In 1980, the Army went mad.
Soldiers raced around in dune buggies and gliders. They tried out all manner of gizmos, contraptions and other inventions. It was all part of an experimental force in the 9th Infantry Division called the High technology Test Bed.
The task: Figure out how to make a "light" division more effective by adding new technology.
The experiment lasted only a few years. It was neither the first nor last time Army brass acted like mad scientists. Since the dawn of the 20th century, the Army has tried out experimental formations. On average, the brass do this about once a decade.
Forgetfulness, though, is the most consistent part of this tradition. The Army tinkers with an idea, then abandons it -- usually because generals quickly tire of experimenting and decide to use troops for something else.
It's a bad pattern. The nation has a permanent interest in trying out new equipment and ideas with real soldiers in a real unit. Other than in battle, this is the most effective means to develop what soldiers really need on the battlefield.
Today, at Fort Bliss, Texas, the Pentagon has rediscovered, again, the value of experimental forces. The new iteration is called the Army Experimental Task Force, part of 5th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division.
It's a great initiative. Unfortunately, perhaps the greatest challenge the task force faces is figuring out how to keep going. The unit is scheduled to disband in 2013.
To persuade the Army not to abandon experimental forces again, the task force will have to demonstrate it can overcome key obstacles that traditionally stand between new capabilities and the battlefield.
The biggest problem? Deciding what to experiment with. The Army's procurement cupboard is bare. Last year, the Department of Defense killed the Army's only major program aimed at tomorrow's battlefields, the Future Combat Systems.
Now, the new task force is "harvesting" FCS technologies, experimenting with the few bits and pieces that weren't cut. When it's done, nothing will be left. With flat budgets projected as far as the eye can see, more and more military spending will go to pay and benefits, plus current operations such as Afghanistan. Funds will be scarce to develop and buy what's needed to rebuild the Army and prepare for future challenges.
An anemic procurement program is hardly our military's only obstacle. Take the nature of modern military technologies. In almost every case, innovation means chasing commercial technology. Except for a new short-range rocket, our experimental systems adopt off-the-shelf technology to combat situations.
The task force, for example, is looking at putting applications on cell phones to deliver training to soldiers. Sound like an easy way to innovate? Actually, it's really difficult. The private sector develops, redesigns and improves technology practically every year. By the time the Army starts to adopt the tech, systems are outdated.
Another challenge: Commercial systems are developed for, well, commerce. They weren't built to be used in battle. When Joe Six Pack wants a battery for his cell phone, he can stop at CVS. It's different when a soldier wants a battery at 7,000 feet on the Afghan steppes -- in the middle of a firefight.
Each piece of new military hardware adds requirements in weight, power and bandwidth. When our troops already carry 80-pound packs while fighting in war zones where there is no cell service, such additions aren't trivial.
You don't have to be a scientist, mad or otherwise, to understand that experiments are the best way to master the challenges of tomorrow's battlefields. But to do that, we must have experimental forces.
First appeared in the Washington Examiner