Maj. Gen. Keith Walker gets to play with some the Army’s coolest, most technologically advanced toys, and it’s his job.
As commander of the Brigade Modernization Command headquartered at Fort Bliss, it’s Walker’s job to make sure soldiers have the latest and greatest.
When the Army’s bloated Future Combat Systems program, or FCS, was scrapped a few years ago, the Army’s modernization effort never went away. It morphed into the Brigade Modernization Command, which is approaching Army modernization in a novel way.
Walker, 56, is a graduate of West Point and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. His first assignment was here in El Paso with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment in 1977.
Most recently, he led U.S. efforts to train the Iraqi army as commander of the Iraq Assistance Group. He held that command until August 2009.
His family is an Army family in the truest sense. Walker’s oldest son joined the Army as an engineer officer and is in Iraq right now, and his youngest son is an infantry officer in Afghanistan.
His family has also felt the pain that can come with military service. His daughter, Laura Walker, was an Army officer in Afghanistan when she was killed by a roadside bomb that exploded beneath her Humvee in 2005.
Gen. Walker spoke with El Paso Inc. about how the Army is spending less money and more time testing new equipment – even though he wouldn’t put a figure on his budget – the little robot that soldiers have affectionately named Wall-E, another “Droid” that poses security challenges, and why the flying beer keg was scrapped.
Q: What happened to Future Combat Systems?
Started around 2000, Future Combat Systems was all about developing a system of systems to combat a threat around the year 2020. A few things have happened since then. One is about 10 years of war. Then there is the tremendous pace of technology that outpaced our own Department of Defense system for acquiring new capabilities and the incredibly amorphous, ever-changing threat. One example: there was a platform being developed under FCS where the vehicle chassis could not withstand the explosion of improvised explosive devices.
The Secretary of Defense’s guidance to the Army was pretty clear. In April 2009 he said to stop development of the Future Combat Systems platforms. We didn’t just throw it all out, instead we were instructed to look at technologies developed by Future Combat Systems to see which ones might be useful to soldiers today and spin those out.
Q: How is the Army modernizing now?
I make the analogy of the fall of the Berlin Wall; it was a “What do we do now?” kind of moment. Over the last year or so, the Army has gone through a tremendous transition. Our modernization strategy is now incremental brigade modernization.
So, what do you mean by incremental? Well, one of the friction points with FCS was the rapidly changing technology. For example: the iPhone or Android smartphones, most every year people have to go out and get a new one because the technology changes so fast. My point is if you buy new technologies for the entire United States Army, by the time you get it to the last unit, it’s already way out of date.
The normal acquisition system takes forever and could not provide a lot of the equipment that we needed in Iraq or Afghanistan fast enough, so we basically just went to the store and bought stuff off the shelf. Maybe that is a little oversimplified, but that is essentially what we did.
But what if you purchase the new technology in increments and prioritize those new capabilities? We know with reasonable certainty who is going to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan next. So now we focus our latest capabilities on those brigades that are deploying. When the next brigades go, those capabilities are upgraded. So we are modernizing a piece at a time while ensuring the folks going in harm’s way have the best capabilities possible.
Q: What is an example of technology that was bought off the shelf?
At my son’s combat outpost in Afghanistan, they have a SNAP terminal (portable satellite link). With that SNAP terminal, they can now transfer orders, files, pictures, video and all sorts of things through a satellite terminal.
It fills that need, but the problem with buying it off the shelf is we didn’t get to do a thorough evaluation in the field and units didn’t have that stuff before they left, so they didn’t get to train on it.
When I visited Afghanistan in January and talked to two units specifically about the network, one of the frustrations they had was having to learn to use it in the field. Senior Army leadership recognizes we can do better than that, so one of the things that they want Brigade Modernization Command to do is to evaluate new capabilities before we deploy.
Q: How is the Army doing that? Are veteran soldiers testing the equipment now before it is purchased and sent to war?
Absolutely, the biggest lesson I take over the last year-and-a-half is that the sooner you get a new capability in the hands of a soldier in an operational environment, the sooner you’re going to kill off an idea that is not a good one before you waste any money on it, and the sooner you will grab on to an idea that has a tremendous amount of potential.
The 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division is now attached to our command here at Fort Bliss with the specific mission to evaluate new capabilities. This is a pretty significant change. We’ve assigned an entire brigade combat team, that would otherwise be going to war, to evaluate new capabilities. _
We are able to do that now because the demand is a bit decreased. A few months ago, a brigade was gone a year, back a year, gone a year, back a year. Soon, by the end of this year, units will be able to stay home about two years so the Army can dedicate a normal, regular brigade to the mission.
Q: Throughout that testing process, what are some of the things that haven’t made the cut?
Last year was the second year we focused on FCS spinouts. We used an area of about 25 kilometers in the desert here and built combat outposts in the foothills of the mountains to replicate the Afghan environment.
We had five systems under test. There’s the Urban Unattended Ground Sensor, which is kind of like a tactical baby monitor. When a unit clears a building you take the sensors and slap them on the wall. They have optical, acoustic and vibration sensors and the idea was that, if bad guys came in after you, you would know.
The Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor was another one – similar idea, but employed outside, looking at road intersections or infiltration routes. Then there was the Class 1 Unmanned Air System, soldiers like to call it the flying beer keg because that’s what it looked like, used for aerial surveillance.
We also had the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle; it looks kind of like Wall-E from the movie, and the Network Integration Kit.
So, what’s the bottom line? We asked the soldiers, “If you had to go to combat tomorrow would you take the system with you?” and the answer for three of the systems was “no.”
Q: Which ones?
The Urban Unattended Ground Sensor, Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor, and the flying beer keg. But they also asked for the Wall-E like ground vehicle to be deployed right away. “We need this, it saves lives, it works,” they said.
Q: What were the main problems with the systems that were scrapped?
The soldiers said they were too big, too heavy and took too much power. That’s the short of it.
Q: What happened to the network?
It is central to the Army’s modernization strategy right now. The answer from the soldiers was, “This has a capability that we had not anticipated. Don’t throw it away; keep working on it.”
The original purpose of the Network Integration Kit was to get the sensor data into the network and allow it to be shared. But one thing that soldiers thought would be helpful was if there was a USB port so they could, say, take a picture with their digital camera and send the image over the ground mobile radio.
We took it a step farther and rigged it so you could plug a laptop in. So what the soldiers ended up doing was sending information laterally from the platoon leader to another platoon leader, sharing data. Higher headquarters could also send orders, sketches, and pictures. Units could get that information before, of course, but not at that kind of speed.
Q: In an age of WikiLeaks, are there security challenges with developing networks like these?
Absolutely. In fact, one of our objectives this summer is to assess network vulnerabilities, because there are lots of issues. We are looking at some really new ideas; you know, just off the shelf kind of ideas, and there are some major security issues to work through.
Q: Like equipping soldiers with Droids or iPhones?
Yes, equipping soldiers with smartphones with tactical applications. We’re not talking about for training and administrative use, we’ve got that, but using smartphones on the front lines. It’s very powerful because the technology change is just so darn fast.
Now there are lots of security issues with that. We believe we can figure it out, but while we figure it out, we are also going to do a full assessment on whether it benefits the soldier or not. We also have to figure out how to connect the smartphones to our network.
Q: With all this being done at Fort Bliss, what has it meant for private defense contractors here?
There are really three members of the team that make this happen: one is the Brigade Modernization Command and attached brigade, Programmed Executive Office Integration, and the Army Test and Evaluation Command.
So where does industry come in? The Army says this is what we need, then it is put out to industry, through a competitive process, to create the product that will meet that need.
Q: Typically, the U.S. military has been very adept at the initial military strike, like when we first blasted into Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom and, most recently, dominating the air in Libya. What effort is being made to develop technologies to give the Army a greater tactical advantage during extended counterinsurgency operations?
For IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), which remain the biggest killer, there are three things I would offer: improving the physical protection if all else fails, developing the ability to counter frequency controlled IEDs, things like jammers, but the most important and hardest one is the ability to detect them.
My oldest son was a counter IED route clearance platoon leader in the early days, and they didn’t have a lot besides the naked eye. What the Army is trying to figure out is how you can find such a thing with sensors. That’s the hard part we have had mixed success with.
Q: Few dispute the U.S. Army’s technological prowess, but as we hand operations over to the local security forces overseas, how much of the technology can be given to our counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
We work with them on things like armored vehicles, frequency-controlled IED jammers, basic radios and basic weapons. But with regard to some of the sensors that we use in a network, we have not sought to provide the Iraqis that. One reason is because you have to do other things first. We’re talking about building a security force from the ground up.
For example, the first Iraqi security forces there drove around in pickup trucks or cars – anything we could get them. We’ve come a long way since the spring of 2004 when the first Iraqi battalion ran away, along with the police, during Muqtada al-Sadr’s uprising. They were not capable of anything.
Well, when I left there in 2009 we had an Iraqi army, if I remember correctly, of about 280,000. We had an Iraqi national police force that didn’t even exist before but then had three full divisions. Lt. Gen. Hussein al-Awadi was appointed the head of it. I found him a very honest and visionary kind of guy, which I thought was kind of a rarity amongst security forces.
Q: What does the Army allocate for modernization these days?
I’m not going to be able to give you a straight answer because the bottom line is I don’t know, and I don’t want to guess. It’s hard to say what the total budget for modernization is because there are parts of Army modernization that we are not involved in.
Q: What about your budget?
Our budget has stayed fairly constant. With the advent of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which is like three times as many soldiers and equipment then we had before, we have had to increase our budget, but as far as the headquarters goes the budget hasn’t changed.
Q: Are any brigades from Fort Bliss going to field some of this new technology when they next deploy?
The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division goes to Afghanistan here in FY 2012. They will take the little Wall-E like vehicle with them.
Q: Why has the Army made Fort Bliss the centerpiece of its modernization efforts?
One is because, when you put Fort Bliss and White Sands together, it is the largest maneuver space in the United States, that’s ground, air and frequency management.
The other reason is because of the existence, soon, of the entire 1st Armored Division here. What it gives the Army is more types of brigade formations in one place than in any other place in the United States. What do I mean by that? I mean two heavy brigades, an infantry brigade, a stryker brigade, a combat aviation brigade, a fires brigade, plus you’ve got an engineer battalion, a military police battalion, and the entire sustainment brigade. That’s a pretty broad spectrum.
The point is, when the evaluation gets beyond the scope of 2nd Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, the Army doesn’t have to move resources all over the United States but can do the mission here.
Q: As the nation turns to budget cutting, what is the outlook for the Brigade Modernization Command here?
The realities of the budget actually support the idea that we are going to be around for a while. With reduced resources, the importance of evaluating new products and technologies in a realistic operational environment and being able to do it quickly is that much more important. So, for the foreseeable future, there should be somebody sitting in this office.