1999, when there was no expectation of major enemies or wars. The priorities obviously changed after 9/11. The Army has been engaged in multiple theaters, and the equipment is wearing out at rates that the service had not seen in decades. Being at war has forced the Army to rethink its approach to modernization. The soldiers on the front lines need technology now, and cannot wait until FCS comes along in 2010 or 2012.

This is where RDECOM’s role becomes critical. The command crafted a plan that would push technology from the lab to the battlefield quickly, without necessarily neglecting the important research and development work associated with FCS.

In a matter of weeks or days after receiving a request from the field, RDECOM has been able to field technologies that have made a huge difference. Some of those technologies have been in the headlines for the past two years, such as the PacBot robots that scour caves and the so-called omni-directional inspection systems, small robotic vehicles that crawl under vehicles and search for bombs and explosives. Other systems that were rushed to the field include high-performance laptop computers, mobile communications networks and blue-force tracking devices.

To make the process smoother and more horizontally integrated, Doesburg has divided up the workload at RDECOM and assigned major responsibilities to two key program executive officers. The PEO for soldier systems, Brig. Gen. Jamie Moran, became RDECOM’s deputy for operations. The PEO for ammunition, Brig. Gen. Paul Izzo, is the deputy for futures.

Gradually making their way out of the labs are promising technologies that could make a huge difference in future battlefields. Examples in the nanotechnology arena include waterproof weaves for clothing, and sensors and communications devices embedded in garments. Other relevant technologies are bio-fuel cells and advanced cornstarch polymers that could be used in clothing.

Several ambitious projects now under way seek breakthroughs that we may not see for many years, such as drastically lighter body armor and miniature fuel cells that could power combat vehicles. These technologies will be pursued aggressively under the FCS program.

The good news for future war fighters is that FCS, unlike any previous large military hardware program, is intensely focused on the soldier as the center of an integrated network. It is not about pursuing technology for technology’s sake, but about supporting soldiers, pushing innovation and leveraging human skills and capabilities.

The successes at RDECOM are both encouraging and revealing, proving that relevant technology can be fielded quickly, with the proper organization and hard work. Their accomplishments thus far bode well for the future of the Army.

Please e-mail your comments to lfarrell@ndia.org.

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