Innovation on demand

The Rapid Reaction Technology Office looks for answers on the double

The focus of the Rapid Reaction Technology Office — force protection, combating terrorism, surveillance technology, capabilities areas, and rationale to drive future science and technology investments — sounds like traditional Defense Department functions. DOD is looking to bring together agencies that have warfare needs and companies that have innovative solutions to those needs.

RRTO isn’t the first DOD agency to try to link innovators and the acquisition community — the Office of Naval Research’s Warfighting Concepts to Future Weapon System Designs (Warcon) of six or seven years ago sought to do that, too.

The conceptual link between the two agencies isn’t coincidental — Warcon’s government program manager was Ben Riley, now director at RRTO.

“Organizationally, we started the day after Sept. 11, 2001,” Riley said. Ronald Sega, then director of Defense research and engineering, brought together people from science and technology and asked: “What do we have to do to address counterterrorism?”

In May 2002, Sega tapped Riley, chairman of the newly created Counter Terrorism Task Force, to look into specialized weapons development leading up to military operations in Iraq. During the invasion’s aftermath the problem of improvised explosive devices took on major importance. Sega again turned to Riley to generate answers.

The big question, Riley said, was: “What problem are we trying to solve? Obviously, we had an IED problem, but we also chose to focus on the broader issues of instability and counterinsurgency.”

A look at available and potential capabilities revealed a lack of a realistic test environment. In December 2003, Riley’s group made its first investment: a counter-IED test range at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.

Maintenance and development of the range was picked up and expanded by the Joint IED Defeat Organization ( JIEDDO), but RRTO still maintains a few two-week periods each year to let companies run free tests. The range is open to large companies, Riley said, “but our target audience is the small company that has a good idea but doesn’t have the resources to afford the test range. [Hopefully,] they’ll come back with a better product.”

Peanut butter and chocolate

JIEDDO’s assumption of responsibility for the test range is precisely the matchmaker model that RRTO wants: Discover a company with an innovative solution, match it with an agency in need of it, get the program started, and let nature take its course.

“I like to use the example of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Bar,” Riley says. “One guy has peanut butter, another guy has chocolate. You slam them together, and you’ve got a profitable candy bar.”

However, finding viable and innovative solutions, or even the right problem, isn’t as easy as matching peanut butter with chocolate. And not every matchup produces definitive answers. A JIEDDO report released in March estimates that IEDs are responsible for nearly half of all casualties sustained in Iraq and 30 percent of those in Afghanistan since the start of combat operations.

While continuing to seek technological options, however, the larger mission is to “break the terrorist/insurgency cycle.” RRTO’s mission, as Riley defined it, as he also defined the Warcon mission, is not as simple as finding a smart new weapon. Rather, it is to change the way the war on terrorism is fought, “anticipate adversaries’ exploitation of technology,” and “anticipate and evaluate emerging and future technology opportunities and needs.”

To identify those needs, he said, “I do a lot of reading. I read as much as I can because I think, rather than have somebody tell you what they think the answer is, you have to figure it out for yourself.”

He and the other four people who comprise the RRTO staff also heavily rely on studies and evaluations. “I’m keen on reading and reviewing Defense Science Board reports,” he said. “I rely on reports from the Institute for Defense Analyses and some groups like Rand. But a significant amount of [the job] is trying to read and understand the problems yourself.”

It’s important to get out to the agencies to “see what the department is doing, think about it and try to identify areas that I think we might not be focusing on, but should be,” he said, citing biometrics as an example.

“In 2003 and 2004, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on biometrics. We were fortunate with some of the funding we had to be able to put [about $10.2 million] into biometric programs,” he said. Those programs highlighted the need for further investment, and that led to the establishment of the Defense Biometrics Directorate.

Tapping into the good ideas, “particularly the high-tech innovative companies that aren’t part of the defense establishment,” is an ongoing quest, Riley said.

One technique is to hold workshops, which Riley calls crosspollination sessions. During a day and a half in October, a dozen or so managers of RRTO projects gave 20-minute overviews of what they’re working on to an audience of about 40. “It’s always surprising the number of intersections you make,” Riley said. “My metric for success is what takes place in the breaks — who do you see talking to whom during the breaks? What kind of deals are being made?”

The agency also meets regularly with the Defense Venture Catalyst Initiative. DeVenCI culls requests from DOD agencies and presents them to a board of private-venture capitalists, who then look for what typically are small companies that can supply innovative new solutions.

“DeVenCI introduced us to a company that does work on the patent side, and we’re interested in potentially doing some work with them,” Riley said.

Stretch a dollar

The agency’s slim $51 million base budget is supplemented by about $21 million for an experimental craft and testing platform Stiletto, and it gets some additional money from OFT and the Science and Technology directorate for biometrics research and development.

RRTO uses a variety of resources through partnerships with government, industry, academia and other countries, including Australia, Canada, Germany, Israel, Singapore and Spain.

Col. Thomas Doyne, RRTO action officer for operational experimentation Air Force, travels the globe pitching “Coalition- Operationally Responsive Space: a 100-satellite solution,” what he calls “an international constellation of like-minded nations participating in security operations around the world.”

For the ORS/Tactical Satellite program, RRTO partnered with Space Exploration Technologies. Congress provided $17 million in 2006 and 2007 for the project, then urged the Air Force to integrate it into its operations.

If investments are modest, it means that “in many cases we can afford maybe to take more risk than one might in other circumstances,” Riley said.

The agency is gambling $1.7 million of its fiscal 2008 budget — $2 million the following year — on Griffin, a medium-endurance, multipurpose, autonomous unmanned surface vehicle. RRTO will partner with the Naval Surface Warfare Center — with the Dahlgren Division at Dahlgren, Va., taking the technical and integration lead, — and the Carderock Division in Carderock, Va., taking the hull form and propulsion lead.

But there’s nothing modest about RRTO’s oversight. Spiral development of projects, which typically run between six and 18 months, is the rule. Although RRTO doesn’t manage projects, one of RRTO’s five-person staff reviews all data, Riley said. That reflects the agency’s fiscal responsibility and another way to stay on top of what’s going on, he said.

More to come

RRTO continues to invest in conventional, if innovative, technology. For Wolf Pack, a program to identify and evaluate emerging but relatively mature ideas and technologies to help quickly plug small-unit operations gaps, RRTO has half a dozen industry partners.

But even what seems conventional often carries nontraditional implications in areas of policy and ensuring compliance with the law and civil liberties.

Ethics is emerging as a big issue, Riley said. “It’s not just getting a new piece of equipment out there. We need to be sure that whatever we’re doing is within the confines of the law and that we’re mindful of not only what the laws — civil laws, privacy laws — are in this country, but also what the laws are in other countries.”

About the Author

Sam Lais is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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