11, 2008:The U.S. Army's slow moving
procurement system has gotten an unwanted kick in the ass by the Special Forces
and the Internet. Tangible change came six years ago in the form of RFI (Rapid
Fielding Initiative). The 2001 Afghanistan campaign provided the opportunity
for the establishment, in early 2002, to implement some needed changes. RFI is an army program that recognized that American
army troops did not always have the best weapons and equipment, and had to wait
a long time to get them even after the brass realized there was a need. RFI was
intended to do something about that, and do it quickly. RFI gives the units
(brigades, divisions) money to buy what they think they need, and as quickly as possible.
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.
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 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 came along, each
soldiers discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets
spread army wide within hours. The troops also compared notes about combat experiences,
and this led to detailed and compelling critiques about what worked, and didn't
work, with current army gear.
there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed it's own
RFI powers, and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well
as equipment, completely ignoring the military procurement bureaucracy. 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 on the Internet how much more effective they could be
if they had SOCOMs freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do
their job better.
American troops went into Afghanistan in early 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 were
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.
campaign gave the RFI another workout. A typical incident involved all the
raids troops had to make and the problems with getting through sturdy locked
doors. Some troops knew of special equipment police departments used, others
knew of special equipment fire fighters used to break into burning 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.
procurement system is not much different than just about every other military
organization. It is deliberate, it emphasizes avoiding mistakes, especially any
that would make the bureaucrats look bad. The procurement community pays more
attention to the desires of politicians and senior Pentagon officials, than to
the troops who ultimately have to use the gear.
RFI, and the
constant troop buzz on the Internet, has also terrified the procurement
bureaucrats. That buzz gets heard by politicians and journalists. Now the
troops have to be paid attention to. Big change, and it has speeded up the
development of official gear (which is often just RFI stuff bought in bulk and