American troops who served as trainers and advisors in Iraq and Syria since 2015 noted that the enemy was making greater use of tunnels, and began work on better ways to deal with this. When some of these troops eventually ended up in South Korea (where American infantry have been serving continuously since 1950) they found that North Korea had increased their efforts to build tunnels under the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone the serves as the border between the two Koreas) and even within North Korean territory along the border and in some other key areas. The officers and NCOs arriving from Iraq and Syria noted that the tunnel problems faced in South Korea were similar to what they had just been exposed to in the Middle East. The recent experience also included working with troops they were advising to come up with a more effective way to fight and win inside those tunnels. Actually, the 2nd Infantry Division (the primary army unit in South Korea) had first requested something like this in 2012 but the recent experience in Iraq and Syria got more troops exposed to the problem up close and personal and that, as usually happens in combat, got more people thinking about possible solutions. This led to a REF (Rapid Equipping Force) type effort to create a solution. REF has been around for over fifteen years and makes it easier to quickly implement new ideas.
The main problem tunnels, especially the extensive underground complexes that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) had used in Syria and Iraq and the ones North Korea had built, is communication. The defenders (who built the tunnel) have an advantage as they can install communications wire and use that with portable telephones that can be plugged into the wire as the defenders move about. The wire is torn down or destroyed by combat as the defenders fight and retreat. It was also noted that such systems can be used in large above ground structures that have a lot of interior rooms and passages that create tunnel-like conditions when the power is out and there is no light except what you bring with you. At the point where the two forces meet in a tunnel or darkened building, the defender uses the darkness as part of their defenses. It is up to the attacker to bring their own light and communications with them. Having the attackers unspool commo wire behind them was found to be impractical in most situations. That’s because attackers are moving as fast as possible to give the defender less opportunity to put up an effective resistance. But that speed and the success of the attack depends on communication.
Like most REF situations the troops had to use available equipment and as few new items as possible to develop a solution. New items had to be stuff that already existed in the military inventory or, more often, the commercial marketplace. Amazon delivers to the combat zone and troops can search for items and order via the Internet (also available in the combat zone). The most promising solution to the tunnel comms has been the MPU5 Mobile Ad Hock Networking. This uses a small puck sized battery powered device that contains a wi-fi repeater that acts as a radio relay. Taped to the puck is a small battery powered LED light that shows troops where it is. The wi-fi puck solves the problem of conventional radios not working well in tunnels because these radios depend on line-of-sight between radios and no large structures between radios that degrade the signal. The puck works with the Warlock personal tracker troops wear on one of their boots to provide location data for other troops. Warlock does not work well underground or inside buildings with lots of walls that get in the way and degrades or block wireless communications. The MPU5 pucks act as a mesh network where the pucks extend the Warlock signal back to commanders above ground who can track where their troops are underground. To solve the visibility problem troops can use night vision goggles using infrared (invisible to the eye) light that illuminates what is in front of the soldier without alerting the enemy. The infrared goggles also enable the troops to search for landmines or other explosive devices placed in their way by the retreating defender. Troops have already successfully tested the MPU5/infrared goggles system in simulated underground rescue exercises.
While most American infantry units were withdrawn from combat between 2011 (Iraq) and 2014 (Afghanistan) many infantry and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops were still involved training, advising and generally assisting friendly forces in many parts of the world. These American troops encountered some new (for them) situations and got the troops thinking about solutions. Fortunately, there was a way to quickly implement new ideas troops might develop for new combat situations. The troops knew they could develop new tech and get it into service because since 2002 there was the Rapid Equipping Force program (REF) that monitored troop needs and quickly found and shipped out needed weapons and equipment. In addition, there was the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) which gave unit commanders (division and below) cash and authority to buy non-standard items the troops needed fast. RFI was used to come up with a solution to the tunnel combat problem.
There has long been a need for speeding up the process of identifying and procuring weapons and equipment the combat troops need. After 2001 this led to RFI (the Rapid Fielding Initiative). Created in 2002 by the U.S. Army as a mechanism for quickly getting what the troops needed, this proved a lot more successful and popular than expected. The Internet made REF and RFI possible, for the troops grew up with cell phones and the Internet and know how to quickly connect with each other and sort out what they all had experienced and determine what was needed to operate more effectively. With most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over, there was budget pressure to eliminate both of these programs. The troops and their commanders agreed that would be a big mistake. So REF and RFI remained and continued to develop new equipment and techniques based not just on actual combat situations, but ones most American troops had not confronted yet.
In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and contributed to the acceptance of RFI, which recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly.
Since 2002 the army approved the purchase of over 500 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. In 2011 the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).
Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there's a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone's ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be.
And then there is the fact that the troops are willing to accept a partial solution. Engineers often point out that they can deliver much more quickly if they are allowed to use the old "70 percent solution" rule. This bit of engineering wisdom is based on the fact that some capabilities of a weapon or other item are not essential but take an inordinate amount of effort and expense to create. Thus a "good enough" item can be produced very quickly if you are willing to sacrifice 30 percent of the capabilities you thought you needed (but probably don't). Despite official opposition, the 70 percent solution has become all the rage since 2003 because the troops have found that this is frequently good enough and a real lifesaver in combat situations they are facing daily. Since RFI this often meant adopting civilian gear (radios, hunting accessories, electronics, clothing, tents) that was not “militarized” (made much more expensive and not arriving for a long time.)
The age of change began with the troops who, thanks to the Internet and a flood of new civilian technology, got into the habit of just buying new stuff with their own money and using it in combat. If the army had developed a lot of this gear it would have had more features, probably been more rugged, and taken a lot longer to arrive, if it ever did at all. But for the troops, the off-the-shelf gear filled important needs, even if it was a 70 percent solution.
Troops have been finding and buying non-standard gear for decades but it had been growing more frequent since the 1990s. The army became tolerant of it, largely because this unofficial civilian gear (sleeping bags, boots, rifle cleaning kits, etc.) often was better and even officers used the stuff. As the number of these items increased tremendously after 2003, and more officers came back from commanding combat units with personal experience of this sort of thing, a growing number of senior commanders began demanding that the army procurement bureaucracy get rid of the traditional 10-15 years it takes to find, develop, and approve new technology for the troops. The troops have long understood this but now four star generals agreed and often did so from personal experience. The generals did create the REF in 2001, which was successful as long as it paid constant attention to what the troops were thinking and doing.
In hindsight, you could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other items came from hunting and police suppliers (new gun sights and other accessories). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear, plus new kinds of flashlights and, eventually, smartphones.
The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet and, like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages, and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet, each soldier's discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army-wide, and worldwide, within hours. Among other benefits, this was a morale boost as well.
Finally, there was SOCOM, which had long possessed its own REF/ RFI-like powers and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (the first night vision gear and satellite phones). The useful new tech was often very expensive. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating, via the Internet, how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOM's freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.
When American troops went into Afghanistan in October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money, while the Special Forces was getting it paid for by the government. This was especially embarrassing if the new equipment from a civilian supplier was obviously superior to the stuff the government was handing out. With this kind of incentive the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.
Some generals consider the official procurement bureaucracy beyond help. It is encumbered with generations of laws and rules, which are supposed to curb fraud, enhance efficiency, or whatever and have mainly contributed to the many delays that make everything take far longer than it should. You can't mess with the laws, at least not too often and especially not in peacetime, without getting brought up short by Congress, defense industry lobbyists, and the courts. For the politicians, the defense budget is a principal tool for getting re-elected. That procurement money means jobs for American voters and the politicians representing those voters know it. Congress will not relinquish too much control over this pot of gold.
Over a decade of war has changed a lot of things in the U.S. military but none more troublesome, to the military bureaucracy, than the new attitude of "we want it now." Senior commanders took on the military procurement bureaucracy in order to get new technology to the troops sooner. It's not a new fight but having so many generals involved in trying to speed things up, now that is new. And often the generals were asking for some very expensive stuff. But these officers had done their homework and it was hard to say no to officers who are under fire every day. In peacetime, development programs go on far longer and cost much more than they do in wartime. These projects seek to achieve as much as possible with a new weapon or item of equipment. But the troops know that a no-frills (less than 100 percent approach) gets the job done a lot faster and cheaper. This “70 percent solution” became a legitimate tool on the battlefield. The procurement bureaucracy wanted to go back to the bad old (but safer) days of taking your time and covering your ass. This not only applies to hardware but also to shortcomings in leadership and training. Fortunately, there were a lot of senior commanders who had personal experience with how well REF and RFI worked and both, so far, have survived. In part this was because after Iraq and Afghanistan there was more awareness of the difficulties ground combat troops face and the importance of providing more support (equipment, training and so on) to the small number of troops (four percent of Department of Defense personnel) who suffer 90 percent of the casualties and without which there can be no battlefield success. Everyone else in the military basically provides support for the four percent.
Military analysts and historians know that without effective infantry you cannot win a war. In addition better trained, equipped and led infantry suffer fewer casualties and get the job done a lot faster. Yet even in the West, the infantry tends to be at the end of the line when it comes to resources. That attitude has changed and now the Department of Defense devotes more resources to providing the key combat forces (the infantry) with better gear. After 2014 only about two percent of modernization spending went to the infantry. That is changing with the continued success of REF/RFI.