THE VIRTUAL FUTURE: 1st Sgt. Michael Weaver, 1-31st Field Artillery Battalion, 434th Field Artillery Brigade, uses virtual reality to take an early look at components of the Army’s new prototype LRHW at the Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence, to help influence how the system is designed. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
Soldier-centered design drives RCCTO prototype development, obtaining early and frequent feedback from the Soldiers who best understand their uses.
by Nancy Jones-Bonbrest and Jessica Salmon
A ground-launched hypersonic weapon with strategic reach. A Soldier-worn sensor for electronic warfare. A high-energy laser mounted on a Stryker.
Though vastly different in technology and scope, these efforts have a common, critical thread: Soldier-centered design. This concept uses formal and informal Soldier touch points to obtain early feedback to influence design and ensure an operationally effective weapon system. Soldier-centered design has made significant contributions to these and other prototyping projects now underway at the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO).
Long-range hypersonic weapons are on track for fielding to the first Army battery in fiscal year 2023. Developers are using virtual and augmented reality to allow Soldiers to walk around and “touch” the system. This virtual interaction with proposed hardware allows for early design changes that would be costly and time-consuming to make once the prototype is built.
In the case of the new wearable electronic sensor, which is designed to alert Soldiers quickly when electronic jamming or spoofing is detected, operational users are embedded with a development team and empowered to make recommendations for improvements that are often implemented in real-time during field exercises. This effort, planned to field in 15 months, is a result of the first RCCTO Innovation Day.
And for the Army’s first-ever directed energy weapon, a Stryker vehicle equipped with a prototype 50 kilowatt (kW)-class laser, Soldiers are using a surrogate platform—a Stryker with a 10kW-class laser—to influence the design, tactics, techniques and procedures for this emerging capability well in advance of fielding in fiscal year 2022.
As the RCCTO develops these and other prototypes under accelerated timelines, close and recurring collaboration with Soldiers is imperative to ensure they deliver residual combat capabilities that meets users’ needs. Many of these prototypes are predecessors to programs of record. Soldier feedback enables the design to mature before the capability is fielded on a broader scale, reducing programmatic risk for the program of record.
Even amid COVID-19 social distancing and work restrictions, the RCCTO has executed Soldier touch points to continue the feedback cycle. As technology evolves at an ever-increasing pace, Soldier-centered design is the new reality for development if an accelerated timeline is to be met and a fielded weapon system is to remain relevant.
HYPERSONICS AND MIXED REALITY
In the blink of an eye, a multi-ton truck and trailer were flipped on their side to reveal what was underneath. Secured equipment moved locations in seconds instead of hours. A bird’s eye view revealed needed fixes and options for change.
This experience unfolded in January, when Soldiers from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, used virtual reality to take their first look at the Army’s prototype Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW). This was the first of many planned Soldier-focused evaluations intended to influence system design.
The LRHW prototype, developed by the RCCTO Army Hypersonic Project Office (AHPO), is scheduled for delivery no later than fiscal year 2023. This new class of ultrafast, maneuverable, long-range missiles will launch from mobile ground platforms, utilizing existing Army stock.
Continuous Soldier-centered design feedback will be critical to successful fielding and operation. The RCCTO AHPO has partnered with the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill to execute virtual Soldier-centered design for critical developmental items and the Army Multi-Domain Targeting Center, also at Fort Sill, for execution of virtual mission planning.
With an aggressive development plan, the Army isn’t waiting for Soldier input until after hardware is designed and built. Instead, it is mitigating risk by teaming with industry partners and utilizing virtual reality tools to enable collaboration with Soldiers on an early and regular basis. Within the Collaborative Human Immersive Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, Soldiers from Fort Sill were able to interact with the component hardware of the LRHW system.
While hypersonic technology is often considered futuristic and complex, the Soldiers’ input focused on seemingly low-tech items that are critical to Soldiers’ operational experience, such as generator placement and access, excess equipment that could be removed to save weight, generator exhaust routing and specific locations for skid plates.
In total, there were more than two dozen items listed as improvements from the initial Soldier feedback session. Some of the recommended changes will be incorporated into the first prototype, while others will inform the next generation of hypersonic weapons. Soldier recommendations have been included in the virtual model maintaining compliance with the most current design, allowing validation of Soldier suggestions.
“There were things we saw on the model they created virtually that had our recommendations applied to it,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Bright, the chief of the Operational Training Division of the Directorate of Training and Doctrine at Fort Sill. “One was the loss of some extraneous items either to make room for more useful items we wanted them to add, or to make it more transportable.”
Bright said he easily got the hang of the virtual reality system after about five minutes and that the authenticity of the system was spot on.
“I didn’t think the virtual reality would be as interactive nor as intuitive as it turned out to be,” he said. “I was able to grab pieces of the LRHW with my hands and move them weightlessly to the side to get a better look at another part, and to better understand how the system as a whole works. The kinds of things that would take hours with a crane and several more hours with tools, we were doing on our own in seconds.”
As the prototype is built, this ongoing Soldier feedback will help identify early design changes and offer ways to improve the operational capacity before fielding. Going forward, the RCCTO AHPO is planning to conduct more than 30 Soldier feedback opportunities throughout the development process as it moves toward fielding the prototype in fiscal year 2023.
“Using virtual reality and augmented reality early is essential,” said 1st Sgt. Michael Weaver, with the 1-31st Field Artillery Battalion, 434th Field Artillery Brigade at the Fort Sill Fires Center of Excellence. “It allows for changes in design to be made efficiently prior to initial rate production. And the user possesses a unique knowledge base because they have spent countless hours in a variety of environmental and physiological conditions, which gives them insight on designs that may be cumbersome or conflict with other movements or actions that have to be conducted in a timely manner.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the country this spring and altered many hands-on processes, the AHPO worked hard to continue Soldier-centered design. To adjust, the RCCTO partnered with the Fires Center of Excellence to execute virtual Soldier-centered design for critical items such as reviewing operator roles. The team also partnered with the Army Multi-Domain Targeting Center on executing mission planning steps virtually and laying out the overall kill chain process digitally, including redundant command and control systems in support of multidomain operations.
The Army’s RCCTO Directed Energy Project Office is working to transition science and technology efforts to combat-capable prototypes. Directed Energy Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (DE-MSHORAD) will field a 50 kW-class laser integrated onto a Stryker platform in fiscal year 2022. This fielded prototype will be deployed to protect divisions and brigade combat teams from unmanned aerial systems (UAS), rotary-wing aircraft, and rocket, artillery and mortar threats. Development efforts include several Soldier touch points, including the operation of a surrogate vehicle, participation in design reviews and operational demonstration of the objective prototype. In this way, Soldier-centered design is already informing the future of fighting with lasers.
For the past few years, the Mobile High Energy Laser (MEHEL), developed under science and technology activities, served as a surrogate to the DE-MSHORAD prototypes by mounting a 10 kW laser system into a Stryker platform. Operating with a three-man crew, to date the MEHEL has participated in a Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization Hard-Kill Challenge event, a Joint Warfighting Assessment and multiple Maneuver and Fires Integration Experiments (MFIX)—and boasts nearly 200 confirmed UAS kills during these events.
Held annually at Fort Sill, MFIX includes experiments and information-gathering to determine how the systems can be used by maneuver and fires forces in operational scenarios. During MFIX events held within the last four years, Soldiers trained on and operated the MEHEL system during realistic counter-UAS missions.
“It takes about half an hour to figure out the system, and then you’re good to go,” said Spc. Brandon Sallaway, a fires support specialist and forward observer from Fort Carson, Colorado, who served on the crew piloting the MEHEL.
Soldier recommendations for system improvements such as controller functions and enhanced radar training and tracking have optimized the laser weapon system design for the end-user before prototyping. Soldier feedback from MEHEL operations has resulted in improved training, target engagement and usability. These findings directly inform the DE-MSHORAD prototype design.
“The Army’s modernization strategy identifies emerging technologies like directed energy for rapid prototyping and fielding,” said Dr. Craig Robin, director of the RCCTO Directed Energy Project Office. “Soldier touch points are critical throughout the prototyping process to ensure the materiel solution has informed design characteristics and provides military utility.”
Soldier feedback will be fully incorporated into the DE-MSHORAD prototype development. During a combat shoot-off for the prototype competitive selection process in the third quarter of fiscal year 2021, the Army intends to have Soldiers play a pivotal role employing and operating the DE-MSHORAD platforms in a field environment.
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Directed Energy Project Office continues to move forward on its prototyping and demonstration schedule. The shoot-off will provide additional insight for the final selection of the system. Preparations are underway with virtual planning. Virtual in-progress reviews with Fort Sill, where the shoot-off will occur, are replacing face-to-face meetings and keeping the team on the timeline needed.
Implementing lessons learned from DE-MSHORAD, the Directed Energy Project Office will incorporate Soldier-centered design in other projects, including Indirect Fires Protection Capability – High Energy Laser, a 300 kW-class laser prototype system that will be fielded in fiscal year 2024.
The RCCTO fully appreciates the criticality of the Soldier’s operational experience and is committed to soliciting and incorporating ideas and recommendations during prototype development. This concept is at the heart of Soldier-centered design and has already improved the hypersonics, directed energy systems and other emerging technology prototypes the RCCTO will field in the coming years. By bringing Soldiers in early and often, the RCCTO will ensure that in moving fast it doesn’t move without purpose.
For more information, go to https://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/.
NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a public communications specialist for RCCTO. She has written extensively about Army modernization and acquisition for several years, including multiple training and testing events. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.
JESSICA SALMON is a senior technical writer and graphics specialist for the RCCTO’s Directed Energy Project Office. She has experience writing proposals for DOD, specifically for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command Expedited Professional & Engineering Support Services contract vehicle. She holds an M.A. in English literature with a technical writer certification and a B.A. in English, both from University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Read the full article in the Summer 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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