The U.S. Army is a well-trained, well-equipped fighting force. And behind every weapon, piece of armor and training that prepares and protects Soldiers in battle are teams of scientists and engineers who are solving complex problems and driving future capabilities.
As part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, the Army Research Laboratory is a key component of the Army science, technology and engineering enterprise that supports Soldiers, according to ARL Director John Miller.
“Our diverse assortment of unique facilities and dedicated workforce of government and private sector partners make up the largest source of state-of-the-art research and analysis in the Army,” said Miller.
Focusing on the future while supporting the current warfighters, ARL’s scientists are a diverse group who hold the keys to technologies for Soldiers five, 10 and even 20 years down the road.
Almost every non-medical scientific field is touched by ARL, from advanced sensors to neuroscience to flexible electronics to weapons technologies to complex analysis. Basically everything a Soldier needs or may need in the future is investigated by ARL.
Although it has more than 2,000 employees, the majority of whom are highly-educated and skilled leaders in their fields, the lab combines in-house technical expertise with the intellectual powerhouse of academic and industry partners.
The research discoveries ARL produces either within its laboratories or through its partners are used as the foundations for other Army research, development and engineering centers under RDECOM, Miller explained.
“We act as the corporate laboratory, providing the underpinning of science, technology and analysis for the rest of the Army,” said Miller.
As basic and applied researchers working in lab environments, ARL scientists and engineers sometimes need an up-close understanding of Soldiers’ requirements. About 36 active-duty Soldiers are assigned to ARL, and work with the scientists as subject matter experts, helping guide technologies to better suit Soldiers.
“They act as the interface between the field and the lab,” said recently retired combat engineer and former ARL sergeant major, Steve Hornbach, who now works as an operations specialist for the lab.
“They’re extremely important and are able to provide the scientists and engineers the critical information on what Soldiers need,” he added.
Soldiers from outside units, most with recent combat experience, also visit the scientists in the lab as part of an RDECOM program to bring fresh perspectives and information in from the field.
The scientists’ work is mostly behind the scenes for Soldiers, said 1st Sgt. Kevin Spooner of the 1st Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, during his unit’s visit.
“Joe on the line doesn’t realize there’s a guy on a computer in an office trying to keep him alive and help kill the enemy,” he added.
The average Soldier may also not know that ARL Soldiers and scientists volunteer to deploy to military posts in the United States, Iraq and Afghanistan as part of their research, and with RDECOM field assistance teams, or FAST, to track down any technology gaps and rapidly help fill them for warfighters.
ARL’s Dr. Pam Savage-Knepshield, a human factors/ergonomics research psychologist, spends much of her time in the field talking to Soldiers and getting their feedback about new and old equipment. She recently returned from a six-month deployment as a FAST team member in Iraq, where the team was responsible for finding solutions to Soldiers’ problems.
She saw field-expedient measures military members were employing to address multiple equipment issues, from lighting to seatbelts. The FAST team then coordinated with stateside scientists and logistics support, and immediately took measures to remedy the situations.
“The Soldiers were happy we were there and looking out for their mission needs and personal safety,” said Savage-Knepshield. “It felt really good to be able to get solutions to Soldiers quickly and see them try them out while we were there.”
While some at ARL are helping with the fight now, many more are focused on the future. The high-risk, high-payoff world of basic and applied science is where ARL expects to make the most significant impact on the Army and the world in general, said Miller.
“ARL has (been) and will continue to be a major force in developing game-changing technologies that could revolutionize the way the Army fights,” he said.