NIGHT VISION: Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division participates in a nighttime touch point at White Sands Missile Range during a positioning, navigation and timing assessment exercise in 2021. (Photo by Austin Thomas, Army Futures Command)
Ensuring Army systems and tools meet the needs of future warfighters.
by Maureena Thompson
As the Army seeks to modernize everything from the way it operates to the equipment it fields, it is looking more and more to Soldiers on the ground to inform future requirements. Soldier touch points, as the Army calls them, are immersive testing and feedback mechanisms through which Soldiers can provide valuable insights on how certain tools or equipment undergoing development will be used practically in the field. The Army is using these touch points as it pursues a series of signature modernization systems to ensure any new solutions that are embraced are functional, durable and expertly tailored to the needs of Soldiers.
HARNESSING ITERATIVE INSIGHTS
Soldier touch points provide helpful input to industry representatives, testers, researchers and acquisition experts on the capabilities Soldiers will need to fight and win. The engagements can assist in pinpointing issues that may otherwise be overlooked, and in confirming or dispelling the need for development teams to address real or perceived technological challenges. Touch points have also proven essential in evaluating what might be a promising idea in a laboratory but a less feasible one in the field.
While Soldier-centered design may seem like a natural step, it has not always been a prominent feature of Army acquisition and modernization processes. Lt. Gen Thomas H. Todd III, deputy commanding general of acquisition and systems development and chief innovation officer at Army Futures Command, describes the new approach as a full life-cycle commitment to evolving Soldier needs. “A persistent Army capability environment [PACE] enables continuous modernization. Soldier touch points are the cornerstone of a PACE. By putting the Soldier at the center of modernization, we use feedback to inspire innovation, solidify our technologies through continuous iteration and validate our technologies in real time.” (Read more about Soldier-centered design in “All About U,” from the Spring 2021 issue of Army AL&T at: https://go.usa.gov/xtdNP.)
In embracing the PACE approach to modernization, Army Futures Command has refocused development objectives on users, who will naturally have the greatest understanding of which solutions will best meet their needs. In turn, the command’s eight cross-functional teams, which serve to accelerate modernization progress across six priority areas, are employing Soldier touch points frequently and strategically to ensure optimal modernization outcomes.
“The Soldier is at the center of everything we do,” Todd explained, underscoring that gaining Soldier insights early in the process and throughout iterative developments makes modernization efforts more effective, sustainable and long-lasting. Soldier touch points are therefore not a highlight in the process, they are a foundational element of the process. “This is how we will modernize our Army,” he said.
But what does a Soldier touch point actually look—and feel—like in practice?
Capt. John Sexton, a logistics officer with Joint Modernization Command, participated in a Soldier touch point at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in late 2020 as part of the Army’s annual Positioning, Navigation and Timing Assessment Exercise (PNTAX).
During touch points, “Soldiers are exposed to a variety of solutions for a common problem,” Sexton said. “It provides the opportunity to get a good look at the systems in a low-stress environment and provide objective feedback.”
“It takes the technology out of the lab to determine how it operates in an open environment,” he added. The result is an experience that is both informative and highly engaging. “The vast majority of Soldiers would be thrilled to be part of this program,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Matthew Pfannerstill, a member of the 41st Field Artillery Brigade who participated in a sensor-to-shooter live fire exercise and Soldier touch point at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, in 2020. Sensor-to-shooter generally refers to the use of sensors or machines that detect threats and intelligently convey that information to the appropriate shooter. “This is a once-in-a-career opportunity to be part of something that has amazing implications for the future of the United States military.”
Pfannerstill sees the willingness of Soldiers to participate actively in Soldier touch points as critical to the product development process. “We have to be willing and able to provide the earnest feedback up the chain of command to allow for informed decision making.”
MEETING PERSISTENT NEEDS AND RECOGNIZING NEW ONES
In fiscal year 2021, the Army conducted 113 Soldier touch points, in addition to dozens of operational assessments and limited user tests. Touch points tested everything from on-the-go nutrient packs for peak performance to the utility of new camouflage technologies, to Soldier interest in a long-lasting mosquito repellent.
The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) Soldier Center conducted multiple touch points in fiscal year 2021 through its Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness (MASTR-E) program, which uses various field simulations to collect human performance data and inform operational outcomes. The MASTR-E program works with Army partners, including members of the 82nd Airborne Division, to carry out a range of stress tests, evaluating Soldier decision-making capabilities and physical responses through wearable devices and other data collection means.
“I do not believe there is a more important program the Army is doing, when we’re talking about people first, when we’re talking about being able to build resiliency, because this transcends the tactical fight. There is no more important program that takes what a Soldier is doing and allows us to be able to maximize the equipment that they’re getting,” said Col. Phillip Kiniery, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division.
Touch points are an integral part of the Army’s modernization push and thus often focus on determining whether a state-of-the-art device works well in the hands of a small group of Soldiers, before the Army proceeds with rolling out the device to a larger group. However, some Soldier touch points also highlight needs that are not yet addressed, which the Army then has the opportunity to tackle creatively.
For example, the DEVCOM Soldier Center began issuing prototype sports bras to female Soldiers in October and November as part of a touch point designed to assess whether new, high-impact sports brassiere concepts developed as part of the Army Tactical Brassiere (ATB) program would provide optimum support, durability and comfort for combat and training use.
ATB development began with seeking input from female Soldiers on what type of functionality and preferences should be considered during initial prototype design. Given that the ATB is a tactical rather than sportswear item, it will need to integrate well with equipment and body armor, providing enhanced protection and performance in addition to an ideal fit. This means that designers are evaluating options such as the inclusion of flame-retardant fabrics and expertly layered compression, structural and protective materials while also taking into account the importance of accurate sizing, reliable comfort, moisture management and breathability.
“The overall goal is to produce garments that not only protect the user, but reduce the cognitive burden on the female Soldier caused by discomfort and ill fit,” said Ashley Cushon, clothing designer and project lead for the ATB at the DEVCOM Soldier Center. “Achieving this will improve the Soldier’s overall readiness and performance levels, allowing them to focus on their mission,” she explained.
Reaching this goal is a multi-phase process that requires the involvement of designers, subject matter experts and Soldiers. “Developing well-fitting patterns is a skill that exists at the crossroads of technical art and science,” Cushon said. “It requires understanding body shape, growth points and the relationship between 2D elements and 3D objects. Just as commercial sports brassiere items tend to cater to targeted consumer groups, designers worked closely with the anthropometrists and engineering psychologists to conduct pilot studies that helped to validate the size tariff within the female Soldier population and extract body scan dimensions to build out the first prototypes to fit the Army’s median size. Understanding that sports brassieres incorporate various structural elements as they increase or decrease in sizing, final results from the studies will inform [the Program Executive Office for] Soldier and ultimately the Army Uniform Board, so that a determination can be made on the Army’s path forward for best equipping female Soldiers for their missions.”
DEVCOM plans to collect data on the experiences of the more than 200 female Soldiers wearing the ATBs, who are located at Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Benning, Georgia and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, between December 2021 and March 2022. The process will inform performance and integration of the ATBs, as well as help designers and researchers assess which design attributes are most appropriate for military use. Feedback on improvements will be used to determine design direction for future iteration.
The effort serves as a complement to other, ongoing efforts to provide military uniform options that fit Soldiers of all body types, including those who are pregnant or nursing. For example, the Soldier Center’s Soldier Protection Directorate recently worked with the Marine Corps and Air Force to develop versatile maternity uniforms that help ensure warfighters have access to military garments that fit well and are functional throughout pregnancy. Touch points conducted throughout the process informed multiple redesigns and improvements.
“Soldier touch points allow our engineers and scientists the chance to see firsthand how new technologies integrate with existing Soldier clothing and equipment, as well as how they fit into or enhance [tactics, techniques and procedures] and mission-specific tasks,” said Al Adams, team leader of the Soldier Clothing, Footwear and Integration Team at the DEVCOM Soldier Center.
“An example of information we would not have otherwise had without frequent [Soldier touch points] is the impact of wind and weather on camouflage systems for snipers and how the user accounts for these factors,” he said. “Until you have the system in the field with Soldiers, you don’t know what critical considerations you may have missed.”
“Combining controlled lab testing of technologies with real-world Soldier field evaluations gives us both the quantitative and qualitative data to make the best development decisions for our warfighters,” Adams said.
|The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory worked with active-duty and National Guard Soldiers in 2021 to test its new Load Stability System – Litter Attachment (LSS-LA). The LSS-LA stabilizes otherwise wobbly hoist lines to create a safer medevac environment. Aeromedical Research Laboratory researchers worked with pilots, Soldiers and product developers to simulate rescue missions in difficult conditions and terrains, using feedback collected to enhance the LSS-LA prototype.
A group of 82nd Airborne Soldiers also demonstrated use of the LSS-LA at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, during Project Convergence 2021, as captured in video at: https://go.usa.gov/xtN2H.
As the Army seeks to modernize quickly, Soldier touch points are invaluable for ensuring smart, calibrated investments that offer maximum utility. While touch points may seem like a straightforward solution for tailoring novel equipment, their purposeful and regular incorporation into testing and development is helping to ensure a stronger, more agile Army—one more capable than ever of proactively anticipating and addressing Soldier needs.
For more information on Army Futures Command organizations conducting Soldier touch points, go to: https://www.armyfuturescommand.com/.
MAUREENA THOMPSON is a contracted writer and editor for Army Futures Command in Austin, Texas. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree with a concentration in national security policy studies from Duke University and a B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles.