NATICK, Mass, Oct. 7, 2011 -- What fits into one C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, will be used by as many as 150 Soldiers, and can be set up and fully operational in as little as 3 1/2 hours?
Give up? Everything one would need to set up an entire base camp. It's true, and it all came about as a result of Army shelters used and judged inadequate during Operation Desert Storm.
"It goes back to 1991," said Mike Hope, Combat Field Service Equipment Team leader for Project Manager Force Sustainment Systems at Natick Soldier Systems Center. "General (Gordon R.) Sullivan, who was the chief of staff of the Army during Desert Storm, looked on one side and saw the Air Force living in (comfortable) air-conditioned tents, and the Army on the other side not doing so well. So he directed the development of Force Provider."
The "Force Provider" system furnishes everything those 150 Soldiers need; climate-controlled billeting, shower, latrine, kitchen, power distribution, even morale, welfare and recreation facilities. "All you have to bring is the fuel and water, and it will run," said Luz Diaz, a Force Provider project manager. "It's the Army's premier base camp for Soldiers."
At the beginning, Force Provider was designed as a 600-Soldier camp. According to Hope, 9/11 changed all that. Eight Force Provider modules were flown to Afghanistan in November 2001.
"We had them right over there," Hope said. "The first thing the commanders wanted to do was break them apart to support smaller forward missions."
Hope's team got right to work reconfiguring Force Provider for the smaller units deployed to Afghanistan.
"We packaged it so it was much more flexible," Hope said. "You can put them anywhere you want. You can send them downrange to the smallest FOB (forward operating base) -- wherever you need (them)."
"The 150-man package is kind of tailored around a leg company, so a battalion commander doesn't have to put all his people in one place," said Lee O'Donovan, Hope's systems acquisition manager. "He can have them in four different places, and they're self-sustaining."
That 150-man camp can be established much more quickly than any other shelter systems of the past. In less than four hours, eight people can have it up and fully operational. Hope said the use of Natick-developed inflatable air beams in the tents streamlined the process.
"The set-up time was reduced dramatically," Hope said. "It used to take us seven to 10 days to house 600 Soldiers. We can do it in one day because of that air-beam technology."
O'Donovan pointed out that not much can keep Force Provider down.
"You can actually unroll the air-beam tent, put the four big stakes in the ground and blow it up in a sandstorm," O'Donovan said. "It's been done. You can't do that with a temper or a frame tent."
And what about that sandstorm? Well, it would stay outside, where it belongs.
"This thing is like a cocoon," O'Donovan said. "It's really nice."
A diesel compressor can inflate the four air beams of a 32-by-20-foot shelter in 10 minutes.
"Once you get it to 60 (pounds per square inch), you take (the compressor) away," Hope said. "That's it. You never come back and put air in it.
"The nice thing about that tent, though, is everything's integrated inside so it doesn't beat the Soldier up for another hour to go back in and outfit the inside of the tent."
What happens if an air beam is pierced by a bullet?
"They don't explode," Hope said. "They would leak like a tire and just deflate. It's very, very reliable." And an air beam can be replaced in minutes.
Hope said Force Provider, 50 of which are deployed to Afghanistan, can be set up just about anywhere. "The nice thing about it is it's so flexible that we could probably set it up in a hundred different configurations," Hope added.
Soldier feedback from the field over the years has spurred improvements to Force Provider.
"We have (had) eight guys in theater since (2001)," Hope said. "We have a technical assistance team (TAT). Those changes, in going to the 150-man camp and upgrading all the life-support systems, (are) really because of the TAT guys who are in theater living with the Soldier getting the feedback.
"We're passionate about the Force Provider System, because we get to see what it does. We design it, we build it, we field it, we get to see the looks on their faces. We didn't do anything scientific. We just listened to what the Soldier had to say."
A constant goal of Force Provider is to decrease the amount of fuel and water used in basing, thereby reducing the number of costly and sometimes dangerous resupply missions to those forward bases. A new shower-water reuse system with Force Provider captures and reuses 75 percent of gray water.
"If you look at a typical 600-man camp, you use about 4.4 million gallons a year if you had 600 living there for an entire year," Hope said. "That little box will capture 3.3 million gallons of that. And if you look at the cost of water in Afghanistan right now, it could range anywhere from $15 to $30 a gallon. So it pays for itself in or about the sixth day."
The Force Provider team took its development efforts a step further this year with the establishment of a systems integration laboratory on a 10-acre site at nearby Fort Devens, Mass., where the team set up two 150-man camps. One mirrors those currently deployed to Afghanistan; the other is designed to collect data and test new technologies in such areas as micro-grid, insulation materials, lighting, gray/black water treatment and renewable energy.
"The big thing coming out of theater is we've got to look at how we're going to reduce fuel and water," Hope said. "Power grid, power management -- that's big for the future. That's big because you're taking Soldiers off the road, plus the cost of the fuel, plus the maintenance and sustainment."
Some Soldiers and Marines training on the Devens ranges will live in the camps.
"If we were going to look at new technologies we wanted troop input and troops to be able to live there, and something so close to Natick," Hope said. "There (are) so many new technologies being looked at right now.
"We did make it like a realistic FOB. We duplicated exactly what you would see if you went to Afghanistan."
Data collected and new technologies tested at the Devens site will lead to future improvements in the shelter system, which has already received high marks over the years from deployed Soldiers.
"The modular capability that it provides has proven to be a force enabler from the battalion down to the company level. It takes care of our deployed service members by providing for a one-stop sleep, feed, entertainment and exercise capability that means so much to each and every task force member," Lt. Col. Michael C. Lopez of Headquarters, Combined/Joint Task Force-82, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, wrote in a Nov. 9, 2009, letter to Kevin Fahey, program executive officer, Combat Support, Combat Service Support.
"This Force Provider System is unlike any base camp system we have in the area of operations; specifically, the hygiene systems provide a like-home environment that increases morale more than you will ever know. Once again, thank you (from) all of us for ensuring our warfighters have the best equipment and for providing a piece of garrison while we are deployed."
That's just the kind of response that Hope likes to hear.
"Force Provider: It's all about providing that slice of home to those troops," Hope said. "That's exactly what General Sullivan's vision was, and that's exactly what it's doing today."