The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has escaped the fate of the many precursors shuttered after major wars and has been declared an “enduring capability” with funding, albeit modest, through fiscal 2023.
The Army has established some sort of fast-innovation office during every conflict since World War II when engineers quickly devised hedgerow cutting devices for the “Rhino” tanks plowing across France in 1944. REF was established in 2002 to swiftly field robots that could scout subterranean tunnels in Afghanistan.
Today, it receives hundreds of specific requirements requests a year and supplies small quantities of interim capabilities like counter-unmanned aerial system weapons to electronic warfare-equipped ground vehicles.
“Our organization is one that the Building went through a question period of does it continue?” Col. Lanier Ward, REF director, told reporters Feb. 27 during a meeting at the unit’s headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Va. “What they found was with the mission set being about ‘the Now’ is that when would you need us most?’ Probably when you introduce forces with their … equipment into an environment where they suddenly find there’s things they are missing. They would need it now. Is that the same time period you want to be standing up an organization to get after that problem?”
“So, there was a decision made, at least as of today, that the REF is an enduring capability,” Ward said. “There is a belief that the mission of the REF is still very much required.”
REF stands to receive $2.8 million in the Army’s base budget request for fiscal 2019 and another $3 million in overseas contingency operations (OCO) funding. That budget plan projects funding REF at just under $2.8 million in the base budget out to fiscal 2023.
The REF is the Army's quick reaction capability (QRC) with the ability to acquire, integrate and sustain commercial-off-the shelf (COTS), government off-the-shelf (GOTS), non-developmental item (NDI) and non-standard equipment to meet urgent combat requirements within two years from receipt of requirement. It bridges the gap between the Army's traditional acquisition process and immediate equipping needs with other organizations like the Rapid Capabilities Office occupying the middle ground of fielding and sustaining systems for between one and five years.
“We get to work on a much simpler scale, very small-unit, specific-problem related, some cases almost individual-based,” he said. “We are very much at the lower tactical level.”
Ward said the REF is designed to provide near-immediate solutions to operations problems, or field critical capability gaps and then “wait for the cavalry” to show up with “the big Army solution.”
“We’re able to go to the Army and say ‘If you want know what is best out there right now, here’s what’s out there right now,’” he said. “I know we’re working on lasers and … different things that are being looked at for the future, but if you want to know what’s best right now, here it is.”
REF was designed as a modular organization that can scale up or down to match demand. It currently comprises about 140 personnel – 30 uniformed military, 21 Army civilians and the remainder contractors. It has shrunk by about a third over the past two years, mainly through shedding contractor support, Ward said.
As the Army establishes and deploys its new Security Force Assistance Brigades, REF already is fielding new requirement submissions and could grow in response, Ward said.
Anyone in the Army, from a private to a division commander, can submit a “10-liner” request for capability to the REF. The director validates the requirements, assesses whether it is appropriate for REF or another organization to tackle and then receives proposed solutions from his workforce within as little as two weeks.
For fiscal 2019 the REF projects about 495 requirements reuqests, of which 10 percent will be mission command, 16.5 percent will be movement and maneuver requirements, 23 percent will be intelligence-related, about .3 percent will be related to fires, 16 percent to sustainment and 34 percent to force protection, according to Army budget documents.
REF has been focused on fielding small-scale counter-UAS capabilities to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It identified two commercially available systems – the Drone Buster made by Radio Hill Technologies and the Battelle Drone Defender – and fielded them in limited numbers to units threatened by small, inexpensive unmanned aircraft.
More recently, Ward said REF has helped develop and field government-off-the-shelf electronic warfare capabilities, to include an MRAP outfitted with a system capable of offensive and defensive EW.
“I’m pulling some stuff that the Army already has on the shelf, packaging it differently, providing some additional software to it, some additional amps and other things, to provide you an electronic warfare tactical vehicle,” Ward said. “That will provide you some capability up front to lay a foundation for the future.”
In both endeavors, REF worked alongside the Army’s Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar program office and the RCO.
“We’re wasting funds if we aren’t tied together and cheating off each other’s homework,” he said.
Though REF will endure, it remains to be seen where it will fit into the Army’s new modernization structure, dominated by the imminent establishment of a four-star-led Futures Command. Ward said REF could report to Futures Command, the Pentagon directly or any other organization as long as it retains the same acquisition authorities.