Politics & Policy

MacGyvers in the Desert

Geeks in combat.

As soon as the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to hunt al Qaeda down in its caves, it starting running into the improvised explosive device. Just a few months after September 11, IEDs had become major killers — in the caves that U.S. soldiers were now scouring in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

#ad#Just as quickly, the military started to devise ways of inserting eyes and ears into the cave without also putting life and limb in with them. One solution was a remote-controlled robot. It proved too heavy, too expensive, and not entirely practical for use in caves. But it was a step in the right direction and it taught the military an important lesson. The U.S. needed a force specifically designed to counter — quickly and cheaply — the lethal innovations of an exceedingly creative enemy. That is how the Rapid Equipping Force was born.

Its commander, Colonel Gregory Tubbs, is an imposing figure who doesn’t take kindly to people who waste time. When discussing a new problem that the troops are facing, he gets anxious to “initiate movement,” as he puts it, and fast. “Wasted time,” he says, “means wounded soldiers and lost lives.”

The Rapid Equipping Force is headquartered at the improbably idyllic Fort Belvoir, a long stone’s throw from George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon on the Potomac River. But its eyes and ears in Iraq are what Colonel Tubbs calls “the Ph.Ds in theater” — engineers in Iraq such as those who work for Exponent, Inc., a company with a core competency in “catastrophic failure analysis.”

I visited the Exponent workshop at Camp Victory just outside the Baghdad International Airport. Staffed by bright young engineers in their 30s, the Ph.Ds are in constant touch with frontline troops. They not only develop cheap and user-friendly solutions to the novel problems the troops constantly face, but also escort their solutions through the problems that invariably arise in implementation. It’s called “spiral development.”

Colonel Tubbs is eager to reach outside the military for many ideas, because, as he explains, “It’s hard to solve a problem with the mindset that you created it with.” That sounds like something Rumsfeld might say, and indeed the “REF” is an example of Rumsfeldian transformation at its best.

The initial effort to develop a robot for the caves of Afghanistan ran up against many of the same obstacles that Rumsfeld constantly railed against — top-heavy bureaucracy, needlessly demanding specifications, and needless expense — and all of that, to produce a product that in the end was impractical from the common soldier’s point of view.

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But the REF has come a long ways in the few years since it started life as a special project. Many of the REF’s initiatives start life as a ten-point form that can be used to interview soldiers about a particular problem. The form asks the soldier to “summarize the problem that the lack of the widget causes”; “describe what it is that you want the widget to do, be, look like”; and to suggest existing “off the shelf” products that might be used as part of the solution.

One “widget” of which the REF is particularly proud is the MARCbot — a robot used to inspect possible IEDs on the roadways of Iraq. As one of the Ph.Ds at Exponent’s workshop in Iraq explained to me, he and his colleagues were horrified at the number of soldiers maimed and killed simply because there was often no way to inspect a possible IED other than to give it a good kick and see what happened next. Surely there had to be a way of getting a machine to do that kind of simple inspection.

The MARCbot is fiendishly simple. It uses the chassis of a common toy truck and turns that into a military lifesaver. Current models run little over $6,000 per unit (the original robot for Afghanistan was more than ten times as expensive). And what is most impressive is how quickly the team had units out in the field after they started development. Careful monitoring of the MARCbot’s performance led to a rapid improvement of the basic design. Now hundreds are in daily use.

Another crucial technology is the green laser light designed for use at military checkpoints as an alternative to lethal force. The new counterinsurgency manual posits that protecting the population a higher immediate priority than protecting the force. The manual urges troops to carefully calibrate their response in an Escalation of Force that may culminate it, but will not start with, deadly force. But in practice, deadly force is pretty much all a soldier has at his fingertips — and the in those cases the new strategy often requires that the soldier fatally do nothing instead.

For the REF, this represents a “capability gap” — there has to be something between deadly force and doing nothing. One way to get traffic to stop — other than firing warning shots (Iraqis are inured to gunfire and often don’t notice it) — is to use an unbearably intense green laser. It is another example of a device so fiendishly simple and strange that only a “Ph.D.” could have thought of it.

This video is a simulation of how the strobe/laser works, from the point of a view of a driver approaching from 300 meters. First the strobe lays down a repeating pattern at a rate shown in research to be optimal for getting noticed. Second, as the driver keeps approaching, the laser kicks in — a blindingly intense green light that makes it nearly impossible to give driving in the direction of the light source.

Some of the problems that the REF solves are things you would never think of. For example, Joint Security Stations and Combat Outposts are increasingly common in Iraq because of the new strategy of pushing out from the large bases and into the neighborhoods of Iraq. JSSs and COPs are often just large houses or police stations ringed with concrete barriers and concertina wire — and they are very exposed.

I would have thought that any off-the-shelf surveillance-camera system — such as those used at banks — would be sufficient for providing a minimum of security to a JSS or FOB. But actually, such systems are totally impractical for military use. Most important is the lack of capability. In order to be useful a military surveillance system has to have reach. In order to be effective in a tactical counterinsurgency context, the system has to be able to peer a thousand yards down alleyways, and track remote moving objects — and it has to be simple enough and rugged enough to be installed by common soldiers working in small teams in a combat environment.

I edited this “preview” from a 30-minute training video that explains how to install and use the perimeter surveillance system developed by Exponent for the REF.

The entire system — from the hardware architecture to the software tailored to it — was put together by a small team of engineers and their REF counterparts from readily available consumer technologies, in a matter of months. In fact the REF’s informal motto is “three weeks to three months.” It is an elegant and cheap life-saver.

The Ph.Ds installed the first several iterations of RDISS at JSS and COP where they were most needed — in the most hostile environments of Iraq. Working at night with night vision goggles, and often under fire, the REF’s engineers in theater have become integral parts of the military. Contractors are not always a good thing — the recent problems of Blackwater have shown, contractors that are not part of the counterinsurgency strategy can often work against it. But the collaboration of the REF and contractors such as Exponent is a model of how to advance both the counterinsurgency strategy and the broader goal of defense transformation: a force that is more agile, more lethal, and more safe.

Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Mario Loyola — Contributing editor Mario Loyola is senior fellow and Director of the Center for Competitive Federalism at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He began his career in corporate ...

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