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Today's Army marches on its batteries while searching for alternatives


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    The U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force aims to help soldiers in the field by finding "the first, best, fastest solution." Above, as part of an exercise at Fort Bliss, one soldier team came up with its own design for a Combat Outpost -- a remote camp for 20 to 150 soldiers.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    In the Fort Bliss exercise, two dozen soldiers tried out a modular Combat Outpost for two weeks. Here, two soldiers work on a mockup of an idea that came out of the trial, an emergency intercom.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    A civilian contractor, Allen Easterling, shows details of the mobile, expandable modules that make up the new outposts -- called X camps, for experimental. Housing units come with bunk beds packed neatly inside.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    This outpost module has a kitchen packed inside. When shipped, a module measures eight feet by eight feet by twenty. On site, it expands to 12 feet wide.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    Each outpost is powered by a series of diesel generators on a mini-grid. Broken generators are a common problem in Afghanistan.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    A practiced team can erect a Combat Outpost in about a week. The new design will use less than half the fuel of the camps now in service, and will provide better living conditions.

    - Alex Chadwick

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    The Rapid Equipping Force is getting a new commander. Col. Pete Newell, above, is retiring after three years as its director.

    - Alex Chadwick

The U.S. Army's Rapid Equipping Force -- REF for short -- is a little-known agency making big changes in how soldiers fight. It was created after an officer saw a video of soldiers trying to clear an Afghan cave with a rope and grappling hook -- why not robots, he wondered? That was 10 years ago, and since then REF has become an innovator in many fields, including energy.

The great military book is from early China, “The Art of War.”

There is no art of soldiering... you heavy up, go for a walk, look for trouble for a few hours. Or days. Watch a YouTube video of a patrol in Afghanistan.

“The average weight on a soldier's back is somewhere around 104 pounds.”

That’s Col. Pete Newell, U.S. Army. Soldiering doesn't change. Technology does.

“Twenty-seven of it is batteries,” Newell said.

Col. Newell is the director of the Rapid Equipping Force -- REF -- a think tank, hardware store, tech lab for combat soldiers. A perfect solution to a soldier problem -- a Humvee redesigned against IEDs, for instance -- might take years. REF tries to find pretty good answers that already exist, or are about to exist.

“What we'll describe is find the first, best, fastest solution we can,” Newell said

Here's an example, something REF helped develop to answer a soldier problem with, again, IEDs. And if you wonder what all the batteries are for, well...

“It's called the Thor III,” Newell said.

Thor. It sounds heavy.

“The piece of equipment itself weighs 25 pounds,” Newell said. “Over a three-day patrol, a platoon of 28 soldiers will have three of these systems because of the bands that they operate at.”

Thor is a jammer, a signal jammer. Everybody adapts technology, including the people trying to kill us. A favorite tactic... a hidden bomb with a cell-phone trigger. Wait for the soldiers to get close, call the number... boom. If you're going out on patrol for three days, you want a Thor III, batteries included. If Thor is working, the bomb triggers will not.

“The battery total for that 72 hours is 238 pounds,” Newell said. “So 238 pounds distributed across 28 bodies, on top of the weight for the system and the weight of all the other stuff they're carrying.”

Col. Newell is a former brigade commander, awarded a Silver Star and a unit commendation for leadership at Fallujah, the biggest fight in Iraq. He knows soldiering, but when he took over REF three years ago, he didn't think about energy.

“I would tell you that I really did not see that as a major task for the Rapid Equipping Force,” he said.

But... combat outposts, remote battlefield camps for 30 to 100 soldiers, use a lot of fuel. The convoys to supply them are magnets for bombs, snipers -- they’re the Army's single greatest vulnerability in Afghanistan: Energy. It's also true for a single soldier -- heavied up, and walking patrol.

The Thor III is a REF solution. Too heavy, too power-hungry, though it works right now with existing tech, until they design something better. Still, in January, at REF headquarters at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, the colonel was more excited by something else.

“These are solar recharging blankets and you probably seen them before,” he said. “So this is a 10-watt blanket, and it's about two feet by three feet, the size of a poster.”

It folds neatly, it weighs 12 ounces, it comes in camo. Its 10 watts of power is enough to charge two smartphones in an hour.

“Nine months ago, this was the best thing I could find on the market for being developed,” Newell said.

Then he put aside the poster-size charger and showed me what looked like a camo napkin.

“This is a 10-watt solar blanket,” Newell said. “This weighs 3.8 ounces. So, within nine months we went from what we thought was really, really, really good to a 28 percent efficient solar cell and reduced the size down to a third of what it was before.

REF just bought two kilowatts of these cells for $2 million -- $100 per watt. That is way too expensive for normal use. But it's a tenth what the cells would have cost a year ago, and in another two years, the Silicon Valley company that makes them, Alta Devices, hopes to have the cost down to $10 a watt. Meanwhile, soldiers are going to be using these... and if they come to trust the mats, maybe some of those 27 pounds of batteries can stay back at base.

For all the technological wonders, REF's social tech impressed me most.

The fuel-eating Combat Outposts I mentioned earlier, REF is proto-typing a radical redesign. They put one up at a gunnery range by Fort Bliss, Texas, and got two dozen soldiers to live in it for two weeks.

Then REF hired a leading Silicon Valley marketing firm, IDEO, to run a three-day exercise to try to understand what the soldiers had learned, what they would change. It's the kind of thing very big tech firms do -- because it works. REF thinks of the soldier as the customer.

Among changes the soldiers suggested -- an emergency intercom system. REF is working on it.

REF directors, Col. Newell and those before him, spend a lot of time with high-tech firms and venture capitalists, and at the best engineering and business schools, trying to understand how to be very, very agile.

“Stop trying to solve the problem,” Newell said. “Spend your time trying to understand what it is you're supposed to be doing. The problem will eventually solve itself.

Col. Newell leaves his post at REF this week -- he's retiring from the Army. The Department of Defense has just decided to change REF's status from interesting experiment to permanent agency. We'll see how that works.

But I was in the Army long ago, and even at Fort Bliss for a while -- and it wasn't this smart.

About the author

Alex Chadwick is an independent journalist, renowned public radio correspondent and contributor to Marketplace. He is host of BURN: An Energy Journal.
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Alex- tell REF their emails addresses on their website don't work. Tried to send them an idea and it was undeliverable.

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