Faces of the Force: David C. Oatley
POSITION: M1040 Item Manager
UNIT: Program Manager for Maneuver Ammunition Systems (PM MAS), Program Executive Office Ammunition, Picatinny Arsenal, N.J.
TOTAL YEARS OF SERVICE: 7
EDUCATION: B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
By Tara Clements and Steve Stark
FOTF Editor’s Note: At six inches in diameter and about 50 pounds, the 105 millimeter M1040 canister effectively turns the Stryker Mobile Gun System (MGS) into one of the world’s largest shotguns. David Oatley is a mechanical engineer who’s in charge of making the M1040 canister, the Army’s largest round. A few years ago, he was stopped in his tracks—but not by one of his own munitions. By a Soldier who made one comment that will stick with Oatley throughout his career…”that round saved my life.”
That was a turning point for Oatley, who realized that there “is a face to what I do.” And what he does is manage the production and fielding of the firepower for the Stryker Mobile Gun Systems (MGS) that protects Soldiers in a warzone and helps them accomplish their mission….to ensure “our products work as intended on the first trigger pull.”
As one of many experts who serve behind the scenes ensuring that Soldiers get what they need when they need it, this was the first time Oatley had any interaction with the end user – the Soldier. “I never went to any training events or saw the end product except for when it came off of the production line. When that Soldier came up to me, it truly refocused me on this is what I need to do and why.”
FOTF: What do you do in the Army? Why is it important?
OATLEY: I’m the item manager for the 105 millimeter M1040 canister cartridge, which is the anti-personnel round for the Stryker MGS. As the item manager, I’m responsible for acquisition, production and management of everything related to the cartridge. This includes the day-to-day management activities as well as special efforts such as failure investigations, product improvement initiatives, and risk mitigation. As a member of the Current Force team in PM-Large Caliber, I also work any ammunition issues reported by MGS units during training and operations. Many of these issues happen when using legacy 105-millimeter ammunition that hasn’t been produced in over 20 years. My work is important because it ensures we produce and field the highest quality ammunition. We want to make sure our products work as intended on the first trigger pull.
FOTF: How would you describe the canister?
OATLEY: The canister itself weighs about 45-50 pounds. It’s one of the largest shotgun-style rounds available, featuring a 105-millimeter diameter projectile filled with approximately 2,000 tungsten balls. When it’s fired, the projectile breaks apart on muzzle exit and releases the tungsten. The balls then spread downrange over 200-500 meters in front of the gun. It’s often used to ‘clear’ things, for example, if there were a lot of foliage, it could be used to clear an area, but that’s not what it was originally designed for. It’s the anti-personnel round for the Stryker MGS. It was designed to be used against massed personnel that are attacking the infantry.
FOTF: How big is the program?
OATLEY: The program is an acquisition category III program, so it’s not as big as something like a vehicle program. We average around 2,500-3,000 rounds per year that we build and field, and this year marks our seventh year of full-rate production. In December, this program will be ending for the near-term because we’ve built up our stockpile to the point where it will last for a few years at the current usage levels.
FOTF: You mentioned issues reported by units. Can you give me an example?
OATLEY: Some of the issues we have are on our legacy ammunition that was fielded 20 years ago. The Stryker MGS was recently fielded and uses the same gun that was originally used on the Abrams tank. The Abrams had a 105-millimeter gun instead of the 120-millimeter gun that it uses now. Back then, the Army built a bunch of ammunition for the Abrams that wasn’t used once they switched to the 120-millimeter gun. So, we’re now firing much of our stockpile ammunition. We’ll get reports from training events or the field and they’re finding indications of aging ammunition, for example corrosion and rusting. We have to track and figure out if there’s anything that can be done so it can be used. For the most part, if it’s bad, it’s not used. The Army conducts regular surveillance on our existing stockpile that will be fielded, but it’s just not possible to catch 100 percent of the issues. On the newer ammunition, we don’t have as many issues, but do address them as they come up.
For example, we had an inadvertent firing and we worked with the vehicle developers at U.S. Army TACOM Life Cycle Management Command to determine if it was an issue with the vehicle or the ammunition. We helped TACOM and the prime contractor understand the ammunition requirements and worked with them to test and implement a design solution on the vehicle to eliminate the issue.
FOTF: What has your experience been like so far? What has surprised you the most?
OATLEY: I started at Picatinny straight out of college and my experience has been very rewarding. I’ve been fortunate to work on several successful programs in a short time. In a few cases the programs had very complicated failures that required extensive investigations. That gave me tremendous opportunity early in my career to learn on the fly. I quickly gained experience producing tank ammunition, working with international suppliers, performing lethality analysis, achieving user buy-in for requirement changes, writing contracts, and managing programs. I’ve also been very fortunate to work for team leaders who trusted me to make good decisions and gave me enough room to recover and learn from my mistakes.
The biggest surprise in my career is the complexity of our acquisition process and the time it takes to get a contract awarded. I’m also surprised at how much I enjoy the “soft skills” of program management. As an engineer I gravitate toward the quantifiable, but program management requires much more than that. You have to learn how to deal with different personalities, avoid group-think and manage a team. That’s not something that comes naturally to most engineers and it’s been fun to develop that side of the job.
FOTF: You mention enjoying the ‘soft skills’ of program management. Are there any particular instances that stand out to you?
OATLEY: As an engineer, you’re used to concrete facts and being totally objective—when you’re managing a team and handling many different issues, it can’t always be explained that way. It’s been challenging figuring out how to work with different personalities and to find a compromise between all the stakeholders and do what’s best for the Soldier. Finding a balance has been a challenge. I came in with the perspective of an engineer—very technical. But I quickly realized there are many more constraints. You have to know when it’s important to make a quick decision and when you need to do more analysis. Sometimes you just have to move forward with the best info available at that moment.
FOTF: Is there any particular challenge you’ve been faced with that really sticks out in your mind?
OATLEY: On the program side, we’ve had some technical issues that were challenging, but all in a day’s work. Changing the location of the contractor’s production line and subcontractors would be the most significant technical challenge with the program in recent years. It requires additional oversight and there’s also higher risk of damaged equipment. Another challenge was on the personnel side. For a number of years, we didn’t have a consistent government and contractor team due to turnover, retirements, etc. So, each year we had to train new people on the program’s needs. Despite the challenges, we’ve been successful.
FOTF: Coming into the Army right out of college, what would you say to a student interested in a career in Army acquisition?
OATLEY: The Army offers more opportunities than you’d originally think. While salary may seem lower initially than private sector, there’s so much more to working in the Army than in a private industry job. And you have a lot of opportunity for personal and professional development that you wouldn’t get elsewhere because the Army makes it a priority and has the ability to support you in that way. So if you think long-term, there are ways you can advance faster than in private industry. In my experience, you also have the ability to move around a little easier and explore areas of interest to you. I’ve been at Picatinny my entire career, but not within the same office. I started at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center working a couple of production programs and after two years, I saw an opportunity in the program management (PM) office and knew that was an area I wanted to pursue. While at the PM I’ve been able to work several programs and even took on a developmental assignment working in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition Logistics and Technology at the Pentagon.
FOTF: Why did you join the Army? What is your greatest satisfaction in being part of the Army?
OATLEY: I joined the Army as a civilian because it meant I would work on extremely interesting programs. Ammunition development isn’t something I was taught in college so it was exciting to learn something so completely different. I also joined because the Army offers a lot of professional development that other jobs weren’t offering at the time. And there was definitely a sense of working for a higher purpose that really attracted me to the position.
My greatest satisfaction is when I talk to Soldiers about our ammunition and receive their feedback. The most satisfying moment occurred at a conference a few years ago when a young Soldier pointed to one of our bullets and said, “that round saved my life.” That moment really gave me perspective on why we do what we do—everyone who works on these programs should have that interaction. It made me proud to be part of the Army.
FOTF: Do you have any family history of service?
OATLEY: My grandfather was a Navy pilot and when he retired, he took a position in Watertown Arsenal, Mass. When Watertown Arsenal closed, he was reassigned to Picatinny, N.J. I never expected to be working here, but that’s where I ended up and it’s kind of funny it worked out that way.
FOTF: What are your career aspirations?
OATLEY: It’s hard to say sometimes [chuckles]…but I’d like to be a program manager, which is the path I’m pursuing at the moment.
- “Faces of the Force” is an online feature highlighting members of the Army Acquisition Workforce. Produced by the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center Communication Division, and working closely with public affairs officers, Soldiers and Civilians currently serving in a variety of AL&T disciplines are featured every other week. For more information, or to nominate someone, please contact 703-805-1006.