Wet, scraping and tearing sounds of tissue and bones separating from Soldiers' lower extremities in nanoseconds after a roadside bomb or some other rogue attack shrilly echo in their comrades' minds. It's spring 2003: U.S. forces are getting blindsided, sideswiped by first generation improvised explosive devices, more commonly referred to as IEDs, and rocket propelled grenades that embarrassingly beat through America's wartime tactical vehicles -- trucks and Humvees (HMMWVs).
"The threat was starting to change," reflected Michael J. Zoltoski, chief of the Army Research Laboratory's Lethality Division within the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. Back then, he led the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.-based armor mechanics branch, which was celebrated for its advancement in passive and reactive materiel research. He had received word that Gen. Paul J. Kern, then-commander of the Army Materiel Command, was looking for the next-generation Army survivability technology to combat the direct attacks on U.S. personnel and equipment from guerilla warfare emerging from behind enemy lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
ARL was among the half-dozen or so research, development and engineering centers and laboratories under Kern's command already charged to come up with ways to strengthen tactical vehicles and increase their survivability against the most common threats: rocket-propelled grenades that siphoned off the canvass and stock plastic doors of lightweight vehicles like the HMMWV, and ripped through limbs and psyches of countless Soldiers in theater.
ARL began work on a bar-armor solution that would stop RPG attacks against combat vehicles like the Abrams and Strykers but just as ARL finished working up that promising survivability solution, coalition forces inside HMMWVs were starting to get attacked by RPGs and increasingly under attack with small arms, fragments and sniper fire. "We had to go back to the drawing board."
No doubt, RPG threats changed warfare; these shoulder-fired, anti-tank weapon systems that fire rockets equipped with an explosive warhead were weapons-of-choice for insurgent forces fighting U.S. troops just after the 2003 invasion in Iraq. RPGs could wipe out any combat vehicle -- no matter how thick its armor -- by targeting the tracks, its weakest component, or by targeting its most vulnerable spot: soft skin.
ARL's bar-armor solution stood up against this kind of warfare, initially, because the bars would turn the RPG into a dud on impact, and the improved door and rear shield, which came later, eliminated the effect on the crew from blast and fragments from a RPG impact. But, the gaps between the steel bars in the bar armor made an easy pathway for bullets and fragments to penetrate the doors like an arrow through gelatin.
Field commanders reluctantly OK'd "Do-It-Yourself" retrofits of scrap materials onto HMMWV doors, but a number of these improvised solutions provided soldiers a false sense of the fortified protection they actually needed.
So the U.S. Army invested in building en masse the up-armored M1114 HMMWV to increase protection and survivability. But while the Army was already almost seven years into that investment, ARL's unconventional move from basic and applied scientific research toward proof of principle armor upgrade "proved that, when needed, the Army lab system has the technical expertise and core competencies to provide solutions made possible by funding to respond quickly to adaptive threats," Zoltoski said.
His team set out to develop what became known as the Armor Survivability Kit, or ASK, an up-armored solution for the M998 HMMWV that would give Soldiers in combat immediate needed protection before the M1114 HMMWV could come off the production line.
The prototype ASK was to be a battlefield insertion specifically for the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater, and designed not to replace any program of record. This invention-to-fielding task integrated ballistic metals, ballistic glass, polymers and ballistic ceramics. More than a door, ASK replaced former fabric HMMWV doors with rolled homogenous armor fitted with small ballistic-resistant windows.
"I recall bringing the first pre-prototype doors down to AMC to conduct a science class in the parking lot of the new AMC building," said Daniel S. Rusin, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who came to ARL in 2003 as a major on the heels of a six month deployment in Kuwait. He now works in Human Factors Engineering at the U.S. Army Public Health Command. "Gen. Kern then had one of his Colonels hand-cart the pre-prototype door to Iraq on his September 2003 trip to theater. This was not the final design but a sample of things to come."
Once the prototype came in, Zoltoski took it to Kern, who two weeks later, took it to theater and showed it to unit commanders telling them that it was the solution to their RPG problem.
Before he traveled to theater, Kern said sat in on top intelligence briefings weekly at the Army's Intelligence and Security Command headquarters, which was about a mile or so from the Army Materiel Command headquarters where he served as commanding general.
"It became fairly clear to me we were in a series of attacks on our people that we were not prepared for," Kern remembered.
He said intelligence data from conflicts in the Balkans helped shape requirements for the kind of up-armoring needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The next-generation HMMWV - the M1114 - was to withstand small arms fire and had been deployed, in few instances, in the Balkans. But the U.S. was starting to see similar threats in the Middle East, he said, but those threats were coming more rapidly.
"I knew I had a trip to theater coming up. So I went to ARL because I knew they had the capacity to create a solution," Kern said. So he enlisted help from a top aide -- who happened to be a former wrestler -- who hauled the doors to different commanders while in the field.
That started the 60-day development of the ASK kit.
This unchartered territory landed ARL a coveted innovation award from the Department of Defense in 2004, but it also brought with it major Army upsets: it exposed just how unnecessarily slow the PM process moved from requirements gathering to fielding solutions when ARL engaged directly with the end user -- the soldiers in theater -- and built and rapidly fielded a solution. This effort established a new norm -- a new way of doing business -- and opened up the solution space to 'vendors' throughout government and industry. And as threats and requirements rapidly evolved, ARL and other research, development and engineering centers got into design cycles; another new norm which meant that, for example, the evolution of the next-generation platform might have typically taken 10 years to develop in the past but with RDEC involvement, those evolutions could be realized within months. Internally, ARL had to leave the efforts of some research scientists on the sidelines for this 'revolutionary' project.
"The team became very lean; not everyone was invited to work on it," said Zoltoski. "I had been OCONUS. When I came back, the team was still in testing mode. Initially, they were treating this as a research project. But in two days, I was scheduled to see Gen. Kern."
"I said, 'Get it done!'" Zoltoski remembered with a smile. "They're shooting bullets and fragments at us now. We can put bar armor on but what are we going to do to stop the bullets and fragments?
"This project started the revolution of up-armored vehicles and the adaptability to address evolving threats."
A Rapidly-Fielded 'Stop-Gap' Solution
The M1114 was being designed to place in theater a tactical vehicle that could hold up against rogue threats but it wasn't expected to come off the production line for another few years and Army leadership -- under pressure from commanders in theater and Congress -- couldn't wait that long.
And there was no reason they needed to: ARL's base knowledge in armor protection technology and legacy in ballistic materials performance substantiated that institutionally, it could address the evolving threat. It's commonly accepted that the M1114 has benefitted from ARL's work in developing ASK.
The M1114 had a larger, more powerful turbocharged engine and air conditioning system and a strengthened suspension system. The M1114's predecessor version initially came off the production line in 1996 and saw limited action in the Balkans, but the M1114 model, which eventually fielded in 2004, added steel plating and ballistic-resistant windows around the cab of the vehicle to improve protection against small arms fire and shrapnel, and steel plating underneath to improve survivability against up to eight pounds of explosives beneath the engine and up to four pounds of explosives in the cargo area. It wore a standard protection kit adding about 2,000 pounds of weight to the standard HMMWV.
ASK added onto deployed HMMWVs roughly 1,000 pounds of armor-steel and transparent armor, but integrated it in a unique way to bring additional protection to drivers and passengers against small arms and explosive device fragment threats.
"This formed a compromise between the 'equipment you went to war with' and the immediate protection that could be provided rapidly," Rusin said.
"We were constantly facing the need to strike a balance between survivability, mobility and sustainment," said Michael Keele, reactive armor team leader, amplifying that increased ballistic protection also impeded how -- speed and maneuverability - vehicles were driven.
In context, HMMWVs were delivered to the Army in 1985, and replaced the M151 Jeep, some types of pickup trucks and other utility vehicles but they were never intended to be combat vehicles. Their extra wide wheel base -- nearly six feet, or about a third wider than a Jeep Cherokee -- make them ideal personnel and light cargo transport behind front lines. Insurgents exposed how vulnerable mounted soldiers who mostly perform reconnaissance missions or conduct military police activities are on many dark, narrow, primitive roads.
"ARL was only a stop gap with this door kit assembly until the contractor could build and field the M1114," said Rusin. He knew the eminence of a vehicle protection solution. He said he saw soldiers there cutting doors from scrap steel and making windows from plate glass.
"They needed immediate solutions to counter the IED and RPG problem," he said, but the problem was, commanders were not mechanical engineers or ballistics experts yet "everybody was buying metal" and fabricating doors out of rudimentary practices like chalk-tracing door frames onto big pieces of cardboard and cutting out doors from scrap metal.
"Truck drivers there were now welders but the welders there were not doing the jobs they were meant to do; they were making doors for combat vehicles."
"It was a very challenging period for the [generals] in theater," Kern said.
"By the time these attacks started increasing, the size of the U.S. presence under Gen. (Ricardo) Sanchez became half the size it had been, on top of the fact that American troops had already begun returning home.
"Commanders were scrambling to beat (the threats) with operations and intelligence. They were taking people out of armored units -- away from Abrams and Bradleys -- and putting them into HMMWVs," Kern said. "There was a series of escalating factors commanders dealt with - within areas of unrest."
To mete out the RPG problem, "ARL thought it was a simple solution because they had ballistic armor," Rusin said.
"By the fall of 2003, the news from Iraq was weighing heavy on every American's heart," said Rusin. "Engineers across America asked themselves what can be done to help reduce soldier deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Three groups were paramount in focusing on this though, particularly government engineers at National Ground Intelligence Center in Virginia, the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Michigan and ARL."
Rusin said each of the AMC subordinate organizations had the experience in the threat, developing and understanding armor techniques and in vehicular integration. "I believe that we all have been solving the 'armoring-of-the-army-trucks' problem in the back of our minds for dozens of years, but this state of affairs presented a chance to right the wrong of manufacturing thousands of army trucks that weren't armored tough enough."
"Gen. Kern asked us what we could do to help," remembered Zoltoski. "He knew that ARL was doing great research in the area of protection technology, and we realized our own successes too, but not many in the field knew about it."
Zoltoski said up that point, "I believe that people knew the contributions of the Ballistic Research Laboratory towards the survivability and lethality of Army Ground Combat Vehicles like the Abrams and Bradleys. That identity was lost somewhat when we merged laboratories and formed ARL."
He said the up-armoring of vehicles, resulting from the current war - from 2003 to now - allowed ARL to regain some of its ballistics notoriety, and subsequent to the seminal up-armoring work of the ASK team, the laboratory used its ballistics and materials research core competencies to amplify ARL's significance in protection technology upgrades on other vehicles with the Abrams Reactive Armor Tile (ARAT), Interim Frag Kits 5 and 6, Frag Kit 5 and 6, and the armor appliqués for the MRAP.
Rapid research, rapid integration
The prototype build team started with fewer than 10 people solely dedicated to solving the RPG problem in Iraq, Rusin said.
"No IPTs [Integrated Product Teams], formal working groups or task forces were formed for this effort. Rather, very small groups of people were allowed to put other tasks aside and work on the 'Armor-for-Trucks' project as it was initially called," said Rusin.
"People on this project had to wake up in the morning with the motivation that 'I'm going to bolt this item onto a truck for soldiers in the worst conditions!'"
Ten advanced armor designers and technicians set aside their electro-magnetic armor funded tasks for 60 days to work on the solution.
Robert Bruce, the metals fabrication shop team leader remembers that time like it was yesterday. He worked most closely with the technicians, the machinists who put fire to metal to take ASK beyond concept to reality.
"Everybody sensed the utmost urgency around this effort. It was probably the most important thing we had done to date. It was not long after 9/11," said Bruce, who at the time was a guardsman. "Everybody stepped up and got it done without questions."
The infrastructure on Aberdeen Proving Ground (APG), located on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland, played a more significant role in the project's success than ARL's armor technology expertise, said Keele.
Research Physicist Dr. Paul Berning added, "We had no trouble motivating anybody. We got together with every shop on post and asked them to cut metal. They never said 'where's the funding'; they would ask us, 'do you want us to paint it (the metal) too?"
Keele said ARL sought input on maneuverability inside the vehicle cabin, and more specifically, on use of vehicle windows, from soldiers studying at the U.S. Ordnance School, which was based at APG until 2011 when it relocated to Fort Lee, Va.
"Another key to our success was in crating up the kits," Keele said. "Packing efficiently allowed our guys to drive down to Charlottesville, N.C. and deliver the kits, where they were loaded onto an Air ForceC-17 and headed theater into the Forward Operating Base for installation.
The kits, Keele said, came with driving instructions because they were now 1,000 pounds heavier and with them, vehicles couldn't turn a corner at the same rate of speed and torque without incurring damage to the steering column or axels. The team wrote instructions like those that would be included in any pre-fabricated home décor that needs some degree of assembly. Keele and others watched for about two hours soldiers in North Carolina try to assemble one of the kits based on their instructions before the kit was loaded on the C-17. ARL engineers finally jumped in to help.
"The lesson learned in that is we realized engineers don't write instructions very well," piped up Peter Bartkowski, an armor research engineer who in 2003, was the ARL armor liaison for the Abrams.
"Men don't read instructions well," joked Berning.
This made it necessary for ARL to send a team to theater to help with the kit installation. Mike Zoltoski and Dan Rusin were among the first to deploy with the kits.
"Just before Mike and I got on the plane, Jill Smith (former director of ARL's Weapons and Materials Research Directorate who is now the director of the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center) called us up and said there are hundreds of people who want to be called at night and on the weekends to help out on this project. That was culture here at APG then. People were eager to work long hours, together, to accomplish the mission."
Further protection was provided by an armored-reinforced floor and windshield made of bullet proof glass, a laminate composition developed by ARL that proved effective against a single shot.
The team grew to 30 more employees drawing, cutting, testing and transferring work to TARDEC for provisioning and integrating until there were five core cells working the solution led by ARL which focused on the invention. The Army's Developmental Test Center at Aberdeen conducted testing, and AMC focused on production and shipping.
ARL worked directly with Army depots -- which was unheard of - Letterkenny in Chambersburg, Penn., and Anniston in Ala., to manufacture the first 40 prototypes.
"I don't know where we ever got money, but I do recall driving a HMMWV with one armored door (only one side was armored) to Maj. Gen. Doesburg, and showing him the side of the vehicle with the armor," remembered Rusin.
Maj. Gen. John Doesburg was commander of the Research, Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen. RDECOM is a subordinate command of AMC.
"This project was fast because it was first, and had a collective of people eager to 'drop everything' and had the resources of Aberdeen to pull upon," Rusin said. "ARL senior management like Mike did a fantastic job of insulating the designers and developers from the burden of explaining each detail."
Fielding a revolution
ARL senior executives point to the ASK program as a turning point in ARL's reputation amongst other research, development and engineering centers.
"This was the first upgrade kit done by ARL in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Others used ARL to develop upgrades to protection for their vehicles," Zoltoski said.
Getting to this point wasn't easy.
Every 30 days, Zoltoski made the 90-mile drive to AMC Headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va., just outside of the nation's capitol, to discuss the progress on potential survivability upgrades. For an hour or so, Zoltoski said he would inform Kern and his leadership "on how we could improve the survivability of our vehicles since the insurgents started to attack both our tactical vehicles, ground combat vehicles and helicopters with RPGs." There, he would lead high-level discussions about protection levels for each platform and technology options.
But program managers for those platforms weren't all happy.
Zoltoski said major challenges came from the program managers of some of the platforms. "The issue was that the PM is responsible for configuration control of their platform, and some did not like any modifications to platforms without first going through them."
Program managers, or PMs, for these platforms had already signed up to replace all in-theater HMMWVs with the up-armored M1114 version but the Army did not have the time to do this expediently, which paved the way for the ASK, he said.
Zoltoski then met with the RDECOM commander. Surrounded by a roomful of senior government executives, at least two and three pay grades and levels of influence above his branch chief role, Zoltoski dared, "so we plan to take the first 40 kits over and then what? Are we telling the commanders and their soldiers more are coming or not coming?" Zoltoski remembered asking.
He said Doesburg immediately made a phone call to Maj. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III, commander of the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM), who quickly decided to make as many kits as possible in house using Army depots.
ARL sent its first 40 kits to Iraq by the third week in October 2003. Zoltoski, Rusin and Dick Koffinke joined lead element Col. Tom Economy as they traveled to Iraq to install the first kits and monitor the hand-off of the kits to the newly formed AMC-Forward Repair activity.
Soon thereafter, the first sets started showing up in theater. Installation of the first 40 ARL doors began that November and ended in December. Then, the depot-produced doors started arriving in theater.
"We never imagined 12,000 kits produced," Rusin added. "Having the AMC-Forward Repair Activity in Balad and in Kuwait was key to success, and having motivated civilians who were willing to work with a certain amount of flexibility was very important."