ATEC teams assess effectiveness of systems in combat
March 16, 2010
By Mike Cast
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Army News Service, March 16, 2010) -- The Army Test and Evaluation Command has been deploying teams to the Iraq and Afghanistan theater to assess new systems under combat conditions.
Included among the most recent systems that ATEC Forward Operational Assessment Team 13 has assessed are the Mine-Protected Ambush-Resistant vehicle, along with a variety of mine-roller systems and unmanned aerial systems.
One of the systems assessed by the team was the Self-Protection Adaptive Roller Kit, or SPARK, which is used in front of tactical vehicles to set off a buried improvised explosive device before the vehicle is on top of it. SPARK rollers have saved numerous lives in theater, according to T.R. Masino, the Developmental Test Command's coordinator for the FOA program.
This team also recently assessed the Sky Warrior Extended Range Multi-Purpose UAV and the Hunter Viper Strike.
"The feedback from FOA Team 13 has been well received by troops in theater, although they found some things that needed improvement," Masino said. "The FOA teams continue to be relevant and have been right at the forefront in evaluating the latest things the Army needs to know about."
The first such team deployed to Kuwait in the early stages of the war in Iraq, to assess the performance of Army vehicles that Soldiers were driving more rapidly in theater than expected when tested, to keep from becoming easier targets than they would be at slower speeds. Since then, 13 ATEC forward operational assessment teams have deployed to the area of operations for both Afghanistan and Iraq, with the critical mission of assessing the performance of everything from counter-IED technologies to unmanned aerial and ground systems that can gather intelligence on enemy activities.
Deployed teams stay in theater for several months, although some team members have stayed there for as long as a year, and their mission may require working six or seven days a week and sometimes workdays as long as 14 hours or more.
Maj. Samuel Ancira of the Operational Test Command said the workweek he and his colleague in Kuwait have had to put in has been "hectic."
"The typical workday is approximately 12-14 hours, six days a week, with Sunday being a half day consisting of six hours of work after church services," he explained.
A large number of the forward-deployed team members have been ATEC Soldiers, but many civilian ATEC employees have volunteered to participate in the deployments from ATEC's three primary test-and-evaluation organizations: the Army Evaluation Center, the Developmental Test Command and the Operational Test Command. Several of the team members said they don't mind the rigors of the mission because they know how crucial it is to the Soldiers facing the threat of serious injury or even death, day in and day out.
ATEC's Col. Brian Dosa, commander of the 13th FOA at Camp Victory, emphasized the importance of FOA team members working as the "mouthpiece of the Soldier." In that role, they have obtained critical feedback from Soldiers and Army units that can lead to weapon-systems improvements; changes to tactics, techniques and procedures; and adjusted test-and-evaluation procedures back in the United States at ATEC's various test facilities and ranges.
One result of the team's deployment is a stateside test-and-evaluation program that as closely as possible reflects the realities of operations in theater.
Soldiers on the receiving end of ATEC's forward support very much appreciate what the command is doing for them, said Capt. Brian Hartigan of the 37th Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade, a unit that is normally stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I was impressed on a daily basis with the level of commitment that these guys showed, not just for their specific project, but to supporting the guys on the ground," he said of FOA Team Speicher. "Not only were they willing to go outside the wire and put themselves in harm's way, they were hungry for the real-time data that our Soldiers were providing them."
"The ATEC forward operational assessment team here in support of OIF is essential to the collection process of (determining) what works in theater and what does not," said Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Liles of the 49th Military Police Brigade, a unit assigned to Camp Liberty. "It allows decision makers at the highest level to capture what the maneuver commanders see as a relevant force enabler and what is not. Ultimately, it's the Soldiers that pay the price of the good- idea guy with no experience of ever being on the ground."
Some of the systems under assessment during ATEC's 13th FOA team rotation include mini-robots for clearing explosive ordnance; systems designed to protect Soldiers or to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations; enhanced armor protection for various heavy wheeled vehicles used regularly in the combat theater; along with a variety of unmanned aerial systems.
"Generally speaking, Soldiers are pleased with the equipment they have received," said Maj. Melinda Kalainoff of the Operational Test Command of her stint with one of the teams in Afghanistan. "They were eager to tell us about their equipment, and they are never at a loss about their opinions and recommendations."
"To get the ground truth, you need to get on the ground and talk directly to the user, the Soldier, and that is what we do. We were speaking with a captain about how fast the acquisition system has to work to meet the needs of the Soldiers, and he said, 'The Army really tries to make things better.' He gave the example of the Puma (unmanned aerial system) as well as all the cold-weather clothing items that Soldiers have received," Kalainoff said.
The data FOA team members collect from Soldiers includes written feedback, face-to-face recorded interviews, telephone interviews and slide presentations. Some participants in the forward operational assessment program have gone on missions with units in their area to get a real-time look at how systems are operating.
Kalainoff said there were times when problems with equipment in theater surfaced while testing was taking place simultaneously back in the United States. That made it possible to modify the test plan to address the emerging issue, she said.
"In other cases, the problem may be such that additional testing is initiated by a theater-level concern," Kalainoff added. "The FOA team can serve as a liaison to link the combatant commander in theater with the tester in the continental United States and facilitate information flow."
"We were providing data no less than on a weekly basis as part of an assessment," added Sgt. 1st Class Dedrick Waterford, one of Kalainoff's colleagues from ATEC's Operational Test Command. "Our efforts there directly affect the test-and-evaluation process by gathering additional information that maybe was omitted during rapid fielding initiatives that brought new equipment to Soldiers sooner."
(Mike Cast writes for the U.S. Army Developmental Test Command.)