To avoid stumbling into a Taliban ambush or booby trap in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, U.S. troops wanted robots to search caves where fighters were hiding.
The Rapid Equipping Force found a commercial robot called the PackBot, outfitted it with a camera and sent it downrange in a matter of weeks.
When an enlisted soldier thought a camera on a fishing pole would be an ingenious way to explore wells, pits and other nooks and crannies for possible weapons caches, REF sent him one.
On that soldier’s next patrol, his unit reeled in a large cache of weapons without a single U.S. casualty, as an oft-repeated anecdote recalls.
With the Iraq War over and large-scale U.S. involvement in Afghanistan waning, the small organization based at Fort Belvoir, Va., could become a relic of two concluded wars, a victim of budget hawks, or both. Some Army officials have questioned the need for peacetime investment in an organization purpose-built for war.
Col. Steven Sliwa, who took the REF directorship in August, believes the unit will be just as important in the future as it was at its inception in 2001, in which time it has rushed into combat everything from protective face shields for machine gunners to hand-launched unmanned aerial vehicles.
“We have got to remain rapid,” Sliwa tells National Defense. “The ability to do things quickly in times of war — that just makes sense. If you’re focusing your efforts on the deployed soldier that is in combat and engaged with an adversary, you can get them a potential solution and you’re not spending tons of national treasure to do it. In order to do that at the highest level, you have to have organizations that can do it at the lower levels. I think we’re going to play very well in that process.”
A 27-year Army veteran, Sliwa commanded an artillery battalion in Iraq that was converted to an infantry unit out of necessity. He’s worked on 8th Army staff in Korea and in the Pentagon, where he saw every operational needs statement coming from both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2009. Helming REF is a natural extension of his Army experience, he says.
“Frankly, I was somewhat envious of REF’s ability to reach out to industry and pull, off the shelf, an urgently needed technology and get that into the hands of a unit in contact,” he says during a tour of the organization’s facilities in October.
It is not lost on Sliwa that, after more than a decade of sending dozens of life saving technologies downrange around the world, the REF is still housed in a handful of prefabricated trailers in a less-frequented corner of Fort Belvoir. But he is confident that the organization’s unique capabilities — if not its current size and structure — are essential to the success of the Army in future conflicts.
For now, its focus remains on its original mandate: to support troops in combat in Afghanistan. Having fewer troops performing a variety of missions creates unique requirements that the REF is daily asked to fulfill.
The future after major U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is more difficult to predict.
The organization’s monthly workload is steadily trending downward along with troop strength in theater.
REF projects reached their peak in April 2011, when there were 464 individual initiatives in the works. The organization had just 160 projects in October, a slight increase from the 136 it was tackling in August.
“If there are fewer requirements, and I’m not convinced necessarily there will be, you have the time to develop your skills perhaps even sharper because there is a cost when you do things rapidly, there just is,” Sliwa says. “You can better train people. You can have a better knowledge of what’s out there in the [program management] community and out in industry so you’re poised no matter what comes at you in the future.”
The organization has already used its funding and knowledge of unique technologies to funnel gear that is no longer needed in Afghanistan to other areas of the world where it might be useful, including the Horn of Africa and the Asia-Pacific region.
The difficulty with providing specialized gear to troops outside war zones is that much of REF’s cash comes from overseas contingency operations dollars — war funding that is exempt from Congressional budget cuts. Answering the technological needs of soldiers outside combat zones is trickier because there is far less funding for such endeavors, though a plan to fund REF through the Army’s baseline budget by 2015 could still become reality.
With more time on his hands to contemplate soldiers’ urgent needs in combat, Sliwa wants to begin focusing on challenges soldiers will face in the future, rather than reacting to situations they have already encountered. He does not want REF to remain an emergency equipment hotline in future operations.
“We are going to take this anticipatory approach to identifying emerging requirements and what can be done now,” Sliwa said of REF’s future. “I can be poised and anticipate requirements rather than reacting to requirements. They call us the 911 equipping force. … I don’t want to be the 911 because that means something has already happened. I’ll continue to do that, but where I really want to be is that predictive-requirements force where I’m already predicting challenges from, let’s say, the Korean Peninsula or the Trans-Sahara.”
That REF can accomplish important missions with relatively little output of manpower or resources could be its saving grace, officials said. Brad Halsey, a contracted scientist who works with the labs, said the mobile labs represent the future of the REF.
“Everything I could do at a hard-sight laboratory, I can do in here, maybe more,” he said. “It really allows for some incredible collaboration between scientists. I’m a chemist, but I need a structural engineer and he’s thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. No problem, we can talk and see exactly what the other is doing in real time.”
He asked a scientist in an identical mobile lab located at a forward operating base in Afghanistan to wave at the camera. On the screen in Virginia, the man looked up from his workbench and greeted his colleague. There was no lag time.
There is one lab each at the Bagram and Kandahar airfields and a couple nearer the frontlines. Each 10-ton, $2.8-million expeditionary mobile lab is jam-packed with state of the art manufacturing and communications equipment including 3D printers, computer numerical control (CNC) mills and machines that use lasers and water to manufacture just about any small part on the spot within hours.
Manned by two specially trained engineers, each shipping container is a self-sufficient prototype laboratory line in a box.
Army leaders of the most senior rank have expressed support for the continuation of rapid acquisition, Sliwa says. But support for past accomplishments does not necessarily translate to funding in a fiscally challenged future. The force could be closed or rolled into another of the various ad hoc organizations that resulted from urgent wartime needs, but it will almost certainly become smaller, he says.
“I personally believe that in the near future, there will be some kind of announcement about the REF,” Sliwa says. “I have full faith that I can continue on with this job and employ a workforce that’s going to last into the future. I think the real question is how many projects can we take on? What will the budget allow? How big will the REF be? But all those challenges … indicate a REF into the future.”
Several other units are struggling to articulate their continued relevance in a post-Afghanistan military whose spending will be significantly curtailed. Units like the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO; the Rapid Fielding Initiative; the Network Integration Evaluation; and the Marine Corps’ Experimental Forward Operating Base program have all been created or co-opted to test and field equipment from solar panels to mine-hunting robots.
The Rapid Equipping Force works differently than most of those groups, but its purpose and activities overlap with most. It receives needs statements directly from soldiers. On the other end of the chain of command, it has direct access to the highest echelons of Pentagon leadership and combatant commanders overseas. It also has stand-alone acquisition authority and a full-time project manager to oversee purchases.
“I’m not aware of anywhere else in the Army where you see that marriage of requirements and acquisition under the same roof,” Sliwa said.
REF also partners with offices that manage the Army’s established programs of record, the service’s research laboratories and industry. Redundancy is avoided, but at times REF’s ability to make purchases can help speed to the field technologies that are stuck in the sluggish Big Army acquisition pipeline, he says.
Sliwa has established a semi-monthly meeting with Program Executive Office Soldier to compare notes on gear and to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. Unlike PEO Soldier, the Rapid Equipping Force will never purchase an army’s worth of any item. Instead, it focuses on immediate and unique needs of individuals and units.
“We cannot afford to not have the REF, because we don’t want to have to rebuild it,” he says. “We don’t want to lose the 12 years of lessons that we have learned. We don’t want to lose the 12 years of relationships we have built and our knowledge of industry. … That would be tragic.”
Sliwa expects the REF budget to take a hit in impending rounds of budget cuts. But scalability was a built-in tenet of the force’s original concept plan. The organization is designed to absorb downsizing but preserve a “warm core” of institutional knowledge to enable a future surge, he says.
“I can stop lifting weights for a while, but it is always hard to get back in there and start all over again, and it’s amazing how much I’ve lost when I restart,” Sliwa says. “That may be an oversimplified analogy, but that’s what I would fear, should those who think we don’t need a REF be successful.”Photo Credit: Col. Steven Sliwa and Master Sgt. William Pascual demonstrate the capabilities of an Expeditionary Laboratory at Fort Belvoir, Va., by Dan Parsons; iRobot; Defense Dept.; Army