Appearing in Australian Financial Review, 23 June 2016
Closing the armed forces supply loop
Soldiers have been complaining about having to make do with inappropriate equipment since the time of the Romans but the Australian Defence Force has developed a means of effectively linking front-line troops with the procurement process. The Diggerworks unit, located in Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, has built a strong record of communication and liaison, as well as being an equipment innovator in its own right.
“The people on the ground are the ones best placed to know what they need,” says Colonel Richard Barrett, the director of Diggerworks. “Our role is to turn that information into practical equipment, bearing in mind that the past few years have seen the ADF operate in theatres as varied as East Timor and Iraq, and with a range of missions. Diggerworks is about solving problems. That’s our mission.”
Diggerworks was created after Senate estimates committee hearings in 2010 identified critical problems in the procurement and supply chain arrangements for the equipment and clothing used by Australian soldiers. Senior executives in the army, the Defence Materiel Organisation, and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation decided on a substantial overhaul, emphasising innovation and agility.
“Our focus has been on the individual combatant,” Barrett says. “You want to make sure that the soldier is as well protected as possible but also entirely capable of doing the job. There is no sense in simply weighing a digger down with more and more pieces of equipment – what I call the Christmas-tree effect. Especially for soldiers performing duties such as foot patrols, every extra kilo is a burden.”
Body armour has become essential, but the new approach is to have modular systems that can be adapted to environmental conditions and specific tasks, with Kevlar plates being added into pockets in the uniform. Soldiers manning checkpoints, for example, have less need of mobility and more need of heavier armour. Some armour is designed to protect against specific threats such as stabbing attacks.
The emphasis on effectiveness has seen a move away from single-purpose tools and towards flexible devices. One innovation being developed by Diggerworks is a multi-purpose tool for jungle use, to replace the heavy machete. The new, lighter tool can be configured for slashing, cutting, prying, and even breaking barbed wire. Prototypes have been made using a 3D printer, and the next step is to call in private sector companies to build further prototypes for testing, and eventually full-scale production.
“We try to get innovations into the hands of soldiers as quickly as possible but we are also aware of the need for testing,” says Barrett. “We often use training exercises for testing and conduct feedback interviews later. We also subject new items to the toughest treatment we can think of. Something we are doing at the moment is changing from the traditional webbing to a new material – it’s the same stuff used in Zodiac inflatable boats. We have subjected it to everything that it might encounter on a battlefield, as well as scientific and technical evaluation. We have to know that it will do its job.”
Speaking the language
Barrett notes that soldiers, when returning from a theatre, are interviewed for their views on equipment. Representatives of Diggerworks also visit ADF bases overseas and in Australia to connect with troops on the ground.
“My background is as an infantry commander,” he says. “My predecessors in this job had held similar positions. I think that hands-on experience is necessary in a job like this. You need to be able to speak the same language, be familiar with the issues.”
The equipment for soldiers is evolving towards more emphasis on communication, and the standard pack now includes a number of high-tech devices. A problem is that this requires power, and that means batteries.
“We are working on long-life batteries, and on ways to recharge equipment from a range of sources, even from portable solar panels,” Barrett says. “But traditional batteries are bulky and heavy. We are designing some which can fit easily into the uniform configuration.
“Another area we are examining is communication with allied forces, even if there is a language difference and the message itself needs to the encrypted. There are devices to do this but they are too big for our purposes. We want to take that technology and turn it into a portable packet. That is a part of looking at a soldier as an integrated system.”
Diggerworks is not the only organisation in the world’s militaries trying to improve equipment design and supply but it is one of the best regarded. Diggerworks representatives are in demand for conferences and co-operative projects, and the British army is soon to send a delegation to study the organisation.
“We are aware that Diggerworks has to keep adapting to stay healthy,” Barrett notes. “A long-term project for us is to look at our operational model. Something we want to develop is a system that can provide metrics on the effectiveness of particular changes. That requires a baseline, which is going to be hard to do, but it would be very valuable. It would help us determine what works best, how resources are best allocated, and how inputs are delivering outputs. That would be a big step.”