WASHINGTON – The Pentagon wants a sleeker, more advanced suit to protect warfighters against chemical, radiological and biological threats – and is counting on the commercial industry and individual inventors to come up with a solution.
On Aug. 25, the Pentagon's Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense will host an event at the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass., in order to kick off the challenge competition with a $250,000 reward pool on the line.
And keeping with its goal of bringing in non-traditional ideas, the panel in charge of doling out the cash rewards features individuals from athletic and leisurewear companies like Under Armor and Lululemon, known more for stretchy pants than chemical weaponry.
With a few specialized exceptions, the Pentagon relies on the Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology (JSLIST) design to protect warfighters against chemical, biological and radiological threats.
Capt. Steve Gerry, Assistant Product Manager for Uniformed Integrated Protective Ensemble, Increment II – the formal name of the program to come up with new solution for the suit design – told Defense News in an Aug. 15 interview that while the JSLIST is still an effective design that keeps the current soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines safe from harm, the core design is over 25 years old.
And in the future, those who deal with chem/bio attacks may be needed more than ever. In a report put out last month by the Joint Chiefs of Staff looking at the threats facing the joint force in 2035, the authors warn that "It is likely that terrorist, insurgent or criminal groups will eventually obtain chemical, biological, radiological, or even nuclear weapons within the next two decades." The report also foresees as likely "a steady rise in the incidence and severity of infectious disease outbreaks."
But it’s not just the conflicts of tomorrow that require the development of new protective suits. Indeed, part of the challenge is the technology of today, said Gerry.
Take touchscreens, for instance, a technology which is already widely adopted across the globe. While the current suits are able to keep warfighters safe, they do not have the kind of gloves that would allow the wearers to use, say, an iPad loaded with medical data. That issue is "a big one," Gerry said, and will have to be addressed moving forward.
James Beauchamp, of the Pentagon’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, says judges will be looking for five key criteria for the final designs: mobility, dexterity, tactility, heat management and the seamless integration between suit components. Mobility and dexterity are particularly important, as the bulky nature of the JSLIST design makes it difficult for those wearing them to even shoot a rifle if need be.
Because of that focus, the judging panel features Matthew Trexler, Director of Technology Validation at athletic company Under Armour, as well as Egemen Izci, a materials expert from athlesiure giant Lululemon.
The other three judges are Douglas Bryce, Joint Program Executive Officer for Chemical and Biological Defense; Dave Strum, President of Velocity Systems, a firm that makes body armor and backpacks for military and police needs, and Mark Sunderland, CEO of Boathouse.
Sunderland is not a household name, but his work has certainly gotten notice in the last month. A textile engineer from Philadelphia, Sunderland designed a suit for rowers at the 2016 Rio Olympic games designed to keep Olympic athletes safe from potentially dangerous levels of microbes from polluted water.
Gerry held up Sunderland’s creation as an example of the kind of work that the panel is looking for. The challenge isn’t about someone bringing a full-up new suit design to the table, he said, so much as getting people with various pieces of a final solution to come together and develop options.
"Maybe there’s some tech or development that came from that, that we can use for warfighters, to allow them to improve on what they’re currently doing in that environment," Gerry said.
Along that theme, up to three semifinalists will win up to $25,000 each, and up to three finalists will win $50,000- $150,000. There will also be up to five small prize contest winners which can net up to $5,000 each.
By defense contractor standards, that’s a rounding error. But this program is specifically targeting a wider audience, especially those that may not have dealt with the Pentagon before.
The effort to recruit outside voices and ideas into the Pentagon has been a key component of defense secretary Ash Carter’s tenure leading the department. That includes the opening of a Boston office for his Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) initiative.
Gerry said DIUx was invited to participate in the event, but had no role in organizing it. However, many of the same factors that attracted DIUx to Boston are the same that drove the organizers of the chem/bio program to host the event there – a mix of technology firms, academic powerhouses and industrial design expertise.
The decision to kick the competition off Aug. 25 was made strategically to come right before classes begin at the various universities in the area, Gerry said, noting the hope is that professors may take developing answers to the Pentagon’s challenge on as a class project. But it’s not just about academia.
"We want the guy who has been dreaming up stuff in his garage or his basement or designing things on his computer that might fit the role. There’s nothing stopping traditional industry from getting involved, either. Maybe for a company like [clothing maker] The North Face that has never done anything in this, maybe there is a designer there that has something that could work for that but it doesn’t work out for what their company is trying to do."
The challenge is being governed a consortium Other Transaction Authority (OTA), which allows Gerry and his team to bring in small businesses who can join into a consortium and have a direct line of communication with the Pentagon staff.
"We basically can request things directly to the consortium, and the consortium pushes it out to [those] who might want it and gets feedback from them," Gerry said. "They can purchase prototypes and line different players up where they can work together if they are willing, to combine ideas to get us that best possible solution moving forward."
OTAs are not a new option for the Pentagon, but are becoming more and more popular as both the Department and Congress tries to find solutions to what both sides agree is a creaky, unresponsive system for bringing in new technology.
An acquisition officer by trade, Gerry jokes that "I grew up in a [Federal Acquisition Regulation] world. We’re still learning how this all works. But it think we have a pretty firm grasp on it."
Asked whether he hoped this model is one that can be transferred to other acquisition programs, Gerry responded that "I think it’s the way to go."
"It’s probably part of the future, and more than anything else, it really streamlines what we do in the acquisition community. It’s very difficult for your average person to navigate and use some of the traditional government ways of doing business," Gerry noted, and "the most important thing is getting the warfighter the best [equipment], and this way we won’t lose anybody who might have a better idea than what we might have right now."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.