Army's Swift Response to Soldier Needs
by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)
Among the hard-learned lessons of the wars that U.S. forces have been fighting for the past three years is the importance of having a military procurement system that is responsive to the needs of troops on the front lines.
The widely reported shortages of body armor and up-armored Humvees in Iraq highlight the huge challenges facing the Defense Department’s acquisition process which, in a nutshell, are to anticipate equipment requirements accurately and to rapidly meet urgent needs.
One viable solution to this problem can be found in the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, or REF. The organization, based in Fort Belvoir, Va., was exclusively designed to find materiel solutions to emerging war-fighter requirements—ideally, within 90 days or less. To work directly with operational commanders, the REF has forward teams in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Iraq, the teams consist of one officer and several NCOs with each Army division. “Only by being on the battlefield and living and working directly with soldiers can we understand and address the true needs of the soldier in a quick and effective manner,” said a REF spokesman.
With a workforce that grew from about 20 in April 2004 to more than 100 by December, the REF has managed to deliver a number of key technologies in a matter of weeks or months. It also facilitates and expedites the delivery of materiel solutions through the existing acquisition management structure. Under the traditional procurement cycle, the same process would have taken years.
To expedite development and rapid equipping, REF seeks primarily commercial off-the-shelf technologies, which can function as stand alone capabilities or can be integrated with existing military systems.
The REF had its origin in the PackBot robotic platforms sent to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 to remotely inspect high-risk areas. The robots helped operational units clear caves, buildings and compounds. Another useful field-engineered device supplied by REF is a personal digital assistant loaded with mission essential phrases that lets units without interpreters communicate more quickly and effectively with local citizens. Among the success stories was an REF engineer field rigging a web-camera to an ethernet cable and a laptop. On its first mission, this “well-cam” discovered a weapons and equipment cache inside an 80-foot well. As an alternative to destroying locks and doors during search missions in rural Afghanistan and then reimbursing the owners, simple and inexpensive lock shims were procured and provided to soldiers with to enable them to accomplish their search missions without destroying civilian property.
Observers who have witnessed the successes of REF wonder how the Army can benefit from the experience in the long term. So far, the Army has not decided how exactly it would integrate REF into the permanent procurement structure, but it is clear that REF know-how should shape the service’s approach to developing and purchasing technologies for years to come.
Paul Stoskus, REF deputy director, told a recent NDIA armaments conference that the organization has been ordered to insert future force technologies, as appropriate, into the current force; and to assess results and apply lessons learned to stay ahead of an adaptive enemy.
To help cope with the threat of snipers in Iraq, REF obtained funding for the fielding of the Pilar acoustic sensor system, which detects incoming bullets. Working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the REF obtained and oversaw the installation of Army’s Swift Response to Soldier Needs Boomerang, a smaller and comparatively low-cost acoustic detector that was fielded on Army vehicles. To further help protect soldiers from mortar attacks, REF is evaluating various technologies in partnership with DARPA and providing support to the Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) effort originated by the Training and Doctrine Command Army Futures Center.
A suite of force-protection solutions that REF has deployed include walk-through detectors, aerosol-based field explosive detection kits, an iron image detection spray, ultra sensitive metal detecting wands and a device to check vehicle gas tanks. “Sometimes commercial off the shelf solutions can not only be life savers, but also save a lot of money,” Stoskus said. Contributing to the further development of combat robotics in Iraq, the REF has produced a smaller, lighter and less expensive device that can be quickly used by units to determine whether roadside debris is a danger. Engineers currently are assessing a lightweight robot that could be carried in a rucksack and thrown into a room to provide immediate situational awareness.
As the Army continues to refine the process and collects lessons from the field, it would appear certain that the REF experience will have lasting implications for the future of Army modernization.
The most ambitious Army procurement program, Future Combat Systems, is likely to be shaped in many ways by the notion that, no matter how advanced and sophisticated a technology might be, it needs also to be fielded in a timely fashion and be attuned to the needs of the troops.
REF undeniably is proving to be a valuable resource for our forces in the Middle East and we believe it could also serve admirably to help set requirements and procurement strategies for the emerging technologies inherent in FCS. Kudos to the Army for setting REF in motion and congratulations to REF and industry for the many successes to date.
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