Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD (U.S. Army) — U.S. Army civilian engineers and engineering technicians have deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, for the past two years to develop field-expedient solutions for Soldiers.
They comprise the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Field Assistance in Science and Technology-Center, or RFAST-C, a forward-deployed prototype integration facility and Energy Initiative Proving Ground.
Mike Anthony recently completed a six-month deployment in which he served as RFAST-C director. He returns to his job as the chief of the Mission Command Capabilities Division at RDECOM's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center.
In an interview with the RDECOM public affairs office, Anthony discussed how RFAST-C brings expertise of the command's scientists and engineers directly to theater to empower, unburden and protect Soldiers.
What did you anticipate before deploying as the RFAST-C director?
"I had never served in that type of role, leading a large prototype integration facility. Therefore, I had very few expectations going in, other than knowing we'd be working extremely long days, seven days a week."
What surprised you the most about your time at RFAST-C?
"The most surprising element was the OPTEMPO (operations tempo). Solutions were often fabricated in 24 hours and put directly into use on the battlefield. We had a very experienced team -- all government engineers and engineering technicians -- who were very eager to help the Soldier. On any given day, a Soldier could walk in with a sketch on a napkin. The engineers would design it using a 3D CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) model. If needed, they could reach back to CONUS (continental U.S.) engineers for an engineering assessment on the right types of materials to use or for other assistance.
Within a day or so, the Soldier would be using the field expedient solution on a critical mission. More complex things took a few more days, but solutions were delivered in hours and days, not months to years. Soldiers are going to improvise their own solutions -- we added engineering rigor to those solutions. The turnaround speed was unprecedented."
How did your career as a Department of the Army Civilian prepare you for the role of RFAST-C director?
"I'm a veteran and I have deployed before. Those experiences allowed me to jump right in, since I understood the military way of life, lingo and OPTEMPO. As a DA (Department of the Army) civilian, having a working knowledge of how the Army Materiel Command supports and enables maneuver forces made the deployment a lot easier and less of a learning curve."
What was it like leading a team of engineers and technicians to create field-expedient solutions?
"I felt I was a resource and team leader. My role was to be a coach, a mentor and help the teams get the project done as quickly and safely as possible. We had an integrated team approach with a lot of collaboration. Our engineers and engineering technicians shared an office together instead of having the engineers and technicians work separately. Often, a junior engineer is familiar with automated fabrication technologies, while a more experienced equipment technician has the ability to do everything by hand; together, they would become a dynamic and successful team. Collaboration led to developing the best solution by drawing on all resources as well as individual experience."
What did you learn from your six months in Afghanistan that you will take with to your job at CERDEC?
"It's good to unplug from your day job and gain new experiences that stretch your capabilities. Also, having the ability to work face-to-face with the end user -- typically Soldiers -- was very rewarding. The fruits of your success are put into service so the sense of accomplishment is high.
Every employee should also have the opportunity to work in that high-OPTEMPO environment for at least a limited amount of time. It's like drinking a Five-Hour Energy; the OPTEMPO is just so much higher. Deploying also puts things in perspective due to the ever-present risk factors. When you see a unit go out on a mission and not everybody returned, that helps put everything in life in perspective."
How does the RFAST-C work with the program managers at Bagram Airfield to develop solutions?
"Every case was unique. A Soldier would come in with an idea for a modification or enhancement to something that has already been fielded. We would immediately interface with the appropriate PM. There are a lot of nonstandard items out there today, so sometimes tracking down a PM was not always easy. We would talk through the proposed solution with the PM to get their approval before proceeding. For the most part, we would get the thumbs-up because the program manager is always looking to enhance their product line and always looking for operational feedback.
"Assuming a PM gave us the thumbs-up, we would fabricate and provide prototypes to the unit. We would always ask for feedback. Most times, we would get that information. Additional enhancements would then be made until we came up with something the unit was comfortable with. After iterative enhancements, when the solution was locked, we would share the entire technical package as well as feedback with the PM.
"Often we could gauge success when we would receive requests for large quantities and/or requests from multiple units for the same solution. There are numerous examples of products that PMs are now fielding, such as the CROWS [Common Remotely Operated Weapon System] lens cover, that Soldiers inspired and RFAST-C designed and fabricated."
How did working directly with Soldiers help RFAST-C produce quicker and better solutions?
"Units and personnel rotate quickly in theater. The mission changes. I sometimes describe our operations by saying we delivered solutions at the 'speed of war.' In other words, working in theater, directly with Soldiers allowed us to operate at their OPTEMPO. Receiving iterative feedback -- on a daily basis -- proved extremely valuable. I do not think this could have been accomplished without face-to-face, direct interaction on a daily basis."
What did you and your team learn from the Soldiers about their needs to successfully execute their missions?
"An 80 percent solution today or tomorrow is better than the 100 percent solution somewhere down the road. Soldiers will improvise. They'll use whatever it takes to accomplish their assigned mission. Scientists and engineers often strive for perfection back here. When you're talking about saving lives, time is critical. By adding engineering rigor, the Soldier will receive a better solution. The immediate and iterative feedback was valuable because the Soldiers were using the solution while executing their mission. Often, engineers don't have the benefit of engaged implementation, so they may be focusing on some element that adds little value to the Soldier.
We also learned to keep things simple. There is little time for training and Soldiers have been inundated with new technologies and capabilities. Things that are too complex will often go unused. So, from my perspective, Soldiers were relying on us to provide simple solutions today that addressed their immediate needs."
Do you have anything else to add?
"I think advanced greening should almost be mandatory for civilian employees. Going to a theater of operations -- living, sleeping, working and eating day in and day out -- with a unit would ultimately enhance the solutions we provide.
"Conversely we need more active duty military, enlisted and officers, in the Army R&D (research and development) community. With the Army downsizing, another alternative would be to hire more veterans. They bring so much to the table with respect to operational experience. There should be some leeway for federal managers to be able to hire someone with operational experience in an engineering organization. You need both to deliver optimal solutions.
"For example, when Soldiers would come in and ask for something, we would ask, 'Why is it important? Is it increasing operational effectiveness? Mission readiness? Increasing safety?' Really understand why they're doing what they're doing. Ask the strategic operational questions.
"Reachback to all the different RDECs (research, development and engineering centers) and PIFs really helped us do our jobs.
"I believe RDECOM just scratched the surface with R&D support to current operations with RFAST-C. We need to take the lessons from this experience and apply them to better support the next fight. In closing, I would highly recommend DA civilians deploy to develop solutions at the speed of war."
U.S. ARMY RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT AND ENGINEERING COMMAND
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army's premier provider of materiel readiness -- technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment -- to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.