FORWARD OPERATING BASE MEHTAR Lam, Afghanistan, Oct. 14, 2011 -- It all began during an intense 2 1/2-hour firefight with the enemy earlier this year in Afghanistan.
As members of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, Iowa National Guard, sat around later at Forward Operating Base Mehtar Lam and discussed the engagement, they talked about how three-man teams manning crew-served weapons struggled to stay together over difficult terrain in fluid battles.
Someone mentioned actor Jesse Ventura in the movie "Predator." His character brandished an M-134 Mini-gun fed by an ammo box on his back. After the Soldiers had a good laugh over that thought, Staff Sgt. Vincent Winkowski asked why a gunner couldn't carry a combat load of ammo. He decided to pursue the idea.
"When we first arrived in theater in late October (2010), we were issued the Mk 48 7.62 mm machine guns," Winkowski said. "This was a new piece of equipment for us, and we struggled to come up with a solution for carrying and employing ammunition for it due to our small size and the inability to have a designated ammo bearer, as is common doctrine with the M240B.
"The ammunition sacks that came with it made it too cumbersome and heavy to carry over long, dismounted patrols and especially when climbing mountains. Initially, we came up with using 50-round belts and just reloading constantly, which led to lulls of fire and inefficiency."
So Winkowski grabbed an old ALICE (all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment) frame, welded two ammunition cans together -- one atop the other after cutting the bottom out of the top can -- and strapped the fused cans to the frame. To that he added a MOLLE (modular, lightweight load-carrying equipment) pouch to carry other equipment.
"We wondered why there wasn't some type of dismounted (Common Remote Operating Weapons Station) that fed our machine guns instead of a mini-gun as portrayed in the movie," Winkowski said. "So, I decided to try it using the feed chute assembly off of the vehicle CROWS. We glued a piece of wood from an ammo crate inside the ammo cans to create the decreased space necessary so the rounds would not fall in on each other.
"My Mark 48 gunners, Spc. Derick Morgan and Spc. Aaron McNew, who also had input to the design and evaluation, took it to the range and tested it, and even with its initial shortcomings, it was much better than the current TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures) we employed. On Feb. 26, 2011, our prototype 'Ironman' pack even saw its first combat use by Spc. McNew when our squad was ambushed by up to 50 fighters in a river valley, and it worked great!"
After attaching pictures of the prototype to a request for information, Winkowski gave it to forward-deployed science advisers from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.
The request landed on the desk of Dave Roy, a current operations analyst in the Quick Reaction Cell of the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, military deputy's office.
"We looked at it," Roy recalled. "My first reaction was, 'Wow, that's cool.' I thought it was great."
In his 21 years as a Soldier, he had seen his share of ingenious solutions to problems.
"Our doctrine encourages Soldiers to think for themselves," Roy said. "That's why we're so effective on the battlefield. One of the things that makes us so effective against our opponents throughout history is the fact that we recognize the value of the doctrine, but we are not slaves to it."
Roy knew that there was no time to waste, because Soldiers on the ground needed a solution as quickly as NSRDEC could get it to them. He consulted with Natick experts in prototypes, load carriage, machining and fabrication. Forty-eight days after the request was received, and after inspecting and measuring the Soldier's original, QRC had a prototype of the "High-Capacity Ammunition Carriage System" back in theater.
"I've dubbed it the 'Ironman,' because the unit in the field that developed the initial design is from the Iowa National Guard," said Roy, "and they are considered Task Force Ironman."
The folks at NSRDEC substituted a MOLLE medium frame for the ALICE frame. The ammo compartment now uses polycarbonate plastic instead of the original tin. Until NSRDEC can come up with a simpler, more cost-effective substitute, the ammo will continue to move through a 27-inch-long, $1,710 feed chute designed for the CROWS, which the Guardsmen had employed.
"I knew in order for this to work, it needed to be as modular as possible," Roy said. "It needed to be based off of a current technology. We were able to put everything together very quickly and were able to prove that with a combat load -- that's 43 pounds with 500 rounds, inclusive of the weight of the kit itself -- that still gives the Soldier 17 pounds worth of cargo weight to attach to the frame and still be within the design specifications for the MOLLE medium."
"We pretty much took their design and just reverse-engineered it and improved upon it," said Laura Winters, who headed up the fabrication effort. "Considering where we started from and what we got to, I think it worked very well. It was a very good collaborative effort. Everybody knew there was (an) end goal."
As Roy pointed out, technology isn't always about the whiz-bang stuff.
"Sometimes," he added, "it's merely a simple application of existing technologies in a different format that provides an elegant way to fill a capability gap."
Word has circulated rapidly in theater about the Ironman prototype.
"We've already gotten email traffic from (one of) our science advisers that everybody in theater wants one of these -- and by in theater, he means his specific area of operation, Regional Command East in Afghanistan -- because word has spread," Roy said. "That (Iowa National Guard) unit is not the only unit on that FOB. As they're walking around the FOB with that piece of kit, very senior people are taking a look at it. They recognize it as a game-changer."
"It's gotten quite a bit of high-profile visibility and positive feedback that this is a good idea," he said. "I believe we've been able to meet the objectives laid out by that unit."
Roy is the first to admit that producing prototypes is one thing; getting the Ironman into the formal acquisition process is another. Still, he hopes that can be accomplished by early in fiscal year 2012.
"Like James Bond and Q," said Roy, "Q can come up with a one-off design for an explosive ballpoint pen. If that material solution fills a gap, you don't just want to have one of them, or you don't want to just have the designs on a cocktail napkin. You want to have something to fill that capability gap very quickly."
During this accelerated development process, Roy saw how the Ironman could increase a small unit's effectiveness in combat.
"To allow the gunner himself to be able to have this kind of firepower increases his lethality," Roy said. "By increasing his lethality, you've also increased his survivability by a certain amount. Now that gunner has 500 rounds of ammunition. It's very difficult for me to make him ineffective."
In addition to the prototype in theater, NSRDEC had several more Ironmen on hand.
"We've gotten some initial feedback from the Soldier and from his gunner on how to make some design changes," said Roy, "and we've incorporated the majority of those design changes. Minor stuff, but it's always the minor stuff that makes any kind of system more efficient and more user-friendly."
Roy said that more technological advances are in the pipeline at Natick.
"I'm confident that we have projects in place that will prove that the Ironman is the rule rather than the exception," Roy said. "We can provide you strength through technology, and we can do that in a rapid manner. We are, in fact, a force multiplier.
"There (are) an awful lot of great ideas on the drawing board right now that are of value to Soldiers in the fight today," he said.