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Army ‘Rapid Equipping Force’ taking root, chief says 

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ArmysRapidThe Army’s Rapid Equipping Force — which began in 2002 as an ad hoc effort to speed equipment to soldiers — is taking root and growing, according to its director, Col. Gregory Tubbs.

After years of uncertainty, the force became a permanent organization in 2005. Based at Fort Belvoir, Va., it has been assigned to the Army’s deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, and its personnel have increased from 14 in 2002 to 150 at last count.

The force’s mission — unlike that of the regulator acquisition community — is to identify immediate, unmet needs of combat soldiers and satisfy those requirements within 90 to 180 days. By contrast, the Army’s traditional process of developing and fielding equipment can take years.

The force also differs from another Army operation, the Rapid Fielding Initiative, which strives to provide the latest equipment to soldiers before they deploy. Tubbs’ organization works intently with deployed commanders and their troops to meet unforeseen requirements that pop up unexpectedly on the battlefield.

“In our work, we maintain an operational focus,” he said in an interview. “We have a keen sense of urgency about the need to help these combat guys get what they need.”

In 2005 alone, the rapid equipping force purchased more than 20,000 items, including robots, surveillance systems, digital translators and weapon accessories.

The agency makes many of its purchasing decisions by deploying 30 of its members in “forward teams” throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and logistics bases in Kuwait to observe combat operations and to ask commanders and their troops what they need.

It buys small quantities of the equipment and tests them at in-theater field laboratories. Finally, once gear has been issued to a unit, the forward teams interview some of the organization’s troops to assess how well it works.

The process is designed to be “a turnkey operation,” Tubbs said. “We cannot put a burden on the war fighter. He’s already busy, and we don’t want to add to his woes.”

One of the force’s biggest success stories is an unmanned ground vehicle called the multi-function agile radio-controlled robot, or Marcbot, said Master Sgt. Al Francis, the force’s senior enlisted man. Developed in cooperation with Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., the device is small enough and mobile enough to be used by an infantry squad. It is equipped with a camera, and can be employed to seek out and identify possible improvised explosives.

It is risky work. On average, one Marcbot is blown up every month. At a cost of about $8,000 apiece, it is also expensive, but Francis noted: “I don’t have to tell you which I’d rather lose — a machine or a human being.”

Another robot that is proving its utility in Iraq is a two-pound version called the Toughbot, which is used for battlefield reconnaissance.

“Soldiers can just throw it through a window, and its cameras can see what’s in a room before they have to go in,” Francis said.

The Toughbot, made by Omnitech Robotics of Englewood, Colo., always lands on its feet, he said. It replaces an earlier model called the Throwbot. “When we threw it up against a wall, it broke a wheel off,” Tubbs said. “So we made it tougher.”

The force also has deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle called the tactical mini-UAV. The TACMAV, as it is known, is small enough to fit into a soldier’s rucksack and can be hand-launched.

“The TACMAV has a wingspan of less than two feet,” Francis said. It has flexible nylon wings that can be wrapped around the fuselage for compact storage.

The vehicle has two color cameras, one facing forward and another facing to the side. They can take still or video images and feed them to the operator’s computer.

When it can’t find an off-the-shelf solution to a problem, the force sometimes invents its own equipment, Tubbs said. In Afghanistan, for example, force personnel learned that the enemy was hiding weapons down well systems.

“Within 12 hours, our people had fabricated a prototype well camera,” he said. Since then, the device, dubbed the Well-Cam, has been credited with the discovery of several weapons caches.

Another apparent success story has been the debris blower, which can be mounted on the front of the five-ton truck and RG-31 Buffalo mine-protected vehicle. It has a nozzle that rotates a full 360 degrees and blows out air at 174 mph, which is strong enough to scatter mounds of roadside debris that can conceal bombs, Tubbs said. “It’s very useful in Baghdad, which looks like a trash dump. The soldiers love it.”

As U.S. commanders look for less violent ways of performing their missions in Iraq, one of the tools they are using is the lock shim, a small, hand-held lock-picking device. “It’s a way of gaining entry to a building without kicking down the door,” Tubbs said.

The shim weighs less than one gram and costs $4 for a set of four different sizes. A set of shims can open 80 percent of all locks with no damage.

The SpeechGuard, developed by ETACO Inc. of Long Island City, N.Y., is a handheld electronic translator. Each of the machines can handle more than 20 languages. In Iraq and Afghanistan, such devices are translating U.S. soldiers’ words into Arabic, Dari and Pashto. A soldier simply speaks into the unit, and it repeats what it has heard in the language of choice.

The SpeechGuard can translate about 3,000 phrases between Arabic and English, Francis said. The device’s developers have taken care to use the Arabic dialect that is spoken on the streets of Iraq, he noted.

“In the first version, we found that 90 percent of Iraqis couldn’t understand the language coming out of the machine. It was too proper. We had to reprogram it, to make it more streetwise.”

The SpeechGuard costs about $700 apiece, Tubbs said. “I had a guy say it’s not as good as a $4,000 translator, and I said, ‘Roger.’ Some guys might need a $4,000 translator, and if so, we provide it. For most troops, however, SpeechGuard works fine. It enables me to do in 40 seconds what used to take 40 minutes.”

To detect buried weapons caches and roadside bombs, the force has deployed commercial off- the-shelf magnetometers. These lightweight, handheld devices “can detect metal up to eight feet beneath the surface,” Tubbs said. “We wanted to avoid the ‘toe-probe” method of finding mines.”

The devices, which cost about $800 per unit, include an ultra-sensitive metal detecting wand. They can be used to search piles of trash or hay, and also operate underground.

Another explosive detection tool that the force introduced to Iraq and Afghanistan is the EXPRAY field test kit, which is distributed by Plexus Scientific Solutions of Alexandria, Va. This kit includes three aerosol cans, each of which emits sprays that can detect a wide range of explosives, including TNT and gunpowder.

The rapid equipping force has distributed the kits widely, Tubbs said, adding that they have turned out to be one of the simplest, easiest to train, reliable and cost effective ways to detect explosives.

The organization works closely with the Marine Corps in seeking solutions to battlefield problems, he said. “I had two [Marine Expeditionary Force] commanders sitting right here just the other day. We provide some things to the Marines, and if they come up with something good, I’ll steal it in a heartbeat.”

As an example, he cited a product called QuikClot, a granular mineral material made by Z-Medica Corp. of Wallingford, Conn. QuikClot is poured directly on to a wound, speeding the natural clotting process and limiting blood loss. It credited with saving the lives of more than 150 military personnel and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

QuikClot is part of every Marine’s first aid kit. It now has been issued to soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division. In June, the Army ordered additional 140,000 units for other personnel in Iraq.

The force also seeks assistance from military research laboratories. “We work with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, and all of the labs,” Tubbs said.

Since 2003, for example, the force has been combat-testing a high-caffeine chewing gum called “Stay Alert.” This gum, developed by the Walter Reed Institute of Research of Silver Spring, Md., delivers caffeine to the brain four to five times faster than coffee, tea or a pill because it is absorbed by tissues of the mouth, rather than those of the stomach.

“Some of the guys in our office tried it,” Tubbs said. “They said, ‘This stuff is terrible!’ But it’s not for office workers, and it’s not supposed to taste good. It’s supposed to help dog-tired soldiers stay alert — and alive — on the battlefield.” In January, it was approved for distribution to all.

Sometimes, finding a solution that works is a matter of trial and error, Tubbs said. “Senior leadership has told me to take a large amount of risk,” he said. “We try things that seem promising, and if they don’t work, we pull them back.”

A high priority, for example, is making soldiers more comfortable in the summer heat of the Middle East, Tubbs said. “I’ve been in Kuwait when it was 127 degrees. We want to find a way to give soldiers some relief from that heat.”

As an experiment, the force bought 1,000 cooling vests. “But when we tested them, they didn’t work the way we wanted. If they had, it would have been game changing. But they didn’t, so we’re going to try something different.”

In July, the force delivered 500 copies of a new, experimental cooling vest, called a body ventilation system, to soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait. This version, developed by Global Secure Corp. of Washington, D.C., weighs less than five pounds and can be worn under body armor.

Air circulates inside the vest to increase the soldier’s comfort and performance in hot, dry climates by increasing the evaporation rate for perspiration. The system has two main components, the vest and a ventilation unit, which comprises a battery-operated blower that can be attached in a variety of positions to meet the soldier’s need. The blower fits into a pouch resembling a fanny pack.

The REF also has been dealing with the problem of improving power sources for deployed forces. It soon will seek industry proposals to build and ship to Iraq renewable-energy power stations that would use a combination of solar and wind technologies.

Once these new and innovative pieces of equipment have been accepted into the Army’s inventory, they must be maintained over the long term, and that can be a challenge, Tubbs conceded. “When something breaks, people want to know, ‘Where do I go to get it fixed?’”

That was a major issue during the force’s early, “wild west” days, Tubbs said. A lot of “myth and folk lore” about logistics problems with rapidly deployed items still survive, he said, but steps have been taken to resolve such issues. For example, Tubbs said, the rapid equipping force now develops an acquisition and support plan for every item that it fields. Such plans, which must be approved by the Army Materiel Command, detail how and when repairs should be made and where spare parts and replacements may be found.

Tubbs said the unit is going to be around for the foreseeable future. For the moment, it still operates from a collection of portable buildings in a secure portion of Fort Belvoir, but it is planning eventually to move to larger, more permanent facilities on the same base. “This space is getting tight,” he said.

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