Devising ways to aid soldiers in the field

APG-based team develops battlefield technologies

April 12, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Soldiers threatened by roadside bombs are traveling Iraqi streets somewhat more safely now with armor-equipped Humvees - and they have a new research command at Aberdeen Proving Ground to thank.

Some of the latest technology used on the battlefield has come from the research centers and labs that fall within the command: slat armor for wheeled Stryker vehicles, a robotic bomb detector and handheld "phraseolator" that scans and flags important foreign-language documents quickly.

For the approximately 30,000 workers in the Research, Development and Engineering Command, the mission is straightforward: Work smarter and faster to get needed technology into the hands of soldiers quickly.

"Simple in words, tough to execute," said Maj. Gen. John C. Doesburg, 56, a three-decade veteran who is the head of the command.

For a bureaucracy like the Army - which has been undergoing a massive makeover in recent years to become smaller, swifter and more lethal - learning to share information and research was still a rather novel idea, say military watchers.

Yet when soldiers entered Afghanistan and Iraq, the new threats they faced forced the Army's brass to speed up plans to retool its research and development.

"There were some immediate problems out there," Doesburg said, including reams of documents that could be related to weapons programs, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. "Soldiers were dying every day."

RDECOM was instituted as the Army's newest command last month. It has a $3.5 billion budget and employs more than 30,000 military and civilian workers at nine labs and research centers across the country. Three are in Maryland: the Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, and the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center and Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity, both at APG.

"It's trying to create a one-stop shop, from concept to handing off something to a soldier and logistically supporting it in the field," said James Jay Carafano, a retired lieutenant colonel who is a senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.

The Army drew inspiration for its new command from the business world and the information technology revolution, he said.

"R & D is a very boutique effort," Carafano said. Before RDECOM, "everybody was responsible for producing their own pieces, from field artillery to armor. ... There's a movement [now] in the defense world to develop systems."

Doesburg said the new command enables him to issue memoranda of agreement with private industry and work with university researchers to try to draw out the most cutting-edge technology for the battlefield.

That broader vision is allowing researchers to work together to solve problems much faster - with Doesburg at the top, scanning for the best vehicle, radio, protective equipment or artillery piece for the job.

The savings come not only in project costs but in the number of technologies soldiers have to learn to use.

"The Army started going through a massive change even without the global war on terrorism," said retired Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army, a nonprofit advocacy group. "It needed to change how it operates."

Central to these changes is technology, Stroup said. "The power of the microchip has eclipsed what had previously been the domain of plain old metal benders."

He said the new command "hasn't taken down any labs. What it has done is broken down walls [blocking] communication."

So when insurgents began picking off canvas-sided Humvees with improvised roadside bombs, Doesburg's researchers got to work on easy-to-attach armor.

The Army Research Lab, based in Adelphi, and the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in Warren, Mich., developed a method to roll steel plates effectively and craft them into door kits and side panels.

Although there has been controversy over how quickly the armor kits got into the field, the turnaround time from assignment to initial production was 30 days, according to Doesburg.

"He's got a mind like a steel trap and a vision over the hill when it comes to developing and fielding future technologies for the soldiers and units on the battlefield," Stroup said of Doesburg.

The Internet, Stroup added, has helped draw researchers together from around the country - creating an added challenge for Doesburg to hold all these groups together. Because of his frequent electronic communiques, the wiry and affable paratrooper has earned the nickname around APG of "the Virtual General."

Doesburg has dispatched support teams to help soldiers looking for weapons in Iraq; attended meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the war effort and homeland defense; and communicated with researchers around the world to learn about their technologies.

And he still logs lots of travel time as he oversees the command's work.

"I have Blackberries and cell phones and everything else," Doesburg said. "If anybody had told me I would be this busy three years ago, I would have said, `That's impossible.'"

The University of Oklahoma chemistry graduate, who worked for years at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the extra effort is important in a climate that pushes workers to get projects done and on the battlefield.

"People need that face-to-face contact," he said.

The mission's credibility is enhanced, he added, "when I can turn to someone and say, `I saw it being tested and I know it works.'"

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