Army civilian engineers team with Soldiers in Afghanistan
By Dan Lafontaine
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — U.S. Army civilian engineers are deploying to Afghanistan along with Soldiers to resolve issues that hinder mission success in theater.
The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command Field Assistance in Science and Technology-Center, or RFAST-C, Prototype Integration Facility brings the expertise of seven engineers and two technicians directly to the battlefield, Don Jones, the team's executive officer, said in an interview from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
LINKING SOLDIERS, ENGINEERS TO DEVELOP SOLUTIONS
"It's the direct interface between the engineer, the machinist and the Soldier with the need that is the big difference here," Jones said. "That's the key to this operation -- the engineers here who can talk to the [Soldier] face-to-face, get a clear understanding of what the requirement is, and work with the machinists to make it.
"It's hours and days versus weeks and months. They talk with the person with the requirement and say, 'Is this it?' They say 'yes' or make a small change."
The facility is located within the 401st Army Field Support Brigade on Bagram Airfield. RFAST-C is part of the overall materiel enterprise, and the team works with joint and Army organizations, including Joint Task Force Paladin, which counters improvised explosive devices; Joint Program Office Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected Vehicles; Army Rapid Equipping Force; and Army Asymmetric Warfare Group.
RFAST-C Director Mark Oetken said a minor engineering fix can make a significant improvement for the Soldier.
"When [Soldiers] get the equipment in their hands over here, they identify what to the casual observer might seem to be small issues," Oetken said. "Those issues actually have a huge impact on their ability to execute the missions.
"Sometimes just making a bracket a little taller or extending it away from the vehicle a little bit mitigates a big problem that they're having."
Jones said the RFAST-C breaks down barriers and allows the end-users to talk with the engineers who have the expertise to improve their equipment and vehicles.
"Most requests come from enlisted Soldiers or [noncommissioned officers] who are actually working with the equipment," Jones said. "They'll come up with ideas. They'll hear about us.
"We brief a lot of senior officers, [members of Senior Executive Service], and sergeants major. They tell their folks to come see us."
One of RFAST-C's greatest benefits is the ability to overcome obstacles created by the nine time zones and 7,000 miles that separate stateside Army engineers and technicians from Soldiers in the Middle East, Oetken said.
"We understand it much better, and we can react to it much better. Most of the things would never make it back to [the United States]. It's a very effective way to identify and solve problems," Oetken said.
RFAST-C's engineers and technicians use press brakes, lathe machines, laser scanners, water jet machines, vertical milling machines, band saws and welding machines for engineering, designing and fabricating equipment upgrades.
The size and variety of the team's equipment provides another unique capability in theater, Oetken said.
IMPROVED TOOLS FOR INVESTIGATING POSSIBLE IEDs
Jones said a common request is to modify equipment for the ongoing counter-improvised explosive device, or IED, mission. RFAST-C has developed three items with explosive ordnance disposal teams and JTF Paladin in support of this effort.
The team built a hootie hook, a 6-inch-long hook with a grip device on the end that allows the TALON Robot to dig in the dirt to uncover command wires or interrogate an area that might contain an IED. EOD teams in Regional Command-Southwest requested the modification.
Jones said the RFAST-C team designed the prototype, and an RDECOM PIF in the United States is building the hooks for JTF Paladin to issue to Soldiers across Afghanistan.
"It's relatively simple and easy to make, [but it] makes a significant impact," Jones said.
Oetken said RFAST-C also developed a hybrid hook for the U.S. Marine Corps to investigate possible IEDs. The team re-engineered three tools into a single item that performed the same functions.
The third request, a plastic training mine to help train EOD personnel, demonstrated RFAST-C's reachback capability to RDECOM's research centers in the United States, Jones said. Because RFAST-C does not have a plastic-injection capability, RDECOM's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at APG reverse-engineered a sample training mine and is building more for JTF Paladin.
"Linking to the PIFs in the rear gives us additional capability," Jones said. "Here on the ground we have the engineer-to-Soldier interface. Going back to the rear, we have engineer-to-engineer interface.
"We have the same modeling equipment here. We can draw on the entire RDECOM enterprise to assist as needed."
'VERY SIMPLE MODIFICATIONS MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE'
Oetken said another recurring request from Soldiers is for minor modifications to vehicles. The RFAST-C completed improvements to the mine-resistant, ambush-protected All-Terrain Vehicle, commonly known as the MATV.
Small changes to the MATV's headlights and go-lights mounted on the top of the vehicle significantly helped Soldiers, he said.
"If [the lights] shine on the [rocket-propelled grenade] nets when [Soldiers are] driving, there is a reflection back into the eyes of the Soldiers," he said. "The combination of the reflection into their eyes, as well as the nets shaking as they're driving, disorients them. In some cases it creates dizziness."
The team designed a headlight shroud that fits over the headlights. The fix does not require permanent modifications to the vehicle and screws on using existing hardware. It focuses the light in a much narrower beam while maintaining good visibility and minimizing reflection.
For the go-lights, Oetken said the engineers increased the height of the bracket so the lights do not shine down into the front of the RPG net; they shine over it.
"We came up with two very simple solutions that make all the difference in the world to them," he said.
'BREAKING NEW GROUND'
Oetken said RFAST-C's success stems from the RDECOM engineers and technicians who volunteer for deployment, as well as 401st AFSB Commander Col. Michel Russell, who has provided the facility and the opportunity to interact with visiting dignitaries.
The current RFAST-C roster includes: Oetken, Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center; Jones, ARDEC; engineer Rafael Hernandez, Army Research Laboratory; engineer Bryan Anderson, ARDEC; Nick Battaglia, RDECOM headquarters; engineer Greg Dogum, Army Materiel Systems Analysis Activity; engineer Matthew Collins, Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center; technician Glen Weatherell, Edgewood Chemical Biological Center; and technician Frank Suydam; ARDEC.
Oetken said the team has received positive feedback from high-ranking visitors and strong support in order to become a fully operational engineering and prototyping center.
"RDECOM has never forward deployed this kind of capability. We are breaking new ground," Oetken said. "We are a proof of principle to determine if this is a value-added, cost-effective way of supporting the Soldier.
"All indicators are that it's a success. We are providing a service that makes a difference to a lot of Soldiers in the field."