Rapid Reaction

From socks to rifle scopes, the Army is moving new equipment to soldiers faster than ever.

An Army might march on its stomach, but good boots and navigation equipment sure help. When soldiers deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, they lacked both. It wasn't long before commanders started hearing complaints about boots shredding under the stress of the mountainous terrain and families started getting requests for care packages that included Global Positioning System receivers. The soldiers might have been trained for their mission, but they weren't well equipped for it.

Rapid isn't a word most people associate with Army procurement, so the service's leaders decided to bypass the traditional acquisition system, creating the optimistically named Rapid Fielding Initiative in 2003. While speed is a relative term, by all accounts RFI has shaved years off the time it takes to get needed equipment to the field. Once the need for a particular item is identified, requests can be met in a matter of weeks in most cases. By the end of September, the program had distributed more than 750,000 "kits" to soldiers that included everything from boots (Gore-Tex-lined for Afghanistan-bound troops or breathable for desert-bound troops) to binoculars and multiband radios.

The program continues to evolve as the Army culls lessons from ongoing combat operations, says Col. Michael Bonheim, program director for the Rapid Fielding Initiative. The initial kits contained just over a dozen items when the Army began fielding them in late 2003; today they include nearly 60 items.

While many of the items soldiers wanted-rifle scopes, moisture-wicking undergarments, more comfortable and effective helmets-were already in the Army's inventory, they weren't available in large enough quantities to give to all deploying troops. Or if they were available in sufficient quantities, the Army wasn't aware of it and didn't have an effective system for distributing the goods where they were most needed, Bonheim says.

During the Cold War, the Army fielded soldiers' gear by installation through a sequential process, but deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq did not follow any established sequence. Under the RFI program, mobile distribution teams visit an average of 14 installations a month and distribute about 24,000 kits. In addition, two fielding sites in Afghanistan and Kuwait field about 1,000 kits a month to soldiers who are deployed individually, as opposed to with units.

Many of the items provided under the Rapid Fielding Initiative improve survivability as well as comfort. For example, the Army recently began sending out a new type of earplug that protects the ear drum without jeopardizing a soldier's situational awareness-which can make a life-and-death difference on combat patrol. Too often, commanders reported that troops were removing their earplugs to better hear what was going on around them, or because the plugs were too uncomfortable. Besides being more effective, the new earplugs are smaller and easier to wear, factors Army leaders hope will reduce hearing loss among soldiers.

The challenge, Bonheim says, will be sustaining the program, which is slated to end Sept. 30, 2007. Army leaders now are discussing ways to extend it in the 2008 budget. "In some ways, the program is a victim of its success" and the heightened expectations it has brought for buying and moving equipment quickly, Bonheim says. In August, the program office solicited proposals from commercial firms for renewable and hybrid energy systems, which the service hopes to begin testing in the field soon.

As materials and gear continue to improve, demands for new equipment will only grow, Bonheim says. And for him, the mission is more than a professional duty: His son, now a second lieutenant in the Army, will get his RFI kit at the end of the year.

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