It may be surprising to hear the U.S. Army’s point man for sending innovative technology to the battlefield say that new gear isn’t always the answer.
But sitting behind his desk, flanked on one side by a desktop computer and a large flat-screen monitor angled like a drafting table at his other, that’s just what Col. Pete Newell of the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) will tell you.
One of the REF’s initiatives in recent years has been to find ways to save fuel at forward operating bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan. Newell gathered engineers and sent them to several small outposts to assess the problem. They found that technology wasn’t necessarily the solution, but rather better training and planning when it came to connecting generators.
Much the same thing happened when Newell sent a team to find out what it would take to better protect small combat outposts from rocket and mortar fire. While visiting the six outposts considered most at risk for indirect fire, the team “got shot at every day,” Newell said, but they also stripped apart the counter-rocket-and-mortar systems to look at the maintenance and calibration, as well as the tactics, techniques and procedures for their use.
The team came back in one piece and handed Newell a list of eight recommendations, “and the first four had nothing to do with buying new equipment,” he said. “It was all about maintenance and training, and how to get more out of the system.”
From energy management to counter rocket and mortar solutions to improvised explosive device detection and defeat, the REF — by design — has its hands in just about every aspect of soldier equipping. And while the organization will turn 10 years old in November, the REF is constantly adapting, much like battlefield tactics themselves.
The latest and perhaps most challenging adaptation comes as combat in Iraq ends, troops leave Afghanistan and the budget noose begins to tighten across the Pentagon. In a postwar Army, does the REF have a place?
“We’re doing a lot of work to help the Army define that,” Newell said. “The good news is that the senior leadership of the Army acknowledges that what REF does has to be institutionalized in the Army.”
And combat troops aren’t the only ones with equipment needs. The REF has also provided U.S. Army Europe equipment for use in Turkey, and has worked with U.S. Army Africa. U.S. military observers in the Sinai and at Patriot sites around Central Command have also received equipment no longer being used in Afghanistan.
The REF is primarily a facilitator, an organization that receives requests for material solutions from its staff in Afghanistan, and then brings together industry, Pentagon program managers, academia and the national laboratories to hash out solutions that can be rapidly acquired and fielded.
At the moment, Newell said he has six primary areas of interest: dismounted IEDs, which have been his No. 1 priority since 2010; equipment weight and sustainment; providing kits to operate at isolated posts; ISR in inhospitable environments; small-base force protection sustainment; and traumatic brain injury.
On dismounted IEDs, the good news is that “I’m not seeing a lot of new requirements, and a lot of the technologies they’ve developed over the past two years are now flowing into theater.” On the brain injury front, thousands of helmet and vehicle sensors are being shipped to theater.
Preparing itself for the uncertain budgetary future while working to stay relevant, the organization also plays a role in the Army’s Network Integration Exercises, facilitating the movement of emerging technology into the twice-yearly program.
“Because we’re an independent, cross-domain organization we’re not wedded to the problems or to any of the solutions,” that usually obsess program managers for particular programs, Newell said. “It gives us an opportunity to look across the spectrum of potential partners and solutions.”
But since the REF does have an investment capital and requirements validation role to play in the systems it fields, Newell is responsible for a good part of the funding and sustainment of equipment sent downrange. The REF also tracks equipment and makes sure nothing falls through the cracks. In April alone, the organization harvested 284 pieces of equipment and saved the Army $1.7 million simply by reusing them somewhere else.
But the fight in Afghanistan, while on the downward trajectory, continues. “As we draw down, the guys who are left behind are spreading out, ... so we’re trying very hard to give them the appropriate level of big FOB-like force protection things, in packages that they can handle,” Newell said.
His goal is to provide “more than a guy standing in a guard tower, which is quite honestly how we’ve protected guys for 2,000 years. We can do better than that.”