Office Seeks Balance Supporting Current, Future Warfighters
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2009 It's a fine balancing act for the office of the Pentagon's director of defense research and engineering: how does the department fulfill the needs of today's warfighters and the needs of servicemembers a generation from now?
The office has several functions, director Zachary Lemnios said during an interview with American Forces Press Service. One is to prepare for an uncertain future by investing in science and technology across the department. Another function is to find ways "to take early results from the science and technology community and quickly transition them to the warfighter," he said. A third function, he added, is to improve early technology testing activities to control cost, schedule and risk in Defense Department acquisition programs.
"My mantra for this organization is innovation, speed and agility. We're trying to innovate at speed with a lot of agility," Lemnios said.
This signifies a cultural shift in the organization, which in the past focused more on future capabilities.
"Everyone wants to get capability into the hands of those in theater as fast as possible," he said, "but the building doesn't always work on those coordinates, and we're trying to work it in that direction a bit."
The effort has the absolute endorsement of combatant commanders and the secretary, Lemnios said, and brings together the service science and technology community and agencies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The office cannot stand by when servicemembers are putting their lives on the line fighting two wars, and the director called getting new capabilities to warfighters "a contact sport."
"We need to find ways to work with acquisition and science and technology organizations inside and outside the department to identify those core capabilities and find ways to transition them to use," he said.
The classic example is the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. The vehicle went from a combatant command request in 2004 to fielding more than 16,000 vehicles by 2008. Industry ramped up production to 1,200 vehicles a month, and is still projected to produce 1,000 MRAPs in December.
"It's a stellar program," Lemnios said, "because it brought the science and technology community together with the combatant commands together with skill sets we had in department to build an entirely new vehicle."
The MRAP is a V-hulled vehicle that mitigates the effects of a roadside bomb. The office worked closely with the Marine Corps Combat Development Center, the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and with Aberdeen Proving Ground to validate the concepts, the director said. "We shortened the acquisition time [and] went through all sorts of new lanes to make that happen, so it didn't take five years to make," he said.
Now the organization is heading a new effort to get all-terrain versions of MRAPs - known as M-ATVs -- to Afghanistan. This is an entirely new design with much of it done in-house - a break from past practices of taking designs from the private sector. The first M-ATVs arrived in Afghanistan this month, with many more coming.
Another example of getting technology to the warfighters is the recommendation to send A-160 Hummingbird autonomous helicopters to Afghanistan to handle resupply missions to remote forward operating bases. These unmanned helicopters belong to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The A-160s are capable of delivering 1,500-pound cargos and flying 1,700 miles.
A third effort looks to reduce the energy footprint of forward operating bases in Afghanistan. The office sponsored a team in the region to perform an energy survey. "If we can cut down on the number of fuel and water truck drivers, we would help a lot," Lemnios said.
Listening to and dealing with combatant commanders is imperative for the science and technology communities, Lemnios said. "We've got to be cognizant of the needs in the field," he said.
The office must be responsive when combatant commanders submit joint urgent operational needs statements. These are needs that they see as life-threatening or have a significant near-term impact.
"We vet all of those and match what the [combatant commanders] need with what we understand from the [acquisition and science and technology] community," he said.
The office "translates" each community to the other. Lemnios also manages the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, which matches the combatant commanders' needs with private technologies.
Lemnios has met with five combatant commanders to try to understand the seminal needs that they want to see in place. He asks them what capabilities they would like to have in a perfect world. They need to get beyond the processes, he explained, and look to those capabilities without self-censorship.
The office has connected with the 65 science and technology advisors working for the combatant commands, Lemnios noted. And while the office is working to help warfighters today, it also has a responsibility to maintain the U.S. military's technological edge for the future.
Lemnios' office oversees DARPA, and coordinates research work by the Army, Navy and Air Force laboratory commands. "The role for this office is to [assemble a coherent] strategic plan for the entire scope of investments -- that's people and ideas for the strategic future," he said.
The fight against terrorism will take years. "The key is to find a way to use advanced technology as a force extender and a lever," Lemnios said. It also is about identifying potent new technologies, he added, noting the value of unmanned aerial vehicles on today's battlefields.
"There was no requirement for UAVs 20 years ago," he said.
The organization is working to take core ideas and move them out of the science and technology realm and into acquisition. The budget for science and technology is growing by a few percent each year, Lemnios said. "The growth is healthy and appropriate," he said.
The office stood up a systems engineering directorate targeted at helping major defense programs through the milestones. These experts also will study the early architectural trades for a system.
"Seventy to75 percent of a system's cost is determined before Milestone A," Lemnios said. "Once you lock down the system architecture, you've essentially nailed the program cost.
"It's like building a home," he continued. "You want to spend a lot of time with the architect and the builder up front so you minimize the changes downstream. Every one of those change orders cost you a bundle."
Lemnios opined that the next big technology breakthrough may have to do with "our ability to communicate with systems in a very natural way."
"We will be building systems that really do have cognitive abilities to understand the user - whether it is a computer system or whether an information system or a robotics system," he said.
Some systems already approach the ability to mimic human language understanding, and in some cases learning and reasoning, he said. "So you can think of, for example, a computer that you can have a conversation, and it will respond to you in the correct tone, or even perhaps with gestures."
This technology exists to some extent today, he said. "Within five to 10 years, you will see robotics systems you actually interact with at the human scale," he predicted. "That's going to be a revolution."
Managing vast amounts of information is another problem technology must address, Lemnios said.
"So if you look in theater today, … it is trying to manage enormous sensor data, working with multinational troops and do it in a way that is time critical, that is persistent across large areas," he said. "Trying to manage that info and find the hidden features in large data sets. If we could really build information systems that allow the analyst to interoperate with that data in a natural way, it would have a huge impact."