ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md., March 14, 2007 - As the Defense Department hurries to get the latest weapons systems and protective equipment to deployed troops, the Aberdeen Test Center here is operating at what its commander calls a "fast and furious rate" to ensure effectiveness and safety remain top priorities.
The center, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, is the most diverse of seven DoD test facilities and is a critical partner in the Army's Rapid Fielding Initiative, Army Col. John Rooney, center commander, said.
During the past two years, the center's scientists, technicians and engineers have tested about 30 rapid fielding initiatives a week, with more than 1,400 tests conducted last year alone. There's been an 87 percent increase in range activity here since fiscal 2001.
"That's all being driven by technologies to support the warfighter in the global war on terror," Rooney said.
Technologies undergoing testing here range from enhancements to improve the way vehicles operate in combat to protective gear that helps troops survive enemy attacks.
"Our focus is on identifying the best technology available now, getting that capability to the warfighter today, and then improving on it," Rooney said.
This concept, referred to as "spiral development," turns the military's traditional fielding method on its head. Rather than developing, testing, then fine-tuning systems before sending them to the field, the priority now is to get new technologies to the troops quickly as possible, while continuing to improve on them, Rooney explained.
"We're inserting them into the war without the breadth and depth of testing that we would go through in peacetime," he said. "There's a whole different dynamic of supporting an Army at war that's different that in peacetime. You have to make sure you do an adequate job (of testing), but not at the expense of withholding capabilities."
Even with the big push to get new systems to deployed forces, Rooney said the military holds the line when it comes to safety. "We always do safety testing up front," he said. "But once we've done that, the big question becomes, 'What's enough testing to understand how (the system is) going to work (in combat)?'"
Evidence of this balancing act is prevalent throughout the combat theater. The Aberdeen Test Center staff tested for electromagnetic interference in Blue Force Tracker, a satellite-based Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below communications system, as well as for additional radios placed on M1A1 Abrams command vehicles.
They tested new software for the M1A2 tank's nuclear, biological and chemical protective system, and a variety of bridging systems so deployed forces could cross gullies and low spots throughout the Iraqi desert.
But few examples demonstrate the emphasis on expedient fielding more clearly than how the military gets new vehicle protection to deployed troops.
As DoD's primary ground-vehicle tester, the Aberdeen Test Center started exploring ways to protect troops against roadside bombs in August 2003, as soon as these weapons began appearing in Iraq.
Rooney described the motivation that drove testers here to move quickly to evaluate the first add-on armor prototypes. "We knew that every day we didn't get the test finished was another day that we weren't getting these kits to the field, and that it could have a direct impact on someone's life," he said.
The earliest add-on armor kits sent to the combat theater had limitations, he acknowledged, but still offered far more protection than no additional armor. Even as these kits were being sent to the field, the Aberdeen Test Center staff continued to look into new systems to improve on them.
Since the start of the GWOT, the center staff has subjected more than 500 potential solutions to the rigorous testing that takes place here every day, Rooney said. These prototypes have been fired at to test their ballistic protection and run through simulators, computer models and outdoor tracks to see how they stand up to real-world road conditions like they'll encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A drive around the test ranges here -- nine miles of interconnecting roads and 25 permanently constructed courses -- shows some of the armor enhancements undergoing testing now. They range from a new add-on armor kit for Humvees that includes 450 pounds of armor to the front door alone and extra baseboard armor to a one-piece door assembly for the 5-ton M977 heavy expanded mobility tactical truck to an improved slat armor kit for the Stryker light armored vehicle.
The staff here developed the initial prototype for the Stryker's slat armor-a cage-like apparatus bolted to the Stryker to protect it from rocket-propelled grenades - and Rooney calls it one of the staff's proudest achievements. Although the first users didn't necessarily like the slat armor's looks, they quickly grew to love its protective qualities, he said.
While continuing to seek out newer, more effective ballistic protections, the staff here recognizes the impact of these improvements on overall vehicle performance, Rooney said. Putting additional armor on vehicles affects everything from the way they handle, to their tip-over point, to the life cycle of their shocks and suspension systems to their overall reliability.
"Every time something gets added or placed on a vehicle, you have to look at the whole range of effects," Rooney said. "When you evaluate protective armors, you have to work hand-in-glove with the automotive side, because even if a vehicle stops everything (in terms of ballistics), if it can't drive, it's of no value."
So evaluators here put vehicles through the paces in both outdoor courses and indoor simulations to replicate the worst of real-world conditions. Vehicles get exposed to bumps, ditches, slopes, mud and sand courses, fording basins and other difficult conditions similar to what deployed troops experience regularly.
"We're trying to create the circumstances that might cause failures so we can learn from it and address those issues here," Rooney said. "The whole intent is to fully understand the vehicle's capability."
Once a vehicle passes through the rigors imposed here, Rooney said he's confident they'll be ready for the demands warfighters will subject them to.
That's the mindset at the Aberdeen Test Center that Rooney said has continued to turn ideas into solutions for combat troops. "Our end product is a better equipped, better protected warfighter," he said.
As the Aberdeen Test Center supports today's warfighters, it's carrying on a tradition that began in 1917, when it helped prepare the military for World War I.
Today, the center continues testing a broad spectrum of military weapons systems and equipment: vehicles, weapon systems, ammunition, portable bridges, generators, night-vision devices, individual equipment ranging from boots and uniforms to helmets, and even surface and underwater naval systems.
As it conducts this testing, Rooney said the staff here never loses sight of the men and women on the front lines whose lives are at stake.
"We are a very busy, very diverse and very relevant test center, doing things that people know matters," he said. "We are helping the warfighter tremendously. And because people here recognize the direct impact of what they're contributing, job satisfaction is pretty easy to come by here."