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The Army is seeking feedback from industry on ways to leverage emerging technology to transform the way it operates and maintains its bases, despite nearly a flat budget to do so.
The service has spent several years looking at the concept of “installations of the future.” But in its latest approach, previewed at a long-awaited industry day held Thursday, the Army wants to make its bases more resilient to threats ranging from natural disasters to cyber attacks and beyond.
“The National Defense Strategy states very clearly that the homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” said Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for strategic integration. “We’ve been treating our military installations as if they were sanctuary cities for a very long time, immune from the effects of the adversary. That is no longer the appropriate assumption, so we need to think of our installations as being part of the battlespace and performing defined roles in the strategic support area.”
As a result, the Army has looked at ways to ensure military installations can provide their own power in the event that a disaster brings down the commercial power grid. Over the past few years, it’s run energy resilience exercises at four bases. The largest-scale test took place last month at Ft. Bragg, which left the base unplugged from the commercial grid for 12 hours.
“Our major installations really are cities,” Alex Beehler, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, said in an interview with Federal News Network. “Fort Bragg is basically the equivalent of a city of 250,000 people with all of the functions and activities of a comparable entity in that regard.”
During his industry day presentation, Beehler said that in some ways, the service would return to the self-sustaining model of most pre-World War II facilities.
“Since before World War II, most eventual installations of the Army were, by design, in totally remote areas, disconnected pretty much from the daily activities of the rest of the world, wherever they were,” he said.
In an effort to simulate a “true emergency situation,” Beehler said most base operations leadership aren’t given advanced notice about when the drill will take place.
“Among other things, it shows just exactly how many different areas the installations need to develop,” he said.
Despite an otherwise robust defense budget, the military services have endured strict budgets for facilities sustainment, restoration and maintenance (FSRM). The Army in fiscal 2019 received just over $3.5 billion for FSRM, enough to cover about 80% of its known maintenance requirements for its existing infrastructure.
Beehler, during the interview, said the push toward tech-driven bases plays into the Army’s mantra of doing more with less.
“We’ve seen, in so many areas of our society, innovative technology is a key driver in cost-effectiveness … so the more we can employ such innovative technology, the more cost-effective we can be,” he said.
Army Corps of Engineers looks to predictive maintenance
To get the most use of its facilities while minimizing unexpected maintenance, the Army Corps of Engineers is rolling out the Virtual Testbed Installation for Mission Effectiveness (VTIME), an artificial intelligence tool that can provide predictive analytics on the status of facilities all across an installation.
The program remains in its early stages, but David Pittman, the director of the Engineer Research Development Center and chief scientists of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the corps is looking at ways to build it out.
“Just like the infrastructure in the United States is deteriorating, our DoD installations are deteriorating as well,” Pittman said.
Leveraging a “gold mine” of data from installation sensors, Pittman said VTIME gives everyone on the base – from the top echelons of commanders down to the individual soldier or civilian – a big-picture view of conditions on the base.
“Our installations are hotbeds of data. We’ve got a lot of data obviously on our computers, on our servers, on our internet, on our cell phones and that sort of thing. But think about your traffic lights, think about your security cameras. Think about the things that might not necessarily be integrated and connected,” Pittman said.
Prior to the AI-powered capabilities of VTIME, the corps had looked at ways to “listen” to buildings, bridges, dams and other structures to gauge their durability.
“We’ve geophysicists that can listen to those bridges and structures and tell something about the capacity of those. That’s really good when you get out into the theater of operations and you want to understand is that really a bridge or not, and can it hold up my tank.”
The corps has also developed more durable, corrosion-resistant materials, as well as ways to stand up some facilities more cheaply. Through its Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Illinois, the corps has developed 3D printers that can fabricate entire buildings either at installations or out on the battlefield.
“We’ve got printers now that can literally print out a building out of concrete in like hours or a couple of days versus weeks,” Pittman said.
Challenges, opportunities of a more connected base
But in order to build the installations of the future, Lt. Gen. Gwen Bingham, the assistant chief of staff for installation management, said the Army needs to invest in the technology infrastructure of the future.
For about the past year-and-a-half, Bingham said the service has looked at getting 5G wireless connectivity to all of its installations, as well as other emerging tech like biometric identity scanning and a cloud-based “data lake.”
“We know that we must move quickly to adapt and change, to be proactive versus reactive, and to really get ahead of the technology curve. And so, in other words, we want to be the driver of change versus the passenger, if you will,” Bingham said.
Through a connected set of sensors on everything from individual soldiers, equipment and buildings, installations can give base operators can ensure seamless operations, such as the impact on climate change.
“We’re expected to lose a lot of range time due to dry conditions. But rather than blanket out the entire base as not being suitable, we’ll have those microsensors and the ability to quickly switch shift ranges and ensure training continues in an uninterrupted and interrupted manner,” Kidd said.
But a more connected military base also raises the stakes on cybersecurity challenges.
“Everything has to have cybersecurity considerations built in from the beginning, not added on retroactively every time we add an internet of things device. And frankly, we’re not going to be able to buy stuff that’s not connected. You can’t buy a brand new HVAC unit, or an automatic garage door opener, or sprinkler system that is not connected,” Kidd said. “So everything that we buy and install in our installations is not only an enhancement in terms of service, it’s also a threat vector. It’s a vector of attack for our adversaries.”