Q&A with Bob Newberry, Director of the Pentagon’s Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate

By Mandy Mayfield

Defense Dept. photo

Bob Newberry oversees the Pentagon’s Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate. He reports to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, or SO/LIC, and is responsible for providing a forum for interagency and international partners to discuss mission requirements to combat terrorism, prioritize requirements, fund and manage solutions, and deliver capabilities. Newberry spoke with National Defense Staff Writer Mandy Mayfield about the directorate’s priorities and working with industry. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of your top priorities as director of the Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate?

The first one is greater affordability at the speed of relevance. That was in the National Defense Strategy. The second: increasing lethal capabilities for small teams and individuals. The strategy talks about an increase in lethality but we really wanted to focus on small teams and individuals.

Next, enhancing survivability for personnel and facilities. Then use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms-based analytical tools for big data analysis. We’ve really expanded that this year on a recent broad agency announcement — we asked the vendors to look at how they could use artificial intelligence or machine learning on all of the requirements in an effort to reduce the workload on individual operators.

Then No. 5 is strengthening and increasing alliances — we have 50/50 cost sharing R&D memorandums with the U.K., Canada, Australia, Singapore and Israel. We are hoping to expand that to include France — that’s in the final stages of coordination.

Next is optimizing human performance and learning.

And last: we still want to address chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats within the department and domestically.

The key one that I would expand on would be the greater affordability at the speed of relevance. We move fast. … We want to get to contracts in less than a year, so that is really tightening up a schedule from requirements to signing a contract, and we want to deliver whatever capability we’re trying to develop in one to two years.

The directorate recently underwent a reorganization and name change from the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. What does it mean and how has it changed the office?

The name change was a result of a year’s worth of the defense-wide review of looking at organizations and seeing what was important to keep and not keep as they were looking for funds to put towards modernization by the services.

We were one of the ones that they looked at — we fell under SO/LIC — which is a place I felt we should have stayed under. This organization had always been in SO/LIC, almost from the beginning. We started in 1983 through a White House initiative to get counterterrorism across the federal government R&D, and then it went to the State [Department] for a year or two, and finally it came to the Defense Department because they thought DoD could do it better. Then it came to SO/LIC, which at the time was a center point because they did counterterrorism, they did CBRNE consequence management, and they did anti-terrorism force protection, so it was the proper place to be.

Then [former] Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller clearly felt that we should stay under special ops. He thought we should change our name and expand — kind of broadened what we did beyond just combating terrorism — and he directed that the name be changed to Irregular Warfare Technical Support Directorate, which we did. Soon after, SO/LIC finished drafting an annex of the National Defense Strategy for irregular warfare.

Again, we looked at ourselves, looked across our focus areas and the names of our programs so we could kind of capture the irregular warfare element. If you look at the subelements of irregular warfare, it contains a lot of subelements and still contains counterterrorism. From that perspective, I guess you could say we broadened ourselves but we didn’t really change — we kept with supporting SOF even though we do support general purpose forces and the intelligence community quite largely, and we do leverage what we develop to benefit the interagency and our foreign partners, so that part didn’t really change.

Overall, we changed from an office to a directorate ... but everything else kind of stayed the same. We are still operating fast and we are still broadly supporting the department through liaison officers within Special Operations Command: Army Special Ops, Naval Special Ops, Naval Special Warfare, Marine Forces Special Operations Command and others.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the work being done through the CBRNE subgroup? Specifically, the
biological division.

We didn’t delve into that because it was such a nationwide effort right from the beginning. We are a small piece of that pie and it didn’t appear that we needed to inject ourselves — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health and everybody was in it.

DoD did get involved. We worked a little bit with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center on how to get [personal protective] equipment throughout, but they kind of had it in hand. Unlike during the Ebola crisis a number of years back — DoD had their own defense-wide working group and we injected ourselves because we felt we had a lot to offer as far as personal protective equipment and donning and removing personal protective gear to avoid contamination, and on decontamination. So, we went in and got involved in PPE design.

With that one, we [at SO/LIC] kind of had a bigger input in and it was more appropriate. Whereas with the COVID-19 pandemic, that virus was not really something we got into.

I’m interested to hear more about the indirect influence and competition effort. Can you discuss some of the focus areas associated with that subgroup?

That subgroup used to be called the irregular warfare subgroup. ... We did change the name to “indirect influence and competition” as we looked at their focus areas. It still supports and focuses primarily on non-kinetic activities and operations, such as how you influence relevant populations. So, the information operations remain an important part of their efforts, and how you use publicly available information and applications.

They’re the first ones that develop how you collect publicly available information overseas, how you analyze it, and use it to see how when you deliver a message overseas, what the feedback is from that messaging, and then how you deliver messaging.
We’ve gone beyond a pamphlet. Now we’re into electronics. We’re looking at ways to airdrop phones, airdrop electronic means of passing information to a population.

They also developed what we call a secure unclassified network, which provides the department, the interagency and international partners an accredited communications platform where they can share unclassified information and collaborate.

What is the best way for someone with a good idea to contact the office?

They can contact us through our web page ... but we do have some other ways that we engage. … The BAA is a keen one because when we go out with a broad agency announcement, we’ll go out draft first and then we’ll have an industry day … where industry comes in, and they can meet with the program manager and they can ask all the questions they want, meet with users, etc. Then once we do the formal BAA, that tightens that up and questions have to be formally asked through our contract staff.

We also have workshops. For instance, we’ll have a tactical communications workshop and we’ll invite industry to brief on their technology.

We will have a telematics workshop where we invite industry to brief on what they’re doing. … We have NASA robotics workshops. We have ammunition initiatives where we have users and commands and people come in and brief, but there will be a small section of time available for vendors to come in and brief what they’re doing in technology so that users can listen to what’s new out there.

We also have challenge programs. We have one with the United Kingdom on chemical munitions destruction. So that’s another way that industry can be involved and universities and even private organizations can come up with ideas. It’s not always products, but it’s new ideas and new approaches to do things.

Topics: Defense Department

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