By Dan Lafontaine (RDECOM)April 23, 2013
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- U.S. Army science advisors are embedded with major units around the world to speed technology solutions to Soldiers' needs.
The Field Assistance in Science and Technology program's 30 science advisors, both uniformed officers and Army civilians, provide a link between Soldiers and the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's thousands of subject matter experts.
Jim Gibson, director of FAST within RDECOM, said the program has assisted Soldiers since 1985 on issues that include weaponry, language translation, night-vision devices, batteries and communications systems.
"The common theme then and now is the need came from Soldiers. The science advisor would go out there and say, 'What are your problems? What are areas that are cumbersome to deal with?' " Gibson said.
FAST's footprint reaches five combatant commands, 10 Army service component commands and major commands, three Corps (I, III, XVIII), and three combat training centers around the world.
DELIVERING RAPID SOLUTIONS
Because science advisors are embedded in a single location for an average of three years, they are better able to address a unit's unique demands, such as cold-weather conditions in Alaska or paratroopers' needs at Fort Bragg, N.C., Gibson said.
Soldiers of the 59th Signal Battalion with U.S. Army Alaska encountered difficulties in 2011 with a communications system, the SIPR NIPR Access Point. The SNAP terminals' antenna assembly was not protected from extreme cold during winter.
FAST science advisor Paul Thakur led the effort by fielding radomes, weatherproof structures that protect radar antenna. He worked with RDECOM's communications and electronics SMEs to evaluate several vendor systems for a solution that enabled the use of the SNAP terminals during field exercises in all weather conditions.
For the XVIII Airborne Corps, science advisor Dr. Ellen Segan, Maj. William Davis and RDECOM's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center helped provide an interim solution to a long-standing paratrooper challenge of rapidly locating designated assembly areas and heavy drop platforms during night operations.
The FAST team implemented a commercial-off-the-shelf product with beacons, detectable by paratroopers' wrist-worn devices, providing necessary direction and distance information for the Soldiers to reassemble into a coordinated force.
DEPLOYING TO THEATER
Army Materiel Command started FAST with two science advisors -- one in Germany and one in South Korea -- to address the lack of a connection between Soldiers and the Army's research, development and engineering centers. FAST was formalized under AMC in 1988.
At that time, the primary focus was on longer-term projects to reduce maintenance and operational costs with improvements to fielded systems. The program changed significantly in May 2003 to providing quick-reaction capabilities as Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Gibson said.
Gen. Paul Kern, then-commanding general of AMC, moved FAST from AMC to the newly created RDECOM. Science and Technology Assistance Teams, composed of an officer, a noncommissioned officer and a civilian engineer, were introduced and began six-month deployments in Iraq.
"Hostilities started and within the first couple of months of the war, General Kern said, 'You have to get science advisors down range.' That was a new mission, forward deployed with combat units," Gibson said.
"We've never had a shortage of civilian volunteers for these dangerous assignments," he continued. "I initially thought this was going to be a challenge for us, but it hasn't been the case. With the Special Forces task force, we had one civilian requirement and 22 volunteers."
FAST support to OIF continued until December 2011 when the United States withdrew from Iraq. FAST teams entered Afghanistan in 2006.
The command deployed its engineering capability directly to theater in 2011 with the establishment of the RDECOM FAST-Center, known as RFAST-C, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The team of civilian engineers and technicians from across RDECOM brought a prototype fabrication facility to Soldiers in a combat zone.
Maj. Gen. Harold Greene, deputy for acquisition and systems management for the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, visited RFAST-C Jan. 15. He served as RDECOM's deputy commanding general from October 2009 to May 2011.
"Visiting the RFAST-C really showed the power of the material enterprise team in action. Great civilian scientists and engineers operating on the forward edge of the battlefield to rapidly provide solutions to our Soldiers," Greene said. "We saw a number of innovative solutions that provide increased capability to our Soldiers in record time."
LINKING ARMY'S S&T COMMUNITY, SOLDIERS
FAST's three elements are the science advisors; quick reaction cells at RDECOM's seven research, development and engineering centers; and headquarters staff at APG. Before science advisors begin their assignments, they participate in two weeks of training to become familiar with all facets of RDECOM because they will represent the entire command, not just their home organizations.
Once the science advisors identify a need and collect the problem statements, they submit a request for information to FAST headquarters. RFIs range from a simple question to a major capability gap.
"The quick reaction cells at the RDECs and ARL are a small group of people dedicated to working with science advisors, getting the requirements in, and then working with their people to get the right SMEs," Gibson said. "After the SMEs come up with the design, the prototyping effort is done at the [prototype integration facilities]."
FAST focuses on technical areas in which RDECOM has a capability to solve the issue. Because FAST science advisors represent the entire Army's science and technology community, the program partners with other organizations on issues outside the purview of RDECOM, Gibson said. Common partners are the Rapid Equipping Force, Corps of Engineers and Medical Command.
FAST also supports major training exercises such as Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, a combined effort between South Korea and the United States. Through a team of seven FAST personnel across South Korea, RDECOM's goals were to identify capability gaps and find viable solutions as well as demonstrate the value of science and technology during a major exercise.
BENEFITS TO THE COMMAND, SCIENCE ADVISORS
RDECOM civilians selected as science advisors gain valuable experience from the assignments, Gibson said. More than 200 civilian engineers and scientists have participated.
"We see these opportunities to be a science advisor as a great developmental opportunity for the civilian scientists and engineers," he said. "When they come back with these new skill sets from the operational Army, the command can use them in a job with greater responsibility."
The command also benefits by gaining a better understanding of Soldiers' diverse needs around the world.
"By being aware of what current requirements are, one of the benefits to RDECOM is tailoring the investment portfolio strategy in R&D," Gibson said.