By Mr. Dan Lafontaine (RDECOM)March 1, 2013
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- American Soldiers in Afghanistan were recently challenged in securing a facility for coalition forces. They turned to deployed U.S. Army civilian engineers for a solution.
Soldiers from the 1st Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment, known as the 1-9 Cav, had been unsuccessful in finding the expertise they needed to design, build and install new force-protection measures. After meeting with the forward deployed engineering cell from the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, a fix began to take shape.
CIVILIANS, SOLDIERS DEVELOPING SOLUTIONS
Steve Roberts, a mechanical engineer from RDECOM's Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, led the effort. He said the project demonstrates how the team overcomes obstacles created by the nine time zones and 7,000 miles that separate Stateside Army engineers and technicians from Soldiers in the Middle East.
"We were able to assess the site, perform the design reviews, create prototypes, come up with final products, and do an install within a month," Roberts said in an interview from Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. "If we would need to reach back to the States to get this type of work done, it would have taken a minimum of three months, probably closer to six."
The RDECOM Field Assistance in Science and Technology-Center, or RFAST-C, Forward Deployed Prototype Integration Facility develops engineering solutions in cooperation with the Army Materiel Command's 401st Army Field Support Brigade.
Roberts; executive officer Dan McGauley, Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center; equipment operator Jon-Luke DeStephano, ARDEC; and engineering technician Bob Spetla, ARDEC, comprised the RFAST-C group that completed the security improvements.
Capt. Mitchell Monette, the 1-9 Cav officer-in-charge of force-protection improvements, praised the RFAST-C's efforts in providing security upgrades for his Soldiers.
"I couldn't believe the level of efficiency and professionalism that the engineers brought," Monette said. "Internal Army assets were fully engaged with other projects so the recommendation was made to contact RFAST-C.
"After seeing the quality of the worksmanship that went in to the upgrades, I'm very happy with the outcome and will continue to call on their expertise if needed. It was a pleasure to be working with this organization."
The project included designing, constructing and installing a metal door and frame, observation screens to allow movement in the compound without being monitored, and retaining devices to increase wall height using sandbags.
Security Forces Advise and Assist Team 8 members requested the modifications in early January. The RFAST-C installed the frame, door and observation screen framework Feb. 16.
ENGINEERING CAPABILITIES IN THEATER
RFAST-C Director Michael Anthony, who works for RDECOM's Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, said the team's rapidly developed prototypes would not be possible without being on-site with the Soldiers.
"That's the benefit of having a forward deployed team of Army civilians who are experts in their field and can quickly build prototypes," Anthony said. "Being in theater allows us to assess the situation to develop a rapid, engineered solution. We get immediate feedback and can adjust the effort where needed. It saves time and valuable resources."
McGauley said RFAST-C's unique capabilities enable solutions that Soldiers could not find elsewhere. RDECOM established RFAST-C in spring 2011 and began full operations in December 2011.
"It's a reputation that RFAST-C has developed here at Bagram Airfield. They heard about us from another unit," he said.
Because Soldiers are not accustomed to having the support of an engineering team embedded in a combat zone, they often attempt their own fixes without the necessary expertise, materials or equipment, DeStephano said.
"Out here, if there is no one to provide the work or resources, [Soldiers] work around it," he said. "A lot of times they get so used to doing this, they don't even know where to turn. They don't expect much help.
"They were overwhelmed. We worked hand-in-hand [and] felt a sense of accomplishment working together."
'RFAST-C IS A FORCE MULTIPLIER'
The four RFAST-C members first traveled to the compound and performed a site survey. Roberts said he used the software ProEngineer at the PIF to develop models.
The 1-9 Cav Soldiers came to the RFAST-C PIF to vet the models and prototypes before production started. The 1-9 Cav provided a welding machine and a Soldier to perform welding.
Spetla said the team developed camaraderie with the Soldiers working on the project. The face-to-face interaction with Soldiers is a benefit not typically available back home.
"Even though in the States I'm helping Soldiers, here, I see their faces and talk to them. The day of installation was the best day I've had since I've been here," he said.
Because of engineering limitations in a combat zone, resourcefulness is a necessity.
"Here in Bagram, you have to use what you've got. We don't always have everything we need on hand. We went on a reconnaissance mission on the base," Spetla said. "Sometimes it's like treasure-hunting.
"It's part of the way of life here -- people helping, giving and taking. We have no Home Depot."
DeStephano said another challenge was the compound's remote location. Unlike a modification to a ground vehicle that is brought to the PIF, the group did not have access to the site after the initial day of taking measurements.
"This was different from most projects that we've worked on. We used our existing knowledge to get a working design to fit in the process. We had to adjust it when we went into the field," DeStephano said. "We came up with something that we could install in place using practical tools."
McGauley said the tight deadlines and restrictions on equipment and materials, compared with those typically available in the Army's research centers in the United States, forces the team to develop new ways of thinking.
"This job pushes everybody to their limit and then forces them to go beyond that limit, finding new ways to do things that perhaps they hadn't seen or thought of before. RFAST-C is a force multiplier for the units on the ground here in Afghanistan," he said.