Software that combines data from many sensors and displays them on a single computer screen — which soldiers nicknamed the Kraken — soon will be deployed at Bagram Air Field, Camp Salerno and other military bases in Afghanistan, says Col. Peter Newell, director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.
“Integrated base defense for small units is our top priority,” Newell says in an interview at the Pentagon courtyard, where the REF hosted a technology display July 26.
The U.S. military is not completely leaving Afghanistan, says Newell. There will be fewer forces, but they will still need protection, he says. Small units in remote outposts, particularly, are isolated and lack the manpower to patrol the area. Commanders worry about these units being exposed to rockets, mortars, improvised explosive devices and suicide bomber attacks, he says.
Deployed forces have dozens of surveillance sensors — overhead and ground based — that help them detect incoming rounds, but each systems requires a separate computer system and a dedicated operator to watch each terminal. The Kraken consolidates them into a single screen, says Col. Brett Barraclough, who oversees the integrated base defense program.
For years, the Army has poured not only sensors but also self-defense weapons across bases in Afghanistan: tower-mounted cameras, radar, mid and long-range physical security perimeter cameras, acoustic sensors, blast sensors, unmanned ground systems, counter mortar and counter rocket systems.
“We walk into a tactical operations center, and there are 50 screens, multiple computers,” Barraclough says. It takes 15 soldiers just to coordinate the sensors.
In large bases, there are hundreds of soldiers on security duty. The small company or platoon-size outposts “don’t have all those people but still have the same threats,” he says.
The Kraken software has been in the works for five years. “And now we’re deploying it,” says Barraclough. Eight kits are being shipped, he says. “Bagram is going to be completely integrated within the next year.”
The REF also plans to continue buying robots
. Apparently the need for remotely operated machines in combat has not subsided. “We started doing robots in 2002 and never stopped,” Newell says. A recent $14 million purchase of 1,000 handheld robots is expected to help soldiers detect buried bombs. “We need different robots for different problems,” says Newell. “We continue to look for ways that robots can replace the work of soldiers.” At REF’s home base, Fort Belvoir, Va., robots assist human guards searching cars and patrolling roads.
One of the most recent requests is for robots that can scan prison sites for tunnels, says Barraclough.
The REF often is held up as a poster child for how to buy equipment, as it tends to do it faster than the traditional Army procurement bureaucracy. With a staff of about 100 people — including forward-deployed teams in several countries — and an annual budget of about $200 million, the REF gets glowing reviews for efficiency.
Could all Army procurements be REF-like?
Probably not, Barraclough says. “Changing the entire enterprise is like turning a battleship, and that takes a while.”
Newell says there is no one-size-fits-all formula for buying equipment. The traditional process works for some items but not for all, he says. “It’s like trying to teach an elephant how to be a ballerina.”
To be agile, he says, “Look at the assets you have, use them to make things work faster. … It takes facilitators, it takes venture capital and good analysis of what is technologically and industrially available.”
REF officials believe that the reason military procurement moves so slowly, in most cases, is because it takes so long to understand the problem that has to be solved. “Contracting is easy, once you know what you need,” says Newell, “But figuring out what solutions are available takes a long time.”
Newell says he is now working with senior Army leaders to make REF a permanent organization within the service. Its current status as a war-support agency means that most of its funding — 93 percent to be precise — comes from emergency war budgets, which are known as overseas contingency operations, or OCO, appropriations.
“We need to reverse that,” says Newell. “We believe Army needs REF permanently.” How to fund it in the base budget is the tricky part, he adds. “We are having those discussions right now.”
It is not coincidental that REF officials, for the first time in the organization’s 10-year existence, brought equipment to display at the Pentagon courtyard. Many senior officials are not aware of what REF does, says Newell.
The Defense Science Board, a senior Pentagon advisory group, repeatedly has recommended that the Defense Department “institutionalize” rapid procurement methods that are used by agencies such as the REF.
Other equipment displayed at the Pentagon included a “blast effects sensor suite” to measure the impact of explosions that cause traumatic brain injury, and surveillance blimps. All REF equipment is powered by renewable energy generators.