Rapid Equipping Force trainers educate soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team last year on operating and maintaining SolarStik during an Energy to the Edge training exercise at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center in Hohenfels, Germany. (Ali Sanders / Rapid Equipping Force)
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The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and the organization that fights roadside bombs are working to position themselves as critical to postwar defense, while most of the 120-odd ad hoc organizations within the Pentagon likely will close.
While leadership at Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization lobbies to be included in future base budgets, the REF has been promised a slot in the fiscal 2015 spending plan, a move the recently retired head of the shop says comes with some risk for the organization’s flexibility.
The REF is known for delivering soldiers dozens of combat tools including the hand-held unmanned Raven aircraft that provides reconnaissance for small units and the PackBot robot that can be controlled to detect explosives or explore Afghan caves. The REF also produced cameras for route clearance and a hand-held translation device that helps soldiers talk to Afghans.
Retired Col. Pete Newell told Defense News, a sister publication of Army Times, he has confidence in the future of REF.
There has been some worry over what role REF can play now that the end of large-scale American involvement in Afghanistan is on the horizon. Newell bristles at that.
“Combat development is done in combat,” he said. “Who’s in combat in 2015? [Special operations forces] guys still in Afghanistan. SOF guys in Africa. SOF guys in the Pacific. Regionally aligned forces. So that’s kind of where the focus goes, and REF has been working with [Special Operations Command] more and more as the conventional guys draw down.”
Newell is adamant that REF “has got to stay out on the forward edge” to do its job, which means that as small Army and special operations units spread out globally, he expects REF to become more expeditionary than it has been.
The crown jewels of this expeditionary future are several mobile labs the command has built, which come equipped with 3-D printers and video links back to REF headquarters. Deployed soldiers walk into the lab on a small base in Afghanistan with an idea for a new piece of gear and start work right away on making it a reality.
Two labs are in Afghanistan, with another under construction in Los Angeles.
“I think you will find REF primarily focused on its expeditionary qualities,” Newell said. “Other people can do what REF does, but virtually no one can do it the way REF does it at the forward edge of the battlefield. The labs really become the focal point.”
The labs can be sling-loaded under a CH-47 helicopter and delivered wherever they’re needed.
Newell and his staff had been working to craft a 2015 budget for REF, which meant that for the first time, they have had to look beyond immediate battlefield effects and anticipate what requirements might be critical in 2015 and beyond.
Until now, REF has understandably focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and its funding has come from the supplemental spending bills passed to fight those wars. As a result, it’s been hard to commit those dollars for needed projects outside of those two combat zones, since it has been hard to justify, say, spending $1 million on a project in South Korea when there are IEDs going off in Kandahar. Moving REF into the base budget will eliminate this problem, allowing REF to work with soldiers around the world to help solve problems.
The Army G-3 operations shop is working to provide REF with more money in the base budget for programs like this, Newell said.
Newell worries that if REF is made too big, it might lose some of its willingness to take risks, since it will be saddled with the same responsibilities that all other offices housed in the Pentagon have.
Case in point are discussions that REF should be combined with JIEDDO in the postwar years. Newell is firmly against it.
“JIEDDO’s got a bureaucracy to it, it’s big. If you make REF too big, then the bureaucracy takes over. But to be effective, there has to be a high tolerance for risk inside REF, and if the Army wants to take risks,” the REF must stay lean.
One of the keys to keeping the organization sharp is retaining the tradition of naming recent brigade commanders to lead it, Newell said. This way, the colonel has peer relationships with other colonels in the operational environment.
“One of the reasons that it’s a good idea for me to swap out now is that I’m no longer a peer with brigade commanders,” Newell said. “I know more one- and two-star generals than I know colonels now.”
For the organization to be able to prioritize and push requests from the field, you need to have “brutally honest conversations [between peers], the kind of thing you’ll never see in a PowerPoint slide,” Newell said.
Newell’s replacement, Col. Steve Sliwa, is on the Joint Staff after commanding a brigade in South Korea and is scheduled to take command this summer.
REF’s place in national security, while small, has been proven by hard experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, Newell said.
“Using the knowledge and capacity of soldiers at the forward edge of the battlefield — to me, that is probably the most important thing that REF can do in the future,” he said.