Faster equipping of U.S. Forces

Faster equipping of U.S. Forces

Heike Hasenauer

WHILE Soldiers in Afghanistan were shimmying down well shafts using ropes and grappling hooks, and crawling through caves looking for weapons caches and holed-up Taliban fighters, three people at a then-experimental Fort Belvoir, Va., office set about finding a better way for the deployed Soldiers to do business.

What began as an experiment in August 2002 today puts critical new technologies into the hands of Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in record time, said Frank Phillips, a spokesman for the Rapid Equipping Force.

Today the REF consists of Soldiers, civilian employees and contractors. Some of them make up operations teams that are frequently deployed with U.S. forces in harm’s way–to learn first-hand what commanders and their troops downrange need and want.

“We now have teams with every Army division in Iraq,” said REF deputy director Paul Stoskus.

Acquisition teams back at Fort Belvoir then hasten to get new technologies to the troops within 90 days, as opposed to several years, Phillips said.

Getting an entirely new weapon system into the field typically takes seven years, said COL Bruce Jette, REF’s director, and one of four REF members who have been awarded the Bronze Star for their service in a combat zone.

Because REF items incorporate technologies already available off the shelf, REF can get new equipment into the field in a fraction of the time.

Equipping Soldiers Downrange

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began, the REF has fulfilled at least 50 requirements for items needed by units in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stoskus said.

Those items include everything from JLENS–an aerostat-borne, 360-degree surveillance device that REF facilitated through the JLENS program manager–and the Packbot, a robot that checks out potential explosive devices and relays information back to a controller.

In Afghanistan, during four combat patrols, Packbots helped clear 34 caves, buildings and compounds, said Jette.

The Program’s Beginning

In June 2002, when U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan were searching wells and remote mountain caves using the old-fashioned method of rope and grappling hook, then Army Vice Chief of Staff GEN John M. Keane visualized a safer and more efficient way of doing the job.

He contacted Jette, then an adviser to the Army staff on technology and acquisition.

Keane was able to procure $2 million in summer 2002 to support the new equipping venture and the three contractors who rounded out a program then called Rapid Integration of Robot Systems.

Jette procured an iRobot that had been developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for potential use in explosive-ordnance disposal and search-and-rescue operations. The briefcase-sized device was easy to use and already in the Army inventory.

He then traveled to Afghanistan to demonstrate to Soldiers how the device, with integrated cameras, could be used to uncover weapons caches, Stoskus said. Within 45 days, Soldiers were taking the newly dubbed “Packbots”–so called because they’re man-portable–into caves to look for weapons.

Getting away from the concept of fielding is key, said Jette.

“A program manager must field things,” Jette told National Defense magazine in February 2004. “Fielding is a laborious process that yields a technology suitable for any unit and is capable of working in any environment. The process yields some pretty rock-solid equipment, but it is not a very rapid process.”

Other

REF items now in the hands of Soldiers

* The FN303 Non-Lethal Weapon, which shoots paint pellets at potential aggressors and marks them with ink to help with future identification or apprehension;

* WellCam, a remote video system that precludes Soldiers from having to climb into wells and caves in search of weapons caches;

* electronic translators that emit voice commands in Pashtu and Arabic;

* lock shims that allow Soldiers to open padlocks, as is necessary during intelligence-driven home searches, without destroying locks and doors;

* a hand-held thermal viewer for close-up images of forward sites;

* electronic countermeasures, installed on Humvees, to jam frequencies the enemy is most likely to monitor;

* “Jaws of Life” emergency extraction/ rescue equipment sets used to free victims of aircraft and vehicle crashes; and

* cables and power-supply adapters used by engineers in Afghanistan to feed power to computers and other electrical devices from the SINCGARS radio battery, after the battery no longer has sufficient power to run the SINCGARS.

To learn more about the Rapid Equip- ping Force visit www.ref.army.mil.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Soldiers Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group