Need a capability? The 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne takes a DIY, every-Soldier-an-innovator approach.
by Maj. Tyrone Streifel and Mr. Michael Bold
The 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) must be prepared to deploy anywhere in the world, ready to engage an enemy within 36 hours of being called. The command’s vision is always to generate speed, agility and security during combat operations, which is a central ethos of the Screaming Eagle culture. There are uncertainties and risks involved in preparing to oppose an unknown peer or near-peer adversary, but counterbalancing those is the confidence that the 101st’s Soldiers have in their equipment readiness and their competitive advantages over the enemy. So how does a highly specialized organization like the 101st Airborne Division stay at the cutting edge of warfare?
The commander of the 101st’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team (3rd BCT) is attempting to answer this question. Col. John Cogbill has successfully integrated innovation into the entire BCT by inspiring subordinate leaders to embrace his vision of a “culture of innovation” and to create a force of “innovation insurgents.”
Organizations that strive to maintain a “fight tonight” status don’t have the luxury to wait for new equipment fielding through the Army’s usual processes for acquisition and new equipment training. The reality is that in this era of globalization, our adversaries have access to technologically advanced capabilities. That’s why Cogbill has encouraged a “do it yourself” approach in the 3rd BCT.
Cogbill was a senior military fellow at Stanford University in 2016 when Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, former Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) director Peter Newell and retired Army Special Forces Col. Joe Felter conducted their first “Hacking for Defense” class, in which teams of students innovate to find solutions to real-world national security problems. Cogbill served as an adviser and spent a lot of time interacting with innovators Newell and Felter. Hacking for Defense, commonly called H4D, has since spread to nearly a dozen universities nationwide. The Office of Naval Research has made H4D part of its Naval Innovation Process Adoption, and Defense Acquisition University has initiated a pilot class. Next year seven more colleges and universities will adopt H4D, including the U.S. Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School.
Innovation within DOD, Cogbill said in an interview, is typically at the strategic level—inside the Pentagon, the program executive offices, the new Army Rapid Capabilities Office or the REF—where there’s access to the acquisition process and dollars. But innovation at the tactical level—brigade or lower—must identify capability gaps and leverage the experience of those closest to the problems: junior officers, noncommissioned officers, even privates.
Cogbill seeks to get people “who normally have nothing to do with acquisition” involved in the innovation process, noting that tip-of-the-spear outfits like the 3rd BCT can’t wait five to seven years for a capability to come through the normal process.
FOCUSING THE EFFORT
In the nine months since Cogbill took command of the Rakkasans (a Japanese term meaning falling umbrella), his initiatives have led to the 3rd BCT holding multiple internal innovation conferences, starting numerous working groups to solve complex problems using the Army Design Methodology, and hosting a mission-command innovation conference with over 30 commercial vendors offering cutting-edge technological products. The mission-command conference also provided the opportunity to focus discussion on a specific problem set: how the Army can effectively exercise command and control against peer or near-peer adversaries on a multidomain battlefield.
The 3rd BCT’s communications team developed two solutions:
Brigade tactical actions center—Like most tactical operations centers in the Army, the 3rd BCT’s has multiple tents, generators and vehicles that span an area the size of a football field. The goal of the 3rd BCT communications team was to reduce this footprint and to develop a more agile and expeditionary command post. Searching the Army surplus system, the team found the Expeditionary Lightweight Air Mobile shelter. Weighing 10,000 pounds and with a payload capacity of 4,500 pounds, the shelter was quick to set up, could be used in air assault and was mobile once on the ground. The communications team installed racks mounted on shock absorbers to hold the BCT’s communications gear, and mounted common operating picture screens to the front of the equipment rack, providing all the services currently offered in the tactical command post in a fraction of the space. Because the communications equipment is already in place, the expeditionary battlefield command post can be set up and working in a matter of minutes.
Mission Command Augmentation Support (MCAS)—The MCAS trims the current tactical operations center command post by placing the network operations suite, the battle command server suite, intelligence functions and other key enabling warfighter assets, both equipment (tents, computers, servers) and personnel, in a secure location, far from the battlefield. The MCAS site provides a cloud-based service architecture that is permanently accessible by any BCT node, increasing availability and reliability to the warfighter. MCAS has the added benefit of conducting uninterrupted cyberspace and intelligence operations, and in the future it may serve as a mission command continuity-of-operations site for the BCT. MCAS provides the commander with the flexibility to tailor the command post to each individual mission set. Moreover, regardless of whether the BCT’s tactical operations center is jumping locations, experiences equipment failure or is destroyed by enemy action, these functions will remain available to the rest of the BCT.
FISHING FOR SOLUTIONS
The 3rd BCT’s innovations didn’t stop there. Among others are a $20 improvised high-frequency antenna, new applications for 3D printing and a smartphone app for motor pool inventory.
The current Army high-frequency antenna is the AS-2259/GR, weighing just under 15 pounds. It’s bulky to carry, takes 20 to 30 minutes to erect, requires time-intensive training and costs $1,127. The 3rd BCT Dismounted Reconnaissance Troop used a telescoping fishing pole, a balun (an electrical device that converts between a balanced and unbalanced signal), a coaxial cable, a stabilizer and radio cable to produce an antenna that weighs less than 8 pounds, is over 10 feet shorter than the AS-2259/GR and can be used with multiple frequencies. It requires less training and costs about $20 per antenna.
“You can bet your bottom dollar that if we’re deployed, we’re taking fishing poles with us,” Cogbill said.
To explore the military benefits of 3D printing, 2nd Lt. Andrew Shaughnessy of the 3rd BCT’s Field Artillery Battalion approached Vanderbilt University’s Design Studio—where students can build projects for both class and personal interests—to create a partnership. “With the robust equipment and sustainment requirements inherent to a field artillery battalion such as ours, we believe that leveraging relatively inexpensive, highly flexible and immediately responsive 3D printers can greatly flatten our logistics tail at a very low cost,” said Lt. Col. Joe Katz, the field artillery battalion commander.
Initial prototypes from Vanderbilt’s studio include a basic firing pin wrench (produced for 80 cents, versus the normal $22.06 price tag) and communication parts, vehicle attachments and various applications for howitzers. According to Katz, 3D printing “is easily scalable and has a vast array of applications in either a garrison or field environment. Three-D printing is relatively new to the military, and it has yet to make its way down to lower-level tactical Army units. Our intent is to move this innovative process forward within our sphere of influence and lead the way for other brigades to follow.”
To improve motor pool inventory, one company executive officer created a smartphone app for tracking equipment that proved to be much more efficient than the Army’s method. The app can track the maintenance status for unlimited amounts of unit equipment; overall mission capability status (non-mission capable or fully mission capable); date and time of reported use; and all types of specific faults (i.e., front-left tire flat, back-right taillight out, left-side fender severely bent, passenger seat belt does not retract).
EVERY SOLDIER AN INNOVATOR
“We encourage every Soldier to feel like you’re part of the solution,” Cogbill said. As the tactical action center was taking shape, he held a “petting zoo” day where everyone could look at it and make suggestions. Another initiative was an “open mic night,” where lieutenants and sergeants could tell 3rd BCT leadership what problems they thought needed attention. No one was forced to attend, said Cogbill, adding that he was seeking “a coalition of the willing.” Soldiers should be thinking about solutions to problems every time they go into the field, he said. “We want you to identify the gaps.”
As the tactical action center concept was coming together using the Expeditionary Lightweight Air Mobile shelter, the communications team was reaching out to other units and organizations for ideas on how to reduce the command post footprint. They discovered that a sister brigade had tested a light command post from the U.S. Army Communications-Electronic Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). The Lightweight Mobile Command Post, which had been returned to CERDEC, was soon on its way back to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, beginning a new partnership between CERDEC and the 3rd BCT.
“The government research and development community, as well as industry, look to partner with units, where they are willing to assist in proofs of concepts and experimentation without negatively impacting existing unit training,” said Brad McNeilly-Anta, a team lead with CERDEC’s Command, Power and Integration Directorate. “Ideally, we are able to use an iterative process, with modifications and improvements made to the capability based on the unit feedback. There is a near-term benefit to the unit as they can refine their command post implementations, as well as the longer-term benefit to assist in the transition of capabilities from industry and the research and development community to the Army’s program offices.”
The partnership between the 3rd BCT and CERDEC has tested multiple systems, including:
- A Soldier-carried battlefield tracker called JCR (Joint Capabilities Release) Manpack.
- A biofuel generator that has reduced noise output and can run on a biosolution, potentially reducing the Soldier’s total battery weight burden by half.
- A battle command common-services expeditionary platform in the form of a ruggedized Getac laptop, with the capacity to host the entire server infrastructure required to operate the tactical command post. This laptop also provides the ability to set up and tear down the server infrastructure in the time it takes for the laptop to boot up, versus the 45 minutes it takes to set up the contents of four four-man-carry containers of equipment.
- Radio-frequency transparent camouflage netting, used to conceal tactical communications equipment that traditionally has been left uncovered.
By unleashing his innovation insurgents, Cogbill has made innovation central to the 3rd BCT’s ability to “fight tonight.” While Army acquisition works on more permanent solutions to field needed capabilities, innovators in the 3rd BCT are finding solutions to those problems today.
“I believe Col. Cogbill has opened the doors for innovation simply by taking an active interest in its development,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ronnie Eriksson, a member of the BCT’s communications team. “From a combat support perspective, it is rare to find a commander at the tactical level that places emphasis on innovation. It also feels good knowing that the work you are doing will be recognized and appreciated.”
MAJ. TYRONE STREIFEL is senior communications officer with the 3rd BCT of the 101st Airborne Division. He holds an M.S. in cyber security from Utica College, an M.A. in defense and strategy studies from the U.S. Naval War College and a B.S. in economics from Texas A&M University.
MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer/editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a B.J. in journalism from the University of Missouri.
This article will be published in the July – September 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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