Soldier Lethality CFT, Fort Benning, GA – Add SCD to your mile-long list of Army abbreviations. It stands for Soldier Centered Design, and though the concept is not new by a long shot – you’ve likely heard it called by other names – its back in a big way and here to stay, having been institutionalized and proven successful by the Soldier Lethality Cross Functional Team (SL CFT) at Fort Benning. SCD is informing the development of next generation technologies and capabilities today for the Close Combat Force (CCF) of 2028 and beyond.
The SL CFT, under Army Futures Command, employs a new way of doing business that focuses first on the needs of the individual Soldier. One of AFC’s eight cross functional teams, each focused on different aspects of modernization, it’s the SL CFT’s job to rapidly develop, produce and field the technologies and capabilities needed to restore overmatch to those who close with and destroy the enemy, the CCF. The name “lethality” denotes deadly force, as it should, but the goal is always to make sure the Soldier survives and succeeds in combat, said Col. Kurt “Travis” Thompson, Deputy Director for the SL CFT.
“Ultimately, we want to make sure they win the war and come home safely,” Thompson said. “We ask a lot of the Close Combat Force; we owe it to them to make sure we kit them with everything they need to be more survivable and more lethal and mobile. We can’t throw good ideas at them and expect them to field test them in combat.”
Gone are the days when a great idea – or need – was crafted into the shape of a weapon or tool and added to the Soldier’s kit with no thought to its weight or its impact on mobility or maneuverability, Thompson said. Currently, Soldiers in an Infantry squad each carry roughly 122 pounds of kit. Soldier Centric Design addresses this issue and demands a focus on the needs of the Soldier in respect to the mission, maneuverability, situational awareness and survivability.
A few years back, the Soldier as a System concept was introduced to the Army lexicon. It was a paradigm shift, one that required officials in training environments, in science and technology, all across requirements and development divisions to look at the Soldier much the same as they look at a combat vehicle. The vehicle is a platform, and all components employed by or added to that platform must improve function and performance. Too much weight will slow it down. Soldier Centered Design takes that concept to the next logical conclusion. The individual Soldier is an integrated weapons platform; the squad is an integrated combat platform, and anything added to the platform must enhance the performance of the system in its entirety, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
The CFT and its partner Program Executive Office Soldier (PEO Soldier) recently solicited industry partners to design an adaptive squad technical architecture that will incorporate the digital aspects of the kit for the individual and the squad and address the power challenges associated with a growing digital space. As the name implies, the development of the Adaptive Squad Architecture (ASA) must apply the SCD approach to ensure the final product adapts to new capabilities as technologies evolve. ASA will ensure the technologies added to the Soldier or squad portfolio are integrated just the same as hardware in the kit.
By putting SCD into practice to drive the development of the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle – Binocular, the CFT may have set a speed record in fielding the requirement in September in under two years, less than half the time it traditionally takes to get a new weapon or system into the hands of the operational force. Soldiers informed the ENVG-B process, from design to development, over and over and over, through regular field testing events called Soldier Touch Points (STPs).
“The key to success is having these Soldier Touch Points and seeing improvements the next day or a week later, not four years later,” the Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said in September, when he attended the fielding of the first ENVG-Bs to a unit at Fort Riley, Ks. “Soldiers have been providing feedback for two hundred and forty four years. That’s nothing new. But it’s not usually when we want it. You can field a new piece of equipment and the Soldier says, ‘This is terrible. I could never use it.’ The Soldier now says ‘This is what I’d like to see, I can use this.’ You’ve got a product that works and you can use it in combat and it didn’t take ten years.”
STPs are the heart of the SCD concept, and they ensure the final product is one Soldiers like, one that will not slow them down, weigh them down or interfere with other elements of the kit, Thompson said.
And though STPs are a new practice, Soldier Centered Design is not a new idea, Thompson said.
“The Army has talked about it in one form or another for many years using different labels and different methodologies,” he said. “But a concept is just a great idea unless it’s put into practice and given the staying power it needs to make a real difference. We tried it, we found it works very well, we’ve made it the practice that guides our progress.”
Aside from the ENVG-B, which is now being fielded, the SL CFT portfolio includes Next Generation Squad Weapons and the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS), a night vision device populated with a variety of leap-ahead technologies designed to improve the Soldier’s ability to move, shoot and communicate.
Both programs are in prototype development and moving rapidly toward production way ahead of the five-10 years it has historically taken to field new equipment. The reason is threefold.
One. Non-traditional funding through the Middle Tier Acquisitions process and Other Transaction Agreements expedited the program resourcing.
Two. The traditional DoD acquisition cycle consists of five phases: concept refinement, technology development, system development and demonstration, production and deployment, and operations and support. Each phase starts where the previous ends. When the Army stood up the Army Futures Command in 2018 – the same year the National Defense Strategy identified an erosion in close combat capabilities relative to pacing threats – it signaled a new way of doing business for the vast network of military and civilian organizations that comprise the Army Modernization Enterprise. The acquisition cycle was truncated by launching phases simultaneously; before concepts are finalized, the development of technologies have already begun.
Three. Giving developers access to Soldiers for user feedback throughout the rapid prototyping and development process, the very basis of Soldier Centered Design, helps developers identify issues early on, before too much time and money has been invested. This “fail early, fail cheap” philosophy ensures Soldiers get a weapon system they want and taxpayer money is not wasted on one they don’t.
“This kind of feedback results in a great savings in time and money,” Thompson said. “By including regular, iterative user evaluations, we can leverage their feedback and the data we collect to move faster and make wise choices to save time and money.”
In a free market society, its common practice and common sense to cater to the customer.
“That’s not necessarily been the case with the military. If I were to say to you that we’re going to involve hundreds of Soldiers in the process of designing and developing a night vision device or a weapon, you might naturally think that’s a bad idea,” Thompson said. “It would seem to slow down the process if you have to accommodate all those opinions and experiences. You can see how that might be daunting to someone who is thinking about partnering with us.”
Microsoft wasn’t daunted. The tech industry giant signed a contract with the Army a year ago to develop and produce the IVAS. The company known for its fiercely loyal consumer base faced a unique challenge a few years back when its research and design team was tasked to build new software tools for an army of 130,000 employees with a vast disparity of skill set and need.
An article published by Microsoft in 2018 recounted the problem they encountered. “In the past, these tools were handcrafted by engineers … (and) the final products that they produced were based on the IT team’s skill set and the business requirements they gleaned from talking with leaders in the business groups they supported,” according to the article, titled “Paving a Path to Human-Centered Design in the Heart of Microsoft. “Generally, design decisions were made without involving users, designers, and user researchers … The result, in some cases, was a tool that wasn’t necessarily relevant to users, and was difficult to use and possibly difficult to find.”
That sounds remarkably similar to the way the Army has designed and fielded equipment for more than 200 years. Microsoft applied the lessons learned in house to the challenge presented to them when they contracted to build IVAS. Soldier Centered Design is an adaptation of Microsoft’s human-centered design.
“In the case of developing IVAS for the Soldier, we had to start with a deep understanding of the underlying needs of the Soldier,” said Scott Evans, Microsoft’s IVAS program manager. “We had to develop a methodology to make sure we understand those needs so that we can evaluate prototypes against them.”
Evans said that methodology takes the form of focus groups, surveys, shadowing Soldiers, and lots of observation, as Microsoft team members study how Soldiers use existing systems. Before the ink was dry on the contract,Microsoft had embeddedSoldiers with the Microsoft team in Redmond, Wash., and launched a series of learning events called “user studies” and “user juries” to understand the needs of the Soldier.
The purpose of the user jury is to let the user try out new technologies or capabilities as they are developed and deliver a verdict. A user study is as much about the developer studying the Soldier – the user – as it is about the product, and they’re conducted quite frequently as the design and the technology evolves.
“We take all that learning to ideation, where we come up with concepts on how we can fulfill the needs we identify as we iterate,” Evans said. “Then we build new prototypes to address those needs.”
It’s a cycle Evans calls “inner loops,” a constant process of prototyping and testing, evaluating and evolving, with periodic intensive and comprehensive weeks-long series of combat field testing. That’s the Soldier Touch Point, perhaps an odd name for one event in a process that centers on the fact that Soldiers touch the system prototype every day for one purpose or another, to use it, test it or critique it.
The STP brings a variety of Soldiers and Marines from traditional line units and Special Forces to put the evolving device to a variety of field tests in combat scenarios in varying climates, day and night. Four STPs will be conducted before the final system is produced, the second was recently completed at Fort Pickett, Va.
Microsoft deployed a team from their headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to Fort Pickett several weeks before the Soldiers arrived for the STP and there they remained for the duration, tracking Soldier performance and evaluation. They collected more than 4,400 hours of Soldier feedback and nearly 18,000 data points, and they completed more than 600 software builds on site, each based on observation or feedback from the user when a need or an issue was identified. Need and speed drives the STP inner loop cycle, Evans said.
“It’s that speed of iteration, that inner loop, that allows us to innovate with maximum agility and refine the design over time,” he said.
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