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Robotic mules set to modernize U.S. infantry brigade combat teams

The U.S. Army has selected General Dynamics Land Systems to produce the Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport, or S-MET, to lighten Soldiers' loads by providing Infantry Brigade Combat Teams a robotic "mule" capability. The contract is valued at $162.4 million to produce 624 S-METs. Delivery to Soldiers begins in the second quarter of Fiscal Year 2021. Rae Higgins, Program Executive Office Combat Support & Combat Service Support and Monica Manganaro, Maneuver Capabilities Development & Integration Directorate, elaborates.

Robotic mules set to modernize U.S. infantry brigade combat teams 1
Soldiers assigned to the Maneuver Battle Lab Experimental Force, Fort Benning, Ga., pictured here, played a central role in assessing the S-MET candidates during the Technology Demonstration phase as well as Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures Development. Soldiers from the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions also utilized the systems during the seven-month Technology Demonstration, incorporating the S-MET systems into Field Training Exercises and a four-week rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. (Picture source: Jay Richards, Program Executive Office for Combat Support Combat Service Support)

With the S-MET (pronounced "Ess-Met") program, a phased, quicker acquisition plan allowed the Army to make informed program decisions based on direct Soldier feedback on commercially available technology -- fielding equipment faster than typical processes allow. S-MET's basic operational capabilities include:

• Unmanned/optionally manned system
• Carries 1,000 lbs., reducing Soldier weight burden by 100-plus pounds each when in support of a rifle squad
• Operates 60-plus miles in 72 hours
• Generates 3 kilowatts of power (stationary) and 1 kilowatt (moving) keeping equipment and batteries charged on the move.

The Army issued a directed requirement in April 2017 for a rapid materiel acquisition aimed at unburdening infantry brigade combat teams with a robotic capability. To fast-track the acquisition process, the Army's Program Executive Office for Combat Support & Combat Service Support, awarded S-MET Phase I Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements (vs. traditional Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)-based contracting methods) in June 2017 for eight platforms.

The S-MET program marks one of the Army's first Middle Tier Acquisitions (MTA) for Rapid Fielding. This acquisition approach foregoes the traditional Department of Defense 5000.02 acquisition process, streamlining the delivery and fielding of capabilities within a period of five years. Use of the MTA approach was granted by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act Section 804.

"The S-MET program has focused on meeting the Army's emphasis on enhancing Soldier lethality and rapidly fielding modernized capabilities. Our product management team for Applique and Large Unmanned Ground Systems undertook a great challenge to develop a strategy using experimentation and technical demonstrations to streamline the S-MET acquisition process," said Timothy G. Goddette, the Army's program executive officer for Combat Support and Combat Service Support.

"Using an innovative contracting approach through an Other Transaction Authority, a flexible, collaborative tool designed to speed acquisition and modernization, the S-MET team awarded this capability within two and a half years. Using normal acquisition processes, it could have taken as much as five years," he explained.

The initial candidate platforms participated in the S-MET Phase I Assessment held in September 2017 at Fort Benning, Georgia. The evaluation enabled the Army to learn about each of the candidate platforms' capabilities and obtain operational feedback based on Soldiers' interactions with the candidate S-MET systems. Based on the results in November 2017, the Army narrowed to four contractors to evaluate their respective platforms during a 12-month (later reduced to seven-month) S-MET Phase II Technology Demonstration.

Phase II called for each of the four selected contractors to produce 20 platforms. Four of the produced S-METs supported safety testing, Commercial-Off-the-Shelf operator manual verification, Instructor and Key Personnel Training, and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) development. Upon completion of safety testing, the Product Management Office for Applique and Large Unmanned Systems issued eight of each respective prototype S-METs to IBCTs within the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne Divisions in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2019 for the seven-month Phase II Technology Demonstration. Results from the Technology Demonstration informed program decisions and further solidified S-MET TTPs.

Dismounted infantrymen carry water, extra ammunition, and other equipment and gear imposing physical burden. When fielded, S-MET will unburden Soldiers and enable IBCTs to travel greater distances and carry more. Soldier experimentation, touchpoints, and evaluation have been key in obtaining direct warfighter feedback. "Thanks to tremendous teamwork across the acquisition, requirements, operational, and resource communities, this is a great modernization success story," said Don Sando, director for the Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, Fort Benning. "Key to this success was involving Soldiers early in the process to get their input and feedback during experiments and assessments. "Direct Soldier feedback drove the requirements for the S-MET, and certainly helped determine what systems would work best for IBCTs to fill a capability gap," Sando added.

This enhanced, modernized capability will unburden Soldiers of some of their physical load, thereby also improving Soldiers' physical and cognitive capabilities. A future capability will feature modular mission payloads tailoring the S-MET to specific mission needs, such as dismounted engineer mobility systems; remote weapon stations; casualty evacuation; and unmanned aerial systems and reconnaissance. "Getting a modernized capability into the hands of IBCT Soldiers has been the team's driving focus throughout this program," said Lt. Col. Jon Bodenhamer, the Army's product manager for Applique and Large Unmanned Ground Systems within the Program Executive Office for Combat Support & Combat Service Support. "Soldiers are why we do what we do, and I'm incredibly proud of the hard-working team that brought us to this point."

Robotic mules set to modernize U.S. infantry brigade combat teams 2

The S-MET program aims at lightening Soldiers' loads by providing Infantry Battalions a robotic "mule" capability. A phased, rapid acquisition plan has allowed the Army to make informed program decisions from Soldier feedback on commercially available technology -- fielding faster than typical processes allow. (Picture source: U.S. Army)


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