FORT BENNING, Ga. – When a company wants to sell the Army a new rifle, drone or other piece of gear, the Army has Soldiers assess it first and give honest feedback on whether they find it good, great, or not great at all.
Gear that breaks down under normal stresses of military action – that jams, clogs, shuts off at the wrong time, catches on a Soldier's uniform or digs against the Soldiers body – needs further work.
The Army's scientists, engineers and other experts, along with their industry counterparts, play a key role in developing future weapons and equipment. But the Army makes sure the Soldier's voice is also part of that process.
To get that feedback the Army looks to an experimentation unit of Soldiers here whose mission is to put the items to a see-for-yourself assessment in the field.
It's called the EXFOR, for Experimentation Force. The EXFOR's Soldiers assess a wide range of items being considered for possible use by the Army, including weapons, drones, electronic sensors, and ammunition, among others.
"You're providing the developers access to the Soldiers, where they can talk directly to the EXFOR, and get what you might call their unvarnished feedback on their piece of kit," said Harry Lubin, chief of the Live Experimentation Branch of the Maneuver Battle Lab.
The Lab is part of Fort Benning's Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, or MCDID.
The Live branch – one of three that comprise the Lab – works closely with the EXFOR.
The process of developing gear for the Army involves assessing it through experiments, making fixes the experiments show were needed, reassessing and so on, until the item is refined to where the Army is sure the item will do its job well if issued to Soldiers.
"It's very rare that anybody hits a home run the first time they develop a capability and send it out," said Lubin. "EXFOR will assess it." Then the developers "make the changes and they'll bring it back again. And they just continue to improve it until it really meets the Soldiers needs," he said.
Serving as the Army's EXFOR are the Soldiers of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment. It's part of the 199th Infantry Brigade. That's an Infantry training unit that's part of Fort Benning's U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence.
Although the EXFOR's stationed at Fort Benning, it serves the entire Army, officials here noted.
During equipment assessments, the Live branch's experts ask the Soldiers questions, make careful records of their answers, and also have them fill out a detailed questionnaire, said Lubin.
Lab staffers, he said, will typically say to the Soldiers, "'This is what this capability is supposed to do. Did it do it? If it did, how well?' And then, 'What are the potential improvements that could be made to make it better?'
"And then," said Lubin, "really the final, where the rubber-meets-the-road, it's: 'Would you take this piece of kit to combat? Does it give you a marked advantage? And is this something you would take if you had the option?'"
One of the biggest advantages of the EXFOR is that the Soldiers don't mince words in their feedback, said Lubin.
Some junior-ranking Soldiers who are not part of the EXFOR and are perhaps unused to expressing unfavorable views to those in authority, might hesitate to voice a candid opinion if asked about the equipment, said Alpha Company's commander, Capt. Chris Lapinsky.
But not the EXFOR.
"These guys are used to it," Lapinsky said of his Soldiers. "They do it all the time. So they're gonna absolutely tell their honest feedback.
"So if something was great, was the best thing they've ever seen, they're gonna say that," he said. "If it was junk and it didn't work, they're gonna say that.
"So when they see something new, and the vendors come in and like 'Hey, this thing's great, it can do all this,' they're not enamored by the dazzle or the PowerPoint or the claims," said Lapinsky. "They just want to get down to it and actually try it out and if it actually performs and it functions and it's better, then great.
"I mean, guys'll like it and they'll push for it as much as anybody to get it out into the hands of Soldiers on the line," Lapinsky said.
"But if it's not," he said, "they're mature enough that 'Hey, this shouldn't see the light of day.' Or, 'It should definitely be improved. Come back again later. It completely did not do anything that you said it would do.'
"The data collector's literally standing there with pen and paper and checklist," said Lapinsky, "and our guys are very good about it, if something abnormal happens, like 'Hey, the reading on the elevation just changed' or 'The screen blacked out,' whatever, they'll tell the data collectors and the data collector will mark it down.
"They've seen enough of these things before, usually," he said. "They can say, 'Hey, you need to put a flap on this thing cause the dirt got in there.' "It got wet and that's why it didn't work.'
"Or, 'If I sit down in a vehicle with this thing on where you have it positioned, it's gonna dig into my back' or 'it's gonna cut the antenna out.' That's the level of feedback that these guys provide."
Another advantage is that the EXFOR Soldiers accumulate experience and perspective in doing such assessments, and can often compare a given item – an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, say – with similar UAVs they've evaluated, resulting in a more reliable appraisal of its performance, said Lubin.
"If you take a new UAV to an operational unit and give it to a Soldier, chances are he's gonna be fairly enamored with it because he doesn't see a lot of them," he said.
"You give that same system to an EXFOR Soldier and he's probably seen three or four of them," Lubin said. "So he's not gonna be enamored with it initially. And he can provide you based on his experience, that objective feedback that you might not get if you took it directly to the operational force."
A third advantage is that because assessing is their regular job, EXFOR Soldiers are both readily available and already trained in how to get the job done, Lubin said.
The EXFOR takes their experimentation mission with the utmost seriousness, because they know that how well they do their part of the job could affect the lives of fellow-Soldiers in combat, Lapinsky said.
"If we don't do our job properly," he said, "and some kind of equipment slips through that the Soldier's depending on when they're facing the enemy and it doesn't work, it doesn't do what it's supposed to do, or fails, that Soldier might not come home.
"It could be the life or death of a Soldier," said Lapinsky. "It's that real."