Tech

September 13, 2013

Centcom program bridges scientific, technological gaps

Pfc. David Diaz, right, assigned to Team Hatchet, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, Task Force 4-25, collects a DNA sample for biometrics from an Afghan man at a security checkpoint in Afghanistan’s Khost province, Sept. 8, 2012. U.S. Central Command’s Science and Technology Division has been a major advocate of the technologies used for biometric identification and battlefield forensics to support deployed war fighters.

 

Step onto an elevator beside Martin Drake, U.S. Central Command’s chief science and technology adviser, and one might be surprised to hear him deliver to perfect strangers an unclassified tutorial he calls “Science and Technology 101.”

The impromptu briefing completed, Drake is known to cajole his unsuspecting “students” into raising their right hands so he can deputize them as “honorary deputy science advisers for U.S. Central Command.”

“I tell them, ‘It takes a village to be the best and to be able to understand where technology is going,’” said Drake, who runs Centcom’s dozen-member Science and Technology Division. “We can’t do this by ourselves, and we need their help.”

The elevator encounters are just one example of the team’s unrelenting quest to identify better ways to support warfighters in the command’s demanding and complex area of operations. The office members, an eclectic mix of active-duty forces, military retirees and civilian employees, scour the Internet, professional journals and technology expositions to seek out new and emerging technology-related capabilities, Drake told American Forces Press Service.

That boils down to taking gaps and requirements as identified by U.S. forces and partner nations in the theater, converting them into technical requirements, then going out to the science and technology community for solutions. It’s a search that begins with the Defense Department’s own advanced technology arms — among them the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Rapid Fielding Directorate; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; the Army Research, Development and Engineering Command; the Office of Naval Research; and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

But it extends across the interagency, industrial, academic and international scientific and technological communities.

One staffer frequently visits businesses, garages, anywhere he might stumble on “that piece of technology that might not otherwise be discovered through normal Department of Defense processes,” Drake said. Others are dedicated to analyzing the technologies they discover or that others bring to them to identify how it might translate to capability on the ground.

“We are looking for things that might fill the gaps and seams between our military departments in supporting forces in our operational battle space,” Drake explained. “We are looking for that unique approach that may not be discovered or headed toward being discovered by the Department of Defense.”

Centcom’s effort, similar to those at U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Southern Command, focuses on requirements specific to its geographic area of operations. The idea, Drake explained, is to be able to look across the vast research and development programs taking place within military, government, private and international sectors.

“We think we have a unique perspective,” he said. “We are looking across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and our coalition partners. Because we are not tied to any one service approach, we look to see how we can bring them together, and what it might take to make it better.” When a concept appears particularly promising, he added, Centcom promotes it through the Defense Department’s research, development and acquisition channels.

“I characterize myself as a venture capitalist with no capital,” Drake said. “I don’t have any money, and U.S. Central Command is not an acquisition authority.” All acquisitions in support of Centcom operations are funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff and the military services, he noted.

“So what I do is advocate for potential solutions,” Drake said. “And through that advocacy, we try to help maneuver promising technology through our developmental and acquisition processes.”

This approach has promoted far-ranging technologies that have proven to be winners on the battlefield. For example, Centcom’s Science and Technology Division was a major advocate of the technologies used for battlefield forensics and biometric identification. Both are considered invaluable for warfighters operating against adversaries who don’t wear military uniforms and often operate in the shadows.

“These have become absolute tools for our forces forward, to help them sort out the who’s who in the battle space,” Drake said.

But the division doesn’t limit its scope to technologies, Drake emphasized. “We’re also looking at concepts” to identify ways to improve current procedures and processes for future operations, he said. “This is a conceptual-type review of things we currently do and asking, ‘Can we do them better?’

“So this is not only about building new things,” Drake continued. “We are also improving the things we have, trying to make them better, more cost effective and easier for folks in the field.”

For example, the team is researching better ways to operate in remote areas with little or no infrastructure to support those operations, Drake explained. Its members continue to explore smaller, more efficient power sources and new technologies that make it easier to communicate and push data.

“We have learned a lot over the past decade,” he said. “The good news, from my seat, is that I have seen a lot of the processes, procedures and policies changing for the better. We are embracing technology earlier and more fully. And my belief is that if we were faced with a similar situation in the future, we would do it somewhat differently as a result.”

But the search is far from over, and Drake said his team is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to support U.S. forces in the region.

“We always have our eyes over the fence to see what is going on,” he said. “As I tell my staff, ‘We will go anywhere. We will listen to anything,’ because I never know when the next, best technology is going to manifest itself.”




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