Magazine article National Defense

Urgent Needs

Magazine article National Defense

Urgent Needs

Article excerpt

Army 'Rapid Equipping Force' taking root, chief says


Force - which began in 2002 as an ad hoc effort to speed equipment to soldiers - is taking root and growing, according to its director, Col. Gregory Tubbs.

After years of uncertainty, the force became a permanent organization in 2005. Based at Fort Belvoir, Va., it has been assigned to the Army's deputy chief of staff for operations and plans, and its personnel have increased from 14 in 2002 to 150 at last count.

The forces mission - unlike that of the regulator acquisition community is to identify immediate, unmet needs of combat soldiers and satisfy those requirements within 90 to 180 days. By contrast, the Army's traditional process of developing and fielding equipment can take years.

The force also differs from another Army operation, the Rapid Fielding Initiative, which strives to provide the latest equipment to soldiers before they deploy. Tubbs' organization works intently with deployed commanders and their troops to meet unforeseen requirements that pop up unexpectedly on the battlefield.

"In our work, we maintain an operational focus," he said in an interview. "We have a keen sense of urgency about the need to help these combat guys get what they need."

In 2005 alone, the rapid equipping force purchased more than 20,000 items, including robots, surveillance systems, digital translators and weapon accessories.

The agency makes many of its purchasing decisions by deploying 30 of its members in "forward teams" throughout Iraq, Afghanistan and logistics bases in Kuwait to observe combat operations and to ask commanders and their troops what they need.

It buys small quantities of the equipment and tests them at in-theater field laboratories. Finally, once gear has been issued to a unit, the forward teams interview some of the organization's troops to assess how well it works.

The process is designed to be "a turnkey operation," Tubbs said. "We cannot put a burden on the war fighter. He's already busy, and we don't want to add to his woes."

One of the force's biggest success stories is an unmanned ground vehicle called the multi-function agile radio-controlled robot, or Marcbot, said Master Sgt. Al Francis, the force's senior enlisted man. Developed in cooperation with Exponent Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif, the device is small enough and mobile enough to be used by an infantry squad. It is equipped with a camera, and can be employed to seek out and identify possible improvised explosives.

It is risky work. On average, one Marcbot is blown up every month. At a cost of about $8,000 apiece, it is also expensive, but Francis noted: "I don't have to tell you which I'd rather lose - a machine or a human being."

Another robot that is proving its utility in Iraq is a two-pound version called the Toughbot, which is used for battlefield reconnaissance.

"Soldiers can just throw it through a window, and its cameras can see what's in a room before they have to go in," Francis said.

TheToughbot, made by Omnitech Robotics of Englewood, Colo., always lands on its feet, he said. It replaces an earlier model called the Throwbot. "When we threw it up against a wall, it broke a wheel off," Tubbs said. "So we made it tougher."

The force also has deployed an unmanned aerial vehicle called the tactical mini-UAV. The TACMAV, as it is known, is small enough to fit into a soldier's rucksack and can be hand-launched.

"The TACMAV has a wingspan of less than two feet," Francis said. It has flexible nylon wings that can be wrapped around the fuselage for compact storage.

The vehicle has two color cameras, one facing forward and another facing to the side. They can take still or video images and feed them to the operator's computer.

When it can't find an off-the-shelf solution to a problem, the force sometimes invents its own equipment, Tubbs said. …

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