Transforming the Army

APG: Harford installation tests new equipment, from 3-D computers to trackless tanks, for the next generation of soldiers.

January 03, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The hill in the center of Aberdeen Proving Ground's Munson Test Area offers a bird's-eye view of an army in transformation:

In the distance, an older M1 tank shares the test track with a new Stryker trackless armored vehicle, rattling over washboard-rough stretches and maneuvering through 9 miles of twisting roads.

Since the Army announced its plan about three years ago to become lighter, faster and more lethal, APG's scientists, engineers and mathematicians, along with mechanics, technicians and other workers, have been working on designs to revamp the way the military fights and wins wars. The Stryker is one manifestation of that effort.

The proving ground, which opened in Harford County in 1917 as a chemical warfare research center, is using cutting-edge technology, from computers that can perform 7.1 trillion math operations per second to a simulator that puts soldiers on a multidirectional treadmill in front of 3-D screens to measure their ability to perform tasks in the field.

The Army's transformation comes in three stages: improving the older, heavier equipment, or "legacy force"; deploying a lighter "interim force" that can move more quickly into the field; and developing a high-tech "objective force" that would be deployed a little more than a decade from now.

Because the program covers so many areas throughout the Army, no total cost estimates are available, military spokesmen say. But for the 2003 fiscal year alone, procurement, research and development, testing and evaluation will run a little over $20 billion.

"Aberdeen and the Developmental Test Command are in the middle of this," said Brian M. Simmons, technical director of the test command. He said they are working two shifts and 20 hours a day lately, especially on Stryker vehicle testing, which is supposed to last until September.

"We are working as fast as we can to get this vehicle ready," Simmons said.

One can spend an entire day at Aberdeen and only scratch the surface of what is in the works.

The Army's developmental testing and chemical, nuclear and biological defense commands are here, as well as about 60 other groups working not only on the transformation of military technology but on the needs of a force faced with a possible war in Iraq and homeland defense.

A few examples:

An advanced welding shop on the post helped develop containers that the Federal Aviation Administration can use to detonate suspicious luggage.

Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center researchers have devised environmentally friendly chemical and biological decontaminants, and have helped civilian first-responders develop standards for protective masks and filters.

And the U.S. Army Edgewood Research Development and Engineering Center's computer-aided engineering team recently designed and produced - in just 28 days - an easy-to-move chemical-nuclear-biological air monitoring trailer for commercial use.

For years, agencies on the post didn't know what other tenants were doing. But all that changed in the 1990s, when cuts in the military compelled agencies to forge partnerships that could help them sell their research talents to private corporations.

Today, these partnerships are vital to amass the kind of research power needed to meet the Army's vision of a technologically superior fighting force.

"You just can't do it independently anymore," said Charles J. Nietubicz, director of the Army Research Laboratory's Major Shared Resource Center.

Nietubicz said the center is using the 15th-most powerful computer in the world to develop complex research methods for such diverse uses as weather forecasting on the battlefield, rating armor effectiveness against depleted-uranium bullets and protecting chemical weapons stored in bunkers.

Engineers are also nearing completion of a three-dimensional computer display with screens 40 feet wide and 8 feet tall that will close around researchers as they stand on another screen.

On a gray December morning atop the hill at the 150-acre Munson Test Area, a Stryker medical evacuation vehicle is parked halfway up a 60-degree incline.

Testers are examining the brakes and seals for leaks and failure. They are about 10 percent of the way through the 30,000-mile tests of the Strykers, which are the first armored vehicles that run on rubber wheels instead of circular tracks.

The vehicles are critical to the interim force Stryker Brigade Combat Teams that the Army is assembling and training to deploy in 96 hours anywhere around the world.

They are lighter and faster than tanks: Stryker's top speed is about 70 mph, compared with a tank's 40 mph. Strykers use the same 8-wheel-drive chassis for a variety of bodies, from troop transporters to missile launchers to mobile medical facilities.

"We're very focused on always watching the bottom line for the customer - better, faster, cheaper - because Department of Defense customers have less and less money," said Gary Schultz, a mechanical engineer who is developing a $40 million heavy-vehicle roadway simulator at the proving ground.

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