Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD - Capt. Matthew Grout and Master Sgt. John Binot, Soldiers from the U.S. Army 1st Theatre Tactical Signal Brigade, Camp Humphreys, Republic of Korea visited the Center for a 10-day professional development assignment under the Center's Warfighter Innovation Leveraging (Mission) Expertise and Experimentation (WILE-E) program.
This latest interaction with warfighters continues a WILE-E initiative to open lines of communication between scientists and Soldiers to encourage better and more frequent interactions.
After participating in "deep dive" discussions on chemical hazard mitigation and several days of focused dialogs with the WILE-E team and subject matter experts (SME) from different branches of the Center, the warfighters provided researchers with a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) overview of the Korean theater. A "town hall" open Q&A session followed allowing researchers to further explore topics with the warfighters.
"The purpose is to provide CBRN knowledge and professional development to key military members in a tactical unit, and to share warfighters' perspective with CCDC CBC staff on unit CBRN defense needs and to help with current and future needs," said Megan Hower, WILE-E program architect.
The WILE-E Program
WILE-E is a Center-led initiative to bring a multidisciplinary team of Center scientists, engineers, technicians, analysts and logisticians together to solve Soldiers' real-world operational challenges. Direct interactions with Soldiers allow scientists and engineers to focus on providing the Soldier with meaningful solutions. At the same time, Soldiers learn more about the work being done in support of CBRN defense and gain a better understanding of what the Center can do for them.
At the onset of the WILE-E program, the team received a simple problem statement, "Slime happens, how do we get back in the fight?" Over the course of the next few months the team began to be challenged by a more basic problem - communication.
With this problem in mind, the WILE-E team moved to shortcut traditional channels of communication by hosting events bringing together warfighters and SMEs from commodity areas within the Center-detection, protection, and decontamination-to collaboratively tackle the problem of contamination mitigation through an operational lens. WILE-E unofficially dubbed these events FOXCONs, or future oriented experimenter conventions.
The FOXCONs were the first solution or prototype developed by WILE-E in an effort to err on the side of action and fail early.
"Communication between the Soldier and the scientists was, and still is, a real stumbling block in the research and technology community," said Ann Kulisiewicz, research chemist. "By identifying modernization opportunities during our FOXCON sessions that are actually relevant to the Soldier, it created an opportunity to open new lines of communication and fortify those lines for future engagements."
The Center's civilian workforce can sometimes feel far removed from the warfighter, leading to the development of technologies and "solutions" that don't solve the warfighter's real problems.
"I think we could have a bigger influence if we had more direct contact with the warfighter," said Kulisiewicz. WILE-E was an opportunity for Center researchers to stop and think, to consider the possibilities, to identify the true warfighter needs, and have meaningful discussions to determine the best course of action.
One of the main ways Center researchers currently interact with Soldiers is through the CBRNE Warrior Integration Program, but it was clear to the WILE-E team that touchpoints had to be increased. Through WILE-E, Soldiers were coming to the Center more frequently and meeting with several SME's during the course of their visit to ensure they had the most impact.
The first phase of WILE-E resulted in a lot of networking but also new relationships and even projects. Several projects were started between warfighters and SMEs based on technologies. "They talked about a problem and a SME was doing some research that could help," said Kulisiewicz. "It's been a good experience; I've learned a lot," she continued. "Especially in terms of requirements. It's nice to take a step back from the research and the final product and think about what the requirements should be versus what they are on paper."
"It's important that access to the warfighter is easier for the next team," said Don Lail, multimedia specialist at the Center. "We have worked to blaze trails to the warfighter, we want to make sure those trails are maintained."
Though many Soldiers participated in discussions with the WILE-E team throughout the summer, one FOXCON participant-Scott Farrar, of the U.S. Army CBRN School-arranged for two CBRN Soldiers to visit the Center directly from active duty in Korea. One of these Soldiers was Master Sgt. John Binot.
"These are age-old problems, but Soldiers have never had a platform to discuss the issues like this," said Binot. "Now you have the Soldiers involved to pinpoint the issues they face which steers the direction of the solution. We're moving in a way to benefit the warfighter."
"It's really important and I think a group like this needs to be enduring. They need more Soldiers, more warfighters, in these groups so researchers can get a more well-rounded understanding of the problems," Binot said.
Binot is familiar with interfacing with researchers. He supported Tactical Cross Domain Solution, ongoing improvements to Dismounted Reconnaissance Sets Kits and Outfits, and has participated in tabletop discussions like the ones with the WILE-E team.
"Letting warfighters guide discussions early on in the development process has a lot of benefits including cost efficiency and potentially less iterations of a product before fielding to the warfighter," Binot said.
During the day's tabletop discussions with the WILE-E team, Binot reflected on his field experiences and the biggest challenges he and his team face during missions.
"Assessment and documentation of a site have a lot of challenges," he said. "We have very little time to document a site which means snapping a few photos and filling out reports while wearing bulky protective gloves which makes writing an arduous task."
In a technology-centered world, the solution to Binot's challenge might seem simple, a specialized camera or maybe augmented reality, but Binot doesn't see it that way.
"While technology does have its place and can be very helpful in the field, many warfighters would attest to the fact that technology does fail, sometimes at the most inopportune times, which means relying on my mind. The training we've had will almost always be faster and more reliable than a piece of equipment."
"It's that mindset, that feedback that truly helps move the needle for the WILE-E team," said Kulisiewicz. "Researchers need to know how the warfighter thinks, feels and acts because those aspects will help us researchers give warfighters the real solutions they need. But researchers might never hear that type of feedback because they don't have access to warfighters frequently enough."
Throughout the course of WILE-E, it became apparent the CBRN community had resources they didn't realize were available. Those resources are the men and women trained as CBRN Soldiers once they complete their enlisted career.
Currently, many CBRN Soldiers, after completing their military careers, will transition to large chemical companies or a similar field because "that's where their skills take them, the skills they gained in their enlisted career," said Lail.
"There's an opportunity for CBRN Soldiers to transition to civilian positions at the Center following their enlistment," Lail said. "The Army has already invested a lot of time and money into these specialists, so it makes sense to bring them back so we can hear their perspective."
It's unclear if there's a formal process to make a transition from CBRN military service to CBRN civilian service but the team sees a benefit in defining a process in order to make it a viable option.
"You need someone in the room during development who can lend their in-the-field expertise early on to influence the design process. It would save you time and money in the long run," said Lail. "If we started to bring Soldiers into civilian roles at the Center, we would eventually have an entire culture more focused on relevant operational problems."
"We're trying to build an environment that opens the conversation between SMEs and Soldiers to solve big problems and develop solutions that meet the warfighter needs the first time," he continued.
At the conclusion of their time at the Center, Grout and Binot presented to the Center's workforce, translating the warfighter's operation perspective in such a way that the researchers could relate to it and could assess how their current research or potential research could better address the warfighter's needs.
"It was clear during the presentation that some researchers were surprised by what they were hearing," said John Davies, a Center research physicist on the project team. "While we're in the business of 100 percent decontamination, Capt. Grout said warfighters would like an 80 percent clean up solution. Something that would allow warfighters to keep moving instead of having to stop or slow down the mission because they came across a CBRNE hazard."
The two Soldiers received dozens of requests for further discussions from researchers and program managers following the presentation.
While the first iteration of the WILE-E program has come to an end, the team laid the foundation for what the WILE-E program could be, opening a lot of doors to further the communication efforts across the Center and taking steps to nurture the relationships between Soldiers and the civilian workforce.