The Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment is gearing up for Spiral J, the ninth annual edition of the live component of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s live, virtual and constructive experimentation strategy. AEWE is run by the Maneuver Battle Lab here, but another organization plays a major role in the execution of AEWE spirals as well.
A Company, 1st Battalion, 29th Infantry Regiment, 316th Cavalry Brigade, serves as the Army’s experimental force, commonly known as EXFOR. The company’s Soldiers routinely conduct hands-on evaluations of new technologies in realistic combat scenarios and then provide feedback to the MBL and civilian technology providers.
“The whole reason we’re here is to provide that feedback, whether it’s positive or negative,” said Capt. Kenneth Weiss EXFOR’s commander. “The biggest thing about Soldiers is they don’t want to carry something or have something in their kit that they’re unsure about. We’re basically the first stop in that chain to make sure it doesn’t happen. When my Soldiers love something, they’ll tell you time and time again, ‘This needs to be in the force now at the platoon level.’ If they don’t like something, they have no problem telling you what needs to be done to fix it.”
Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith, who has served with EXFOR for more than two years, said providers are eager to capture feedback from EXFOR, even if it may not be positive at times.”They respond well to us because they know a lot of the decision making comes down to us,” Smith said. “It’s pretty easy to tell them what we do or don’t like because they’re so receptive to trying to make their product into something we need.”
EXFOR can be on standby for needed experiments throughout the year, but one of the company’s main focuses is AEWE. Training for a spiral begins in October, and spirals are not typically completed until the end of March.
“We call it our Super Bowl, it is our main mission for six months out of the year,” Weiss said. “It’s broken down into three phases, which are individual training, collective training and case studies where we actually take the technology into the field for anywhere from four hours to five days. During that time, we really put it through its paces.”
EXFOR will begin collective training for Spiral J in February, and Smith said he is looking forward to this spiral a bit more than previous ones.
“This time, we’re staying out the full Monday through Friday,” he said. “It’ll give us a chance to test more of these technologies. It’s going to be five days of running these things through their paces to include wear and tear, battery life or various other things. We’ve had some technologies that couldn’t stand up to one day, let alone five days.”
During their time at EXFOR, both Weiss and Smith said they have seen technologies they feel can provide valuable capabilities to troops in combat. One of those is the Nett Warrior, an integrated dismounted situational awareness and mission command system for use during combat operations that runs on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.
“Nett Warrior has got a lot of potential,” Weiss said. “With three platoons, one of the biggest concerns I have is situational awareness of all my Soldiers. I want to know about the location of my Soldiers – where are they at and are they where they need to be? Nett Warrior provides that through instantaneous graphics. It tells me exactly where they are, so I don’t have to waste my time trying to locate them or asking them where they are.”
Another technology EXFOR has experience with is InstantEye, a small, unmanned aerial system able to be launched by hand with vertical takeoff and landing.
“I was here for the first time they ever brought out the InstantEye, and I’ve been a constant advocate for it ever since,” Smith said. “I really like that piece of technology, and I’ve seen how all the feedback we’ve given has been implemented. This is something the Army is already putting out there.”
Smith said in the more than two years since he first saw InstantEye, camera movement, thermal sights and the noise signature have already been improved and have greatly enhanced the device’s capabilities. However, not all technologies EXFOR deals with will find their way to the operational force.
“There have been a lot of technologies they’ve handed to us that we’ve told them right away, ‘Take this away from us and go put this in the hands of somebody in theater,'” Smith said. “There’s been so much stuff we’ve seen that would greatly increase our effectiveness and our abilities, but at the same time there’s been stuff that’s been kind of a time waster.”