To support the military operations that toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the U.S. and its allies have had to rely on a wide range of weapons systems that had never been fielded. The rigors of counterinsurgency have revealed that many of these systems needed modifications before troops could use them safely and effectively.

The Army Test and Evaluation Command-the major command responsible for helping Army acquisition organizations field effective, reliable and safe systems-is meeting this urgent need by deploying forward operational assessment teams to combat theaters.

The first ATEC FOA team deployed to Kuwait in the early stages of the war in Iraq, to assess the performance of Army vehicles that Soldiers were driving at high speeds to keep from becoming easy targets.

Since then, 14 ATEC FOA teams have deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. They have been assessing the performance of everything from counter-IED technologies to unmanned aerial and ground systems that can gather intelligence on enemy activities or serve as weapons platforms.

Deployed teams usually stay in theater for several months, although some have stayed up to a year.

Major Samuel Ancira of the Operational Test Command, who deployed as a member of ATEC FOA Team 13, said the workweek he and his colleague experienced in Kuwait was often hectic; typically "12 to 14 hours, six days a week."

According to several team members, no one minds 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.

A large number of the forward-deployed team members have been ATEC Soldiers, but many civilian ATEC employees have volunteered to participate. The volunteers come from ATEC's three primary test-and-evaluation organizations: the Army Evaluation Center, the Developmental Test Command and the Operational Test Command.

ATEC's Col. Brian Dosa, who commanded the 13th FOA rotation from his headquarters at Camp Victory, said those conducting the FOA mission have seen themselves as the "mouthpiece of the Soldier." In that role, they have obtained critical feedback from Soldiers that can lead to weapons 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.

T.R. Masino, who serves as a FOA team coordinator at DTC, said input from FOA teams often results in systems improvements.

"They recently assessed a small-arms weapon that had a poorly manufactured part that was breaking," Masino explained. "They discovered that a misprint in the technical manual caused the troops to maintain it incorrectly. The program manager was informed and is making improvements to the way the part is manufactured and to the tech manual.

"Sometimes the FOA team discovers problems with the training the unit has received, or did not receive, on the item, or many times the problem might be lack of spare parts," Masino said.

Soldiers on the receiving end of ATEC's forward said they appreciate what the command is doing for them.

"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," Capt. Brian Hartigan of the 37th Engineer Battalion, 20th Engineer Brigade, 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," he added.

Systems under assessment during most recent FOA team rotations included 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; and a variety of unmanned aerial systems. The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles have undergone forward operational assessments, including, most recently, the MRAP All Terrain Vehicle.

"Generally speaking, Soldiers are pleased with the equipment they have received," said the Operational Test Command's Maj. Melinda Kalainoff, 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," Kalainoff said.

"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 continued.

The data FOA team members collect from Soldiers includes written feedback, face-to-face recorded interviews, telephone interviews and PowerPoint 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 issues.

"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."

In August, ATEC's 14th FOA rotation was in theater to meet the ongoing needs of Soldiers and their commanders. The Army's primary focus has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, and the 20 ATEC personnel deployed for this rotation include five team members in Iraq, 13 in Afghanistan and two in Kuwait. The systems they assessing included various counter-IED systems, small arms, body-armor plate carriers and radios.

<i> Mike Cast works at the U.S. Army Developmental Test Command.

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Page last updated Wed October 27th, 2010 at 11:14