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Interview With Dale A. Ormond, RDECOM Director

Putting New Capabilities in the Hands of Soldiers

The U.S. Army Research, Development & Engineering Command (RDECOM) has oversight of all Army R&D (research and development) efforts, employing some 11,000 engineers and scientists – two-thirds of its total workforce – in eight major labs and RD&E centers (RDECs).

Since its creation less than a decade ago, it has been tasked as “the Army’s go-to organization for unsurpassed scientific and engineering expertise that defines the space between the state-of-the-art and the art-of-the-possible and will deliver innovative technology solutions enabling the Army to serve as the nation’s force of decisive action and ensuring the United States maintains global battlefield dominance.”

The various focus areas for RDECOM’s efforts are reflected in its primary facilities – the Army Research Lab (ARL) and seven RDECs: Armament (ARDEC); Aviation & Missile (AMRDEC); Communications-Electronics (CERDEC); Natick Soldier Systems (NSRDEC); Tank Automotive (TARDEC); and Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC).

In testimony before a House Armed Services Subcommittee in April 2013, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology (DASA-R&T) Mary Miller told lawmakers: “The underpinning of all Army S&T [science and technology] efforts is a strong research program that builds an agile and adaptive workforce and technology base to be able to respond to future threats. Investments in S&T are a critical hedge in acquiring technological superiority with revolutionary and paradigm-shifting technologies. This includes the development of the next generation of Army scientists and engineers.”

RDECOM Director Dale A. Ormond recently spoke with Defense Media Network senior writer J.R. Wilson about how his command is moving from a focus on more than a decade of combat in Southwest Asia to the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) new “Pacific pivot,” while dealing with the issues Miller described in an era of increasingly austere budgets and changing threats.

 

J.R. Wilson: How does current and near-term government, industry, and academia R&D funding compare to the past decade?

Dale Ormond: From our perspective, it’s difficult to say because RDECOM did not come into existence until 2004. Since then, our funding has been $1.7 to $2 billion a year, focused on S&T in this command, so relatively stable, [although] it may go down with overall funding cuts in DoD.

But I think there is a recognition that, when the shooting stops, we need to continue to invest in S&T and R&D, so when there is an emerging threat that requires new investment and capability, we know the state-of-the-art and what is possible and so can have the best set of options to make the best decisions on where to invest.

Dale Ormond

Dale A. Ormond, RDECOM Director. U.S. Army photo by Conrad Johnson

With the current chaotic state of the world and the level of investment around the world in science and engineering, if we don’t continue to make those investments and continue to leverage technologies and discoveries and innovations worldwide, we will not keep up. So it is important to continue to make that investment, as much as possible, to ensure our soldiers have an overmatch when they go into the fight.

But I think there is a recognition that, when the shooting stops, we need to continue to invest in S&T and R&D, so when there is an emerging threat that requires new investment and capability, we know the state-of-the-art and what is possible and so can have the best set of options to make the best decisions on where to invest.

In my conversations with industry, there is a consensus they are focusing on very, very specific areas because there is no real return on investment for them [to do broad independent R&D (IRAD)]; too much is left on the cutting room floor. They would prefer to take technologies we have matured through TRL6 [technology readiness level 6 – a representative model or prototype tested in a relevant environment], integrate those technologies into a new capability, or upgrade capabilities we have now to give the warfighter something better than what they had before.

Consequently, the technologies that come out of our R&D efforts are transferred to industry through cooperative agreements, become specs for RFPs [requests for proposals], or add to our intellectual capital. So we become better buyers when proposals come in from industry and we can really assess what is possible, what is not possible, what is affordable or not affordable, so the PMs [program managers] have strong technical input to make decisions on proposals and what to move forward with.

 

So industry prefers to take on technologies that already have been taken out of the pure research area?

I don’t think that’s a problem. We do contracts with industry to do specific elemental R&D. If there was money to be made by spending their IRAD, they would do it. If they find there is not a good return on investment, they will reduce that, just as they do in the commercial market to stay competitive and build market share.

But it is a challenge when you get to Army-specific requirements, which often are different from civilian market needs. If I need a specific battery, industry won’t do the IRAD needed to make a battery that won’t blow up if hit by a bullet or will operate from -40 degrees Fahrenheit to +120 degrees Fahrenheit. So based on our history of conditions under which items must operate, we will do the initial R&D to do that. We need to give the soldier the kit he needs to do his mission in any environment, to sustain that operation in battlefield conditions or expand capabilities to support the soldier in the execution of his mission.

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J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...