Rapid-Fielding Team Tasked To Transform Army Acquisition
Many Army acquisition agencies can trace their roots to unusual beginnings, but the Rapid Equipping Force is probably the only organization to evolve from a personal challenge.
In June 2003, the staff of Gen. John M. Keane, the Army’s vice chief at the time, had determined that the only way for a soldier to search enemy Afghan caves and hideouts was an old-fashioned rope and grappling hook. Confident that technology could help address these needs, Keane called in Col. Bruce Jette, an advisor on technology and acquisition issues.
Jette recently had rescued the problem-plagued Land Warrior program from certain oblivion. Land Warrior’s reprieve was the result of Jette’s use of commercial-off-the-shelf components, a measure that reduced the cost of each system—a package of targeting, communications and navigation technologies for dismounted infantry—by two thirds.
“Gen. Keane wanted to discuss a number of issues when the matter of ropes and grapples came up,” Jette tells National Defense. “The conversation quickly became a challenge to find a way to provide soldiers with an operationally relevant solution in time to make a difference.
“This would require leveraging many of the authorized but rarely used exceptions and shortcuts in acquisition and requirements generation—a change about the same size as Vietnam-era grapples are to robots.”
Two days later, Jette found a solution: iRobot, a briefcase-sized device developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for potential use in ordnance disposal, and search and rescue operations. Jette says he selected iRobot because it was relatively cheap (about $45,000 a copy), easy to operate (users guided it with a wireless joystick) and, best of all, “because we already owned it.”
Keane dispatched Jette and a small team—operating under the auspices of a program known as RIRS (Rapid Integration of Robot Systems)—to Afghanistan, to demonstrate to conventional and Special Operations Forces how to use a video-equipped iRobot. Reconfigured to be man-portable, the tank-like device was dubbed the “Packbot.”
Initially, Army teams allowed RIRS representatives to accompany them on search missions, but only if they carried their own gear and operated the Packbots themselves.
“Soon after, the SOF were not only operating the Packbots with ease,” says Jette, “they also informed us we no longer had to carry ‘their’ Packbots. Not long afterward, they politely asked us to stay out of their way—which, frankly, was exactly what we hoped would happen.”
Jette says his experience in Afghanistan illustrates the acquisition philosophy of the Rapid Equipping Force (REF), the successor organization to RIRS, which had been given a one-year mandate by Keane “to determine if the Army’s equipping needs, across a broad spectrum, could be met more quickly.”
“We think technology should be delivered with complete consideration to the cultural and operational issues that affect users,” says Jette, who has served as REF director since the organization’s creation in August 2002. “We don’t simply drop technology at a commander’s doorstep and walk away. We actually take it to the field, teach soldiers how to use it.”
Based at Fort Belvoir, Va., the REF can acquire a product from any domestic or foreign source that can fulfill a requirement. The organization places a premium on fulfilling requests quickly, often within a few days.
“We tell commanders: ‘If you lack technology that causes your soldiers to get hurt, we will try to find a solution,’” Jette says. “If you’re not as effective in your environment as you want to be—whether it’s because of a force protection issue, or a weapons issue, or a deployment issue—we will try to find solutions that make you more effective.”
Operating with a 13-person staff, REF serves as an “acquisition catalyst.” Instead of developing technologies, REF “leverages” components into the field that are already available in the Army and the private sector.
“PM shops, laboratories, national labs and the defense industry often want to get their products in the field, but don’t quite know how to do it,” says Jette. “Conversely, people in the field want to have their needs met, but don’t quite know how to express those needs or get them addressed. REF provides the link.”
REF relies on “hunter teams”—at home and abroad—to connect potential suppliers and users. Overseas teams often accompany Army units on missions. Eight REF representatives are embedded currently with units abroad. Four REF representatives—including Jette—have been awarded bronze stars for their service in combat zones.
‘Equipping’ vs. ‘Fielding’
REF representatives also work closely with commanders in the decision-making process that ultimately results in purchasing the needed equipment. This distinguishes REF representatives from traditional Army program managers.
“A program manager must field things,” says Jette. “Fielding is a laborious process that yields a technology suitable for any unit and is capable of working in any environment. This process yields some pretty rock-solid equipment, but it is not a very rapid process.”
Equipping, on the other hand, has a narrower set of requirements and users, says Jette. “At REF, we equip only the commander and the commander’s unit. We are not trying to equip other units serving alongside the commander. Nor are we promising to solve everyone’s problems with a single item for all places at all times.”
Equipping—versus fielding—also is defi-ned by a constraining number of items, and by a limited fielding package. The package will not necessarily include detailed training or sustainment plans. In fact, initial sustainment of a REF-supplied technology is usually through contractor support or by simply delivering a few spare units to replace those that break.
Once a commander tells REF what is required, the organization goes to work finding candidate solutions and offering them for consideration. “We don’t presume to fulfill 100 percent of the commander’s need,” says Jette. “We simply offer the best solutions available, given the short amount of time we are allowed.”
Jette says a technology that is “close enough” may be the best near-term solution while REF continues to work the problem. “As long as the solution is acceptable to the commander as our best effort, we will
execute the acquisition. This, to our thinking, is true implementation of spiral development process—which is an ideal way of doing business within the Army acquisition community.”
Under the spiral development approach, a fielded technology is routinely assessed, evaluated, upgraded and re-inserted. While spiral development has many enthusiastic proponents, few in the Army acquisition community have implemented it.
The cyclic nature of the acquisition process perfected by REF fulfills the promise of spiral development. When REF assesses a potential technology, its first concern is whether the device meets or falls short of the commander’s requirement. If feedback from users indicates that improvements are in order, REF will retrofit the changes in the field or in the next iteration.
REF’s reliance on the spiral development process is suited to the low-intensity combat missions that U.S. forces likely will encounter in the 21st Century, he adds. “Today, when the Army brings new technology onto the battlefield, the enemy often adjusts their tactics in response to it. This renders our fielded technology into something that should either be removed from the battlefield or modified in order to retain its effectiveness.”
Last summer, REF’s record of success came to the attention of the incoming Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who requested Jette to meet with him upon assuming office.
Their meeting coincided with the one-year expiration of REF’s mandate. In fact, the organization was being assessed to determine if it should continue or be given the ax.
“We met with Gen. Schoomaker, and we were informed that he indeed wanted REF institutionalized,” says Jette. “However, he also gave us two additional missions.
“He instructed us to take a look at the Army’s future force, examining concepts, technologies, surrogates and threshold capabilities to determine if they can be inserted onto the battlefield right now, rather than later.”
Schoomaker also wants REF to “assess both equipped and inserted technologies to inform the Army’s next acquisition spiral and future plans.”
Simply put, “REF has been ordered to equip, assess and insert technologies for both the current force and the future force,” Jette says. “This is a huge mission.”
Jette is careful to note that REF is not meant to replace all acquisition and needs identification processes. REF merely offers alternatives in the most appropriate places for its use. He admits that while this appears reasonable, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easy to execute. “Change is sometimes difficult for large organizations—and, clearly, the way REF does business is in many ways a change from the way the Army currently does business.” REF offers capabilities, he says, to “meet current operational needs and to facilitate a better understanding of the Army’s future requirements.”
Working directly with field commanders in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq, the REF has fulfilled more than 50 requirements for items as sophisticated as the Joint Land-Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted System (JLENS), a 360-degree surveillance device suspended from an aerostat balloon. Other items fielded by REF included electronic translators that loudly emit voice commands in Pashtu or Arabic.
REF has delivered such technologies as the Raytheon X-1 hand-held thermal viewer, “WellCam,” a remote video system that enables soldiers to search for weapons in wells and other inaccessible areas, and special shims that enable soldiers searching for weapons in Iraq to non-destructively open padlocks. These items, according to Jette, were delivered to Iraq just hours after they were requested.
Tim Kennedy is a founding partner of Strategic Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based strategic communications company.