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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

In the 21st century, everything is at your fingertips thanks to modern technology. People have adapted to receiving information immediately to help them easily plan ahead, from minutes to months, using a suite of mobile device apps.

Now imagine you’re a soldier who has been deployed to another country. Whatever the mission may be, you find your environment changes often, and you face an adaptive adversary. While you’ve been trained to handle yourself in this situation, unexpected things happen. But there’s no app or Alexa to help you request and receive a quick solution.

In the course of military operations, soldiers often require urgent military materials and equipment to help carry out their mission safely. This is where the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force comes in. The REF is a unique organization that serves as a mechanism to provide current and emerging technologies. The REF bridges capability gaps across warfighter functions and works directly with a soldier or unit to address their needs as quickly as possible, usually within 180 days or less. Last year’s average equipping response time? One hundred days. If that sounds like a long time, consider traditional acquisitions usually take years to find, purchase, assess, approve, ship and train units on new equipment.

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The new Electronic Warfare Tactical Vehicle is tested in Texas by soldiers with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

Getting the Job Done

While the REF does not have an app to provide soldiers a swift fix midmission or -operation, it is still known as a “quick-reaction capability” for the Army. The REF was designed to provide urgent nonstandard equipment to help soldiers quickly so the larger Army can focus on solutions on a larger and more comprehensive scale. The REF looks for commercially available or government off-the-shelf solutions, or conducts limited prototypes to develop solutions. These solutions are only expected to operate for a set amount of time rather than indefinitely.

Traditional acquisitions, however, have more refined and robust capability requirements needed for long-term solutions. If an item the REF equipped exceeds expectations and proves to be highly beneficial to other units, it will inform program or capability managers and senior Army leaders to consider it as a potential solution for broader use.

A consideration for using readily available quick-reaction capabilities is that sometimes the solution provided may only meet 70% to 80% of a unit’s need—but it’s still a solution that allows the unit to get the job done.

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A West Point cadet trains on an unmanned aircraft system in Quantico, Virginia.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

The REF has been in existence since 2002, and in the first 15 years, it handled over 3,000 projects in support of the warfighter. Soldiers received nonstandard equipment to fulfill lifesaving and mission-essential necessities thanks to a diverse team of experienced subject-matter experts who research, assess, equip, insert and train urgent solutions.

Over the past few years, the organization has focused on modernization, specifically to address current and future challenges across technology areas such as air and ground robotics, intelligence and surveillance, soldier protection solutions and electronic signature reduction. The REF has also worked with units on unmanned aerial and counter unmanned aerial systems, seeking solutions to support subterranean operations, testing electronic warfare capabilities and expanding further into additive (or advanced) manufacturing.

Here’s a breakdown of what these things are and why they are important:

Unmanned Aerial and Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems

For years, the REF has trained and equipped units with unmanned aerial systems (better known as drones) and counter unmanned aerial systems. Typical drones can be used for anything from personal entertainment to military reconnaissance and surveillance. They fly, see, detect, record and can report their surroundings. Conversely, counter unmanned aerial systems are designed to disrupt or destroy drones. These systems have been successful in military operations and are constantly going through upgrades. However, because they are openly available on the market, adversaries use them, too.

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Metal is cut by an Expeditionary Laboratories engineer.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

Subterranean Operations

Coal miner, firefighter, warfighter—these are just a few of the occupations that entail working in dark, confined, hazardous and poorly ventilated environments to accomplish a mission. Whether it’s a tunnel or complex underground facility, such as a subway system, the combination of high levels of carbon dioxide, ammonia, low levels of oxygen and total darkness can increase risk and impede direct communication. Proper equipment and training is required to safely operate in such conditions. The REF understands these challenges and has provided soldiers multiple solutions to operate in subterranean environments, such as breathing apparatuses, communication equipment, enhanced vision capabilities, remote tunnel mapping and breaching tools.

To further address the problem, the REF partnered with the Army Asymmetric Warfare Group to develop a list of multiple technology solutions that enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of units operating in subterranean environments. The project is an ongoing effort designed to identify, assess and insert government off-the-shelf and commercially available technologies that address materiel gaps or capability shortfalls. Because technology is continuously evolving, the REF always looks for new and improved equipment.

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A 3D-printed electronic connector was designed and fabricated by U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force engineers in Afghanistan.
(Credit: U.S. Army)

Electronic Warfare Tactical Vehicle

The term “electronic warfare” has gained attention recently because it’s a newer method of attack that warfighters are experiencing in the field. Electronic warfare is not the same as the kinetic warfare of bullets or missiles. Instead, it deals with the electromagnetic spectrum and sensing signals. It’s basically a way for soldiers to detect, interrupt, reject, reduce or destroy enemy systems and protect against the enemy’s ability to return the unwanted favor. Imagine equipping these capabilities on a tactical vehicle, and you have what’s known as Electronic Warfare Tactical Vehicles (EWTVs).

The vehicles were developed in response to an operational need because Army units had limited tools to detect and attack enemy communications and networks. The REF equipped the U.S. Army Forces Command with EWTVs as part of ongoing efforts to advance Army capabilities in this area. The vehicles, capable of electronic attack across a broad spectrum of frequencies, are designed to be self-contained and independent, operated by electronic warfare soldiers within the vehicle.

The 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, located at Fort Hood, Texas, was the first unit to train on the systems. The REF conducted unit training to expose electronic warfare officers to system capabilities and to help develop Army tactics, techniques, procedures and lessons learned.

Enhanced Capabilities

Another capability everyone from government, military, industry to academia is chasing is advanced manufacturing. Simply put, advanced manufacturing encompasses both additive and subtractive manufacturing. It’s the use of technology and machinery to design, produce or improve a product or process. Additive manufacturing—also known as 3D printing—has become a key interest across the Army enterprise in recent years. However, the REF has relied on 3D printing in combat zones since 2012 through Expeditionary Laboratories.

Expeditionary Laboratories are transportable, self-contained fabrication centers run by engineers who can rapidly prototype and fabricate solutions (through 3D printing, sewing, machining or electrical work) to meet urgent operational needs of forward-deployed soldiers. The team develops custom solutions based on soldiers’ direct input. This capability is another contribution to the REF’s ability to be quick and flexible at producing a tool or piece of equipment. Expeditionary Laboratories can typically produce a solution anywhere between a few days and 30 days, depending on what the unit or soldier asks for.

While the lab does not produce items like repair parts or end items, it has produced thousands of projects since its inception and continues to be one of the REF’s most valuable assets. The lab gets a lot of requests and visits from soldiers in need. In 2018, the lab at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, provided over 250 engineering and prototyping solutions. It has already completed 160 projects and is projected to complete 300 this year.

The REF will continue to develop its advanced manufacturing capabilities. With a future partnership with the Joint Advanced Manufacturing Center of Excellence, the REF will assist in responding to requirements in theater by quickly and affordably producing prototypes.

Value in Partnerships

Building relationships does not always happen in plain sight. Often, the REF is quietly behind the scenes providing support to other Army organizations and units. For example, the REF has fulfilled 44 requests from security force assistance brigades on several of their projects and training missions since 2018.

The REF has a long list of partnerships that extend from Army and government organizations to deployed units, industry and academia. During an engagement meeting with key Army partners, the REF acknowledged the importance of working together and leveraging each other’s experiences and solutions in support of the warfighter.

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Troops with the 1st Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, practice on a Drone Defender during a counter unmanned aerial system drill in Iraq.
(Credit: U.S. Army/Capt. Jason Welch)

As the science of warfighting tactics become more sophisticated, the Army must continue to quickly bring available technology to the warfighter and be innovative in its approach to defeat its adversaries. Collaborating on modernization efforts with new and existing partners helps the REF inform the Army of next-generation solutions that ensure the fielded force is properly equipped for warfare strategies.

Recently, the REF has been partnering with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in support of Army recruiting and advancement in technology research. The REF and the academy first came together in December 2018 to prepare cadets for a Squad with Autonomous Teammates Challenge against the U.S. Naval Academy. It was a three-day capture-the-flag game using unmanned aircraft systems and counter unmanned aircraft systems provided by the REF. This training and partnership encouraged future Army leaders to continue pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers.

Moving Forward

The REF has a long history of providing support to the Army. As the environment, adversary and combat tactics changed, the REF adapted along with them. The organization has supported component commands in several operations such as Operations Freedom’s Sentinel, Inherent Resolve and Resolute Support. As the REF moves forward, it will increase its collaboration with component commands to better support their challenges.

The REF’s portfolio constantly changes. The majority of requests received have supported soldier protection, intelligence, and movement and maneuver. However, the organization is thinking forward to what might be the next threat tactic. Sometimes watching trends in technology, industry or social behavior can be a good indicator of what to look at for our military operations.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy states, “New technologies include advanced computing, ‘big data’ analytics, artificial intelligence, autonomy, robotics … [ensuring] we will be able to fight and win the wars of the future.” Knowing this, the REF acknowledged future interests in things like artificial intelligence and integrated machine learning. The REF wants to adopt the ideas in industry and academia, but will enhance the technology so it has better military use.