An interesting piece up at Army.mil about the Ironman prototype, and it’s development. It is a good story, and really is a bright spot in the equipment development story. Go here to read it all.
The quick summary is that the individuals saw a need, developed a tool to fill the gap, and sent it on to higher for refinement. The prototype is back in theater and garnering interest from other units that recognize the advantages of the tool. 48 days from recognition of the field expedient solution to refined prototype. Now the project is languishing because of procurement processes.
We are a nation engaged in a war unlike anything that we have experienced before in our short history (although their are arguments to that statement). As an government we need to recognize that:
a.) Speed is of the essence in these types of projects, and
b.) They should be considered disposable (I’ll explain this below).
48 days from concept to prototype using primarily off the shelf components, that’s not too bad, particularly given the refinements that were made. I think that probably could have been cut in half if not in one-third. The methods that are in play for research, development, and procurement need to be streamlined. There needs to be an urgency in getting improved tools to the users. Particularly, when they are relatively simple tools. A three hundred page maintenance manual, and multiple levels of repair parts, and repair echelons is not always necessary out of the gate.
In my opinion there should have been 25 prototypes produced and 20 of them forwarded to the field for evaluation and refinement. Accompanying the product should be a document (3 pages or less) of how to employ the tool, and any primary maintenance concerns. Leave the prototypes out there for 1 month of field use and evaluate them for any significant refinements. For this product one I would add one refinement cycle that probably could have been done by a team of smart research and prototype guys that would be forward deployed in theater, even to Diego Garcia or Kuwait but in closer geographic proximity than Maryland. In parallel to the initial prototype evaluation take 3 days to develop a detailed RFP that is given to 5 different “fast track” firms for a two week RFP response, followed by a MK.1 “priority” production run of a “reasonable” number of units that would include identified refinements from field testing. You should be able to put a quantity of this product in the warfighter’s hands in 70 to 90 days.
Long production runs, and warehousing of the units should not be a consideration. This is a specific use object, that is an initial design. There are always ways to improve an object to make it more user friendly, more robust, etc. As long as there are Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen, and Marines using the gear there will be a thousand ways that will be discovered to improve it. This is particularly true for infantry equipment.
As a nation we have this mindset that we have to provide the best quality, most highly refined equipment to our troops. Having been on the pointy end, I like this mindset, and it is the correct mindset for those tools that are highly complex, or are expected to have a long life cycle. At the same time we are a nation at war with an enemy that has been in hot and cold wars with western civilization for more than 1000 years. As a “people” we are a tremendously inventive and creative group but, we have become a bit complacent in how we approach solving problems.
This use case is identified as a success. Something that was identified in the field, run through the proper channels, and solved. But, that solution is not yet complete and my position is that the process can run much more efficiently than it did. Waiting for the “acquisition” process is where the model completely breaks down. Congress needs to recognize that military acquisition processes need to be streamlined for specific types of procurement during a conflict, and provide guidance (and any necessary legislation) to the Pentagon on streamlining the cycle. Alternatively, Congress could eliminate the laws and other regulations governing the Pentagon procurement process and let the Department of Defense run their department as a business might run it. I know I oversimplified that solution but there are sections of the Federal Code that needs to be thrown out and new solutions evaluated, and this may be one of them.