Good story on Pete Newell and the Rapid Equipping Force (REF). It begs a couple of questions: first, could we be this innovative in other areas within the Department of Defense and second, by making the REF a permanent agency will it evolve to function like the rest of the permanent bureaucratic organizations? E.g., will it lose its innovation mojo?
Today's Army marches on its batteries while searching for alternatives
The U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force aims to help soldiers in the field by finding "the first, best, fastest solution." Above, as part of an exercise at Fort Bliss, one soldier team came up with its own design for a Combat Outpost -- a remote camp for 20 to 150 soldiers.
- Alex Chadwick
The U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force -- REF for short -- is a little-known agency making big changes in how soldiers fight. It was created after an officer saw a video of soldiers trying to clear an Afghan cave with a rope and grappling hook -- why not robots, he wondered? That was 10 years ago, and since then REF has become an innovator in many fields, including energy.
The great military book is from early China, “The Art of War.”
There is no art of soldiering... you heavy up, go for a walk, look for trouble for a few hours. Or days. Watch a YouTube video of a patrol in Afghanistan.
“The average weight on a soldier's back is somewhere around 104 pounds.”
That’s Col. Pete Newell, U.S. Army. Soldiering doesn't change. Technology does.
“Twenty-seven of it is batteries,” Newell said.
Col. Newell is the director of the Rapid Equipping Force -- REF -- a think tank, hardware store, tech lab for combat soldiers. A perfect solution to a soldier problem -- a Humvee redesigned against IEDs, for instance -- might take years. REF tries to find pretty good answers that already exist, or are about to exist.
“What we'll describe is find the first, best, fastest solution we can,” Newell said.
Here's an example, something REF helped develop to answer a soldier problem with, again, IEDs. And if you wonder what all the batteries are for, well...
“It's called the Thor III,” Newell said.
Thor. It sounds heavy.
“The piece of equipment itself weighs 25 pounds,” Newell said. “Over a three-day patrol, a platoon of 28 soldiers will have three of these systems because of the bands that they operate at.”
Thor is a jammer, a signal jammer. Everybody adapts technology, including the people trying to kill us. A favorite tactic... a hidden bomb with a cell-phone trigger. Wait for the soldiers to get close, call the number... boom. If you're going out on patrol for three days, you want a Thor III, batteries included. If Thor is working, the bomb triggers will not.
“The battery total for that 72 hours is 238 pounds,” Newell said. “So 238 pounds distributed across 28 bodies, on top of the weight for the system and the weight of all the other stuff they're carrying.”
Col. Newell is a former brigade commander, awarded a Silver Star and a unit commendation for leadership at Fallujah, the biggest fight in Iraq. He knows soldiering, but when he took over REF three years ago, he didn't think about energy.
“I would tell you that I really did not see that as a major task for the Rapid Equipping Force,” he said.
But... combat outposts, remote battlefield camps for 30 to 100 soldiers, use a lot of fuel. The convoys to supply them are magnets for bombs, snipers -- they’re the Army's single greatest vulnerability in Afghanistan: Energy. It's also true for a single soldier -- heavied up, and walking patrol.
The Thor III is a REF solution. Too heavy, too power-hungry, though it works right now with existing tech, until they design something better. Still, in January, at REF headquarters at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, the colonel was more excited by something else.
(Continued at the link below)