A CBRN-DEFENSE TOOLBOX: DR SKO, packaged in a cargo container the size of a backyard shed, is a system of sensors and protective equipment that is essentially a CBRN-defense toolbox. (Photo by JPEO-CBRND)
Virtual training concept offers users a realistic feel and sense of the product, saves costs from consumables and system damage risk, and benefits remote employees as well.
by Lt. Col. Alan Stephens, Maj. Kim Janicek, Philip Harman and Edward Conley
One of the trickier aspects of training military personnel to use protection and identification equipment against deadly weapons is the ability to train without using the capability. When you’re the Dismounted Reconnaissance Sets Kits and Outfits (DR SKO) product office and your business is chemical and biological defense, you have to get creative, particularly during a pandemic.
DR SKO, which rhymes with low and is pronounced “Doctor Sko,” resides within the Joint Project Manager for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Sensors at the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND).
DR SKO is a system of sensors and protective equipment that is a CBRN-defense toolbox packaged in a beige cargo container the size of a backyard shed. It’s a suite of highly technical and expensive commercial off-the-shelf instrumentation and protective equipment. It provides specific feedback to the operator based on the threat, covering the gamut of biological threats, toxic chemicals, chemicals covered in the Chemical Warfare Convention, and nontraditional threats like the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. The detector equipment is particularly expensive because of the complexity of the electronics within each of the devices, and the quantity of different devices required to conduct CBRN sensitive site assessment missions across the full range of military operations. An additional complexity to the DR SKO portfolio is that it is delivered to all four services with 10 tailored configurations specific to their user and mission.
As one can imagine, it is nearly impossible to train real-world-relevant chemical and biological warfare threats with a real chemical and biological agent. It is both exceedingly dangerous and cost prohibitive. Instead, training teams design scenarios that look like real-world events and interject to the operator what their device feedback “should” look like. Picture this: You’re rehearsing in a warehouse with all of your gear, and you come across some basic high school chemistry laboratory equipment. Your trainer now leans over to you and says, “Now your Joint Chemical Agent Detector is alarming for an overload condition of sulfur mustard”—hard to train when you’re responding to an instructor’s commands versus the actual device showing the actual alarm. Although training challenges are not new to the DR SKO team, the travel restrictions imposed under COVID-19’s deadly grip offered opportunity to win broader support to execute plans that may not have been possible otherwise.
SWEET NEW SUITE
The team, in coordination with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Aviation & Missile Center, turned to two separate breakthroughs: proliferation of mobile device capabilities and 3D-printing technologies, resulting in the creation of the DR SKO Mobile Synthetic Training Suite (DMSTS). The combination of these technologies enables warfighters to train using 3D-fabricated proxy detector devices in real-world environments and experience the same feedback as though they were using the real device. The haptic feedback and visual feel of the response is just like the real device. The trainers are able to use Bluetooth beacon technology to provide a more realistic detection signal to the devices in lieu of having the training personnel verbally indicate an “alarm,” further enhancing training realism. Now, instead of your trainer telling you that your Joint Chemical Agent Detector is overloaded with sulfur mustard, you see and hear a proxy device alarming to sulfur mustard because the Bluetooth beacon is broadcasting itself as “sulfur mustard” and you are in range of its signal.
Months before the pandemic crippled the country, the DMSTS capability was already working its way through acquisition program hurdles. The purpose was to reduce the warfighter’s cost to train on the equipment. However, the biggest challenge was convincing a service to participate in this grand experiment because as an enterprise no one had ever attempted to conduct materiel fielding and training completely remotely. The U.S. Air Force was a logical choice because its kit configuration is the least complex, it could prove out the concepts, and it could provide good feedback. Air Force user representatives accepted the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of this training and allowed the DR SKO team to pilot the new virtual training efforts with two days of inventory and handoff and three days of new equipment training, which was all conducted virtually.
Although the ability to train more cheaply and more frequently is being realized, there are greater opportunities for this virtual ability as well. These opportunities did not become apparent until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel for new equipment training. Many assumed that the travel restrictions would gradually relax, but the restrictions remained an ongoing coordination issue.
The pandemic halted travel to fielding and training events from March 2020 through July 2020, and halted again in January 2021. Fielding schedules quickly became unachievable, and operational capability delivery goals risked not being met. The DR SKO team, in collaboration with the fielding team—collocated within JPM CBRN Sensors—initiated a review of fielding and training plans to identify the key elements required to develop and implement virtual plans.
Fielding events are complex, requiring significant coordination and planning. They also encompass transfer of property from the program office to the unit responsible for performing the mission. The new equipment and the doctrine and tactics training also can be complex. The team’s partners at TACOM total package fielding helped develop the virtual property and inventory management aspects. It ensures all property is transferred in accordance with current regulations. The training team updated lesson plans to be more amenable to the virtual environment and forged the way to use virtual classrooms in this new collaboration environment.
Having a solid plan was only part of the solution. The execution also required resolve and finesse. The first site selected by the USAF to pilot this virtual training was in Guam. The equipment was already in place, as it had been shipped for in-person training that was canceled because of the COVID-19 travel restrictions. With a 15-hour time difference, it was not an easy first challenge for virtual training, but the team successfully coordinated and executed training while accommodating the massive time difference. The team also gathered lessons learned, which were implemented in the next two events, executed in Germany. The lessons were then formalized into part of the virtual training plan.
COVID-19 and these initial fielding events paved the way for DR SKO to accept the unique opportunity to continue fielding virtually, and gain back some lost schedule stolen by earlier travel restrictions. Some sites may still require in-person fielding because of possible operational tempo or technology concerns. One of the key lessons learned was that the personnel receiving the training would benefit from additional detection devices for the hands-on portions of the training.
Additionally, the team demonstrated the DMSTS to both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army CBRN School, which highlighted its improvement to training realism during situational training exercises, its ease of use, and the savings that will be achieved. The two communities are investigating how to formally integrate the capability into their institutional training plans. The training teams for DR SKO are planning to integrate the DMSTS to augment their training for the services, including procuring additional DMSTS to send forward as part of virtual training and fielding. The program office is currently coordinating with the PEO for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (STRI) to ensure the DMSTS is available at the unit level and sustainable.
With continued success, the DR SKO team is exploring methods to conduct virtual fielding for the other services As a result of the resolve and ingenuity of hard-working Soldiers and civilians of the JPEO-CBRND, the DR SKO team made three units operationally ready for their missions. They continue to overcome the challenges imposed by the pandemic environment, while also accelerating operational readiness for all users who were delayed gaining the DR SKO because of the pandemic. As a bonus, the transition to virtual training significantly reduces the risk of COVID infection, which tends to spread because of travel. The tireless efforts of the combined JPEO team ensure that warfighters from all services are operationally ready to conduct their CBRN defense missions.
For more information, go to https://asc.army.mil/web/portfolio-item/cbd-cbrn-dr-sko/.
LT.COL. ALAN STEPHENS is the joint product manager for Reconnaissance and Platform Integration at JPEO-CBRND. He holds an M.S. in systems engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School and a B.S. in civil engineering from the University of Alabama. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps (AAC) and is Level III certified in program management.
MAJ. KIM JANICEK supports JPEO-CRND as the executive officer to the joint program executive officer. Before this role, she served as assistant product manager for DR SKO in JPM CBRN Sensors. She holds an M.S. in systems engineering management from the Naval Postgraduate School and B.S. degrees in anthropology and in political science from the University of Utah. She is Level III certified in program management and Level II certified in contracting.
PHILLIP HARMAN is the team lead for DR SKO System Modernization within JPEO-CBRND. He holds a M.S. in engineering management, a certificate of professional studies in cybersecurity policy, and a B.S. in mechanical engineering, all from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is a member of the AAC and is Level III certified in engineering, Level II certified in program management, and Level I certified in test and evaluation.
EDWARD CONLEY is the program manager for the CBRN Dismounted Reconnaissance System within the JPEO-CBRND. He has worked within the CBRN community in various capacities developing and fielding CBRN equipment throughout his career. Conley holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Delaware and is Level III certified in program management and in engineering.