Buying Time

kpeters@govexec.com

During an Army battle experiment last year, soldiers deployed a miniature plane behind "enemy" lines to take pictures of the battlefield. The opposing force immediately shot it down. It became clear battle planners would have to devise a new reconnaissance strategy, since the maximum altitude for taking sharp pictures with the unmanned aerial vehicle was 6,000 feet, well within range of enemy guns.

But then one soldier had an idea: Why not simply put two lenses together in the UAV's optical system and double the plane's range for taking clear images, allowing it to operate safely beyond enemy shooting range? Equipment contractors and engineers on hand for the experiment went to work on the soldier's suggestion. Within 24 hours, the Army had a modified UAV up and flying reconnaissance missions at 12,000 feet.

Army leaders like to tell this story because it marks a dramatic departure from the way the service has traditionally developed new equipment. By putting soldiers, contractors and engineers side by side as new war-fighting concepts and equipment are tested, Army leaders believe the products they develop will be better suited to the battlefield and ultimately will be fielded much more quickly.

Typically, it takes the Army anywhere from seven to 15 years to put new equipment in the hands of soldiers, says Col. Albert Turner, director of the Army's Joint Venture office at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which is redesigning the Army's operational forces for the next century. By the time the materiel reaches the field, the technology is often outdated or military requirements have changed, and the process of upgrading the equipment has to begin almost immediately.

No More Stovepipes

Fielding the right equipment in a reasonable amount of time is an ongoing challenge for the Army, as it is for all the services. And it's becoming increasingly difficult, as changes in technology far outpace the military's ability to field advanced weapons systems that must last many years.

The Army continually upgrades and changes the way it fights. During the Cold War, new requirements were determined largely by watching what the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations were doing.

If Army commanders perceived deficiencies in their capabilities compared to those of the Soviets, they developed requirements for new weapons systems. Under Defense Department acquisition regulations, those requirements were then translated into detailed requests for proposals. Contractors would bid for the jobs, the Army would award contracts and new products would be developed. When a piece of equipment or a weapon finally was delivered, it was extensively tested and evaluated, and then negotiations would begin between the Army and the contractor for modifying the product. Only then, perhaps after a decade had passed since the requirements were first developed, would the product be put in the hands of soldiers.

As the Army began redesigning its force during the post-Cold War Defense downsizing, it discovered the traditional development process was too slow. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer directed TRADOC to find a better way for determining war-fighting requirements. "Our goal is to speed up the requirements determination process while at the same time improving the product," Reimer wrote in a message to the field announcing TRADOC's role.

To that end, TRADOC has shifted the focus from countering deficiencies to anticipating capabilities needed for future conflicts. Experimentation is central to the new process, Turner says. Building on the experience of several "battlelabs" the Army established in the early 1990s to test new war-fighting concepts, the Army three years ago began a series of advanced war-fighting experiments to test ways in which information technology may dramatically improve the Army's capability on the battlefield in the future. The experiments have included live field exercises at Fort Irwin, Calif., as well as simulated exercises drawing soldiers from around the country.

Through experimentation, the Army has been able to take a "try before buy" approach to product development. The Army is developing and refining ideas with continual feedback from soldiers, contractors and scientists working on future technologies, Turner says. The so-called spiral development process is fundamentally different from the traditional stovepipe process for developing and fielding equipment.

"The traditional process . . . focused on a single system, not necessarily integrated with all other systems throughout the Army," Turner says. For instance, when the Army decided it needed a new tank, developers would focus exclusively on the tank, without necessarily considering other weapons programs. "We'd say, 'I want it to go so fast and shoot so far,' " says Turner. "Now, rather than look at that tank in isolation, I'm saying I want it to be able to operate with this [armored personnel carrier] and this helicopter and these dismounted soldiers. Collectively we're working our way through this update of requirements and capabilities."

"What we've discovered is it accelerates the process considerably in coming up with the final product," Turner says. Something as complicated as a new tank would probably still take several years to develop and field, but that's much better than the 15 years it took previously. Other equipment, such as some battlefield communications systems, are likely to take two to three years to field.

Experimentation Is Key

The Army's future force, known by insiders as Force XXI, is expected to look and operate much differently from today's force. By using technology to process massive amounts of data, a process the Army calls "digitization," future soldiers will have vastly more information about the battlefield than their predecessors. The Army hopes to use computers, electronic navigation systems, satellite communications and other advanced technology to dramatically reduce the fog of war and give soldiers a huge advantage on the battlefield.

In August, the Army will conduct a limited user test of the Appliqué system, a communications system intended to provide soldiers at the brigade level and below with critical data regarding the location of friendly and hostile troops on the battlefield. It is the backbone of the digital battlefield and will be the first system developed entirely through the spiral development process.

"Three years ago, we didn't even have a requirement for this," Turner says. By 2000, the Army expects to field the system to the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas. The division is the primary tester of the Army's advanced war-fighting experiments.

Incorporating the new technology into the existing force is a tremendously complicated process, Army officials say. Because the new technology must be able to work with existing systems that often weren't designed to work together, the experimentation process is critical to achieving the force Army leaders believe they need.

A case in point is the Army's battle command system, says Turner, made up of five legacy communications systems that have been in development for a number of years. "The field artillery community, when it first started building its computer, expected to only talk to other field artillerymen. Same thing with the intelligence system. They're all designed to work vertically instead of horizontally," he says.

"Less than two years ago, we said 'Baloney, guys. You've got to be able to share information. We want those five boxes to be able to talk to each other.' " It was a tall order. Each system had a different operating system and a different contractor.

"The software engineers went bonkers trying to make their operating systems and their computer codes talk to each other. [Nonetheless,] inside of two years, by putting the contractor, the industry reps for each of these boxes and the users together, we've got them talking. It's not perfect. They exchange in some cases only rudimentary information and it's not a completely transparent integration, but the point is, it's been done. The goal now is to have a more refined capability by the year 2000 when we field that first digital division," Turner says.

The leap forward in capability the Army foresees will require more than just new equipment. Soldiers will have to be trained and organized differently, and doctrine must change. The spiral development approach to materiel development has also proved helpful in the development of non-materiel requirements. Doctrine writers and trainers have been able to develop more timely products by participating in the battle experiments.

To train forces in the new doctrine and technologies that are evolving out of the Force XXI experiments, the Army will rely extensively on distance learning through audio-video hookups to remote sites, says John Klesch, chief of the strategies branch in TRADOC's Futures Training Division. Distance learning technology has already played a significant role in training troops participating in the battlelab and Force XXI exercises. In the future, that role will grow.

Ideas and Insights

The participation of soldiers in the advanced war-fighting experiments and battlelab exercises has been invaluable, says Col. Michael Mehaffey, director of battlelab integration, technology and concepts at TRADOC. "Because we do these experiments with real live troops, we're getting our insights not from laboratories, not from command staff or acquisition corps personnel, but from soldiers and leaders and commanders in the field."

Each battlelab is affiliated with specific tactical units around the country. The battlelabs are designed to investigate specific dynamics of the battlefield, such as battle command or mounted maneuver, and are not aligned with any particular organization in the Army.

"The idea [behind the battlelabs] was to think about war-fighting concepts, generate concepts for how we would do various tasks in military operations, and then conduct experiments with the concepts before you make commitments to hard requirements, such as changing your doctrine, training, leader development, equipment and materiel," Mehaffey says.

In January, officials from the four services' battlelabs planned to meet to compare programs, coordinate their efforts and share information, Mehaffey says. "This is all informal. It's not being directed by anybody."

That may soon change. In a December report, the National Defense Panel, an independent panel of experts charged with evaluating Pentagon plans in developing a post-Cold War force, criticized the Defense Department for not conducting multi-service experiments to test future joint war-fighting concepts. Service-specific innovation is critical and fosters a healthy competition between the services, the panel noted. But joint experimentation will be vital if the Defense Department is to successfully transform the military to meet future needs.

Only through joint field exercises will the services be able to solve operational problems before they occur in combat, the panel reported: "Although each service may be interested in doing experiments to examine its own role in the future, the real leverage of future capabilities from experiments is in the joint venue."

Specifically the panel recommended maximizing each of the services' battlelabs and establishing a joint battlelab to coordinate multi-service experimentation through a joint national training center.

The Army and the Marine Corps already have begun working together on issues of mutual interest and that work will continue, service officials say. Army and Marine Corps officials are informally discussing holding a major joint exercise early in 2000.

"We see a lot of advantage in leveraging off one another's work," Mehaffey says.

The Army's battlelab experiments have led to a number of innovations, not all in the Army alone. At the Dismounted Battle Space Battlelab at Fort Benning, Ga., special operations troops said they needed a better way to deliver supplies to isolated units. Parachute drops, the standard delivery method, were not precise enough and in the past had even resulted in supplies going to enemy forces.

After some initial experimentation, Army developers found a way to use advanced parafoils and global positioning systems to deliver supplies to within 100 meters of designated sites. Within a year, the system was developed and fielded. The Marine Corps will be buying the new technology as well.

"It sounds simple, and it is," says Mehaffey. But such simple solutions can have tremendous payoffs on the battlefield.

Not every idea that's tested in a battlelab results in such a direct payoff, but that too has it's own benefit, says Mehaffey.

"Instead of going from an idea to a requirement, we go from the idea to insight and then to requirements. And the insight may be that the idea is terrible."

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