December 7, 2010: The German Army maintains a web site where troops overseas, especially in Afghanistan, can request special equipment (or simply something they see some other army using successfully.) In the last six months, about half the 240 requests led to some action, often the purchase of new gear. But almost as frequently, it simply meant send something the army already had to Afghanistan, or sending more (as in more armored vehicles or different types of MRAPS.) Any new item, that the army did not already have, was also closely monitored to see if it should become a permanent part of the army equipment inventory.
While the Americans have done more with this idea lately, it's actually an old German custom that goes back to the 1920s. The Germans set up study groups to examine what worked, and didn't, during World War I, and one of the many things they discovered was the need to pay closer, and more immediate, attention to what the troops thought they needed. This is why allied troops during World War II were often surprised as the wide array of useful gear and weapons the Germans had.
The U.S. has adopted a similar program during the past decade. For example, over the last six years, eleven percent of the special items troops in Iraq and Afghanistan requested, were later made permanent items in the U.S. Army inventory. Every three months, the army looks at these emergency request items, to see how they are working out, and deciding which of them are long term keepers. Some 64 percent have been judged good enough to remain in use, but about a quarter of them were terminated (no more government money to buy this stuff). This process is officially called the CDRT (Capabilities Development for Rapid Transition), and itÂ’s a way for army procurement bureaucrats to make the best of a bad situation.
Nine years of war has changed a lot of things in the U.S. military, but none more troublesome, to the military bureaucracy, than the new attitude of "we want it now." Senior commanders are taking on the military procurement bureaucracy, in order to get new technology to the troops sooner. It's not a new fight, but having so many generals involved in trying to speed things up, that is new. And often the generals were asking for some very expensive stuff. But these officers had done their homework, and it is hard to say no to officers who are under fire every day.
It all began with the troops who, thanks to the Internet and a flood of new civilian technology, got into the habit of just buying new stuff and using it in combat. This was something new, and it often led to the army officially adopting the superior new equipment. There had been some of this going on for decades, and it had been growing more frequent since the 1990s. The army had become tolerant of it, largely because this unofficial civilian gear (sleeping bags, boots, rifle cleaning kits, etc) often was better, and even officers used the stuff. So as the number of these items increased tremendously over the last decade, and more officers came back from commanding combat units, with personal experience with this sort of thing, more senior commanders are demanding that the army procurement bureaucracy somehow get rid of the traditional 10-15 years it takes to find, develop and approve new technology for the troops. The troops have long understood this, but now, four star generals agree, and often do so from personal experience.
But it's not like everything is changing at once. Consider the RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). One of the little noticed after-effects of the Afghanistan campaign was the establishment, in early 2002, of the Rapid Fielding Initiative. This was an army program that recognized that American army troops did not always have the best weapons and equipment. RFI was intended to do something about that, and do it quickly. RFI is what the Germans are doing now, with considerable vigor.
You could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other stuff came from hunting suppliers (new gun sights). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear.
The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet, and like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet, each soldier's discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army-wide within hours.
Finally, there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed its own RFI powers, and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (night vision gear and satellite phones). SOCOM personnel were on the Internet as well. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating, via the Internet, how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOM's freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.
When American troops went into Afghanistan in October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money. Especially if the new equipment, from a civilian supplier, was obviously superior to the stuff the government was giving the troops. With this kind of incentive, the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.
The Iraq campaign gave the RFI another boost. A typical example involved all the raids troops had to make, and the problems with getting through sturdy locked doors. Some troops knew of special equipment police and fire departments used to break into buildings. The proper equipment was soon in the troops' hands, and many lives, both American and Iraqi, were saved. Stories came back from Afghanistan and Iraq about how great the RFI gear was and all was well with the troops and the brass in the Pentagon.
Some generals consider the official procurement bureaucracy beyond help. It is encumbered with generations of laws and rules, which are supposed to curb fraud, enhance efficiency, or whatever, and have just contributed to the many delays that make everything take far longer than it should. You can't mess with the laws, at least not too often, and especially not in peacetime, without getting brought up short by Congress and the courts. For the politicians, the defense budget is a principal tool for getting reelected. That procurement money means jobs for American voters, and the politicians representing those voters know it. But in wartime, the troops are given more leeway to get what they need, and they are making the most of it.