Meet the RCCTO Engineers delivering rapid prototypes to drive Army modernization
by Claire Heininger and Nancy Jones-Bonbrest
(February 10, 2021) -- The Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) is delivering numerous Army “firsts” – including the prototype long range hypersonic weapon, combat-capable lasers, and a ground-launched mid-range fires capability using Navy missiles.
But being first also means not being perfect – which for an engineer, can mean a whole new way of thinking. The RCCTO capabilities aren’t aiming to be the enduring Army solutions, but instead experimental prototypes with residual combat capability – something that bridges the “valley of death” between science and technology and programs of record. They give Soldiers a system they can use on the battlefield and give the Army important information to shape future decisions.
Executed on an accelerated schedule, the delivery of these prototypes requires the RCCTO – which reports to an Army Board of Directors (BoD) comprised of Army senior leadership – to work closely with other organizations such as the Army Futures Command, the Program Executive Offices (PEOs), and numerous joint partners.
For the RCCTO’s engineers, it’s not a typical framework, yet they are embracing it. Simply put, the team of experts for each prototype – engineers included – move with the program. Starting with the science and technology community, the teams for hypersonics, directed energy, and mid-range capability moved to the RCCTO and with them came the knowledge, background and familiarity that is only developed from years of working on these capabilities. And much like in the commercial world, these matrixed teams can aggregate or de-aggregate based on what phase the mission is in. For example, when systems eventually transition out of the RCCTO prototype phase and into a PEO, the team will change once again. And like before, the knowledge, background and familiarity moves with them.
The effort requires teamwork, innovation, and a willingness to accept change. But for the RCCTO selected team of engineers, this is an opportunity to work on a completely new capability that could change the modern battlefield.
Below, we highlight a few RCCTO engineers who fit that mold and who explain, in their own words, their role in making the leap from the science and technology world into delivering a new capability for Soldiers on the battlefield, putting their own stamp on Army modernization.
Army Hypersonic Project Office
Name/Title: Carolyn Farmer, Army Hypersonic Project Office (AHPO), All Up Round + Canister (AUR+C), Deputy Project Manager (DPM)
Project Office Focus: The AHPO is prototyping a land-based Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) that will deliver residual combat capability to Soldiers by Fiscal Year 2023. The AUR+C team within AHPO is closely aligned with the Navy, as they jointly deliver a common AUR, coupled with a unique Army canister, to support the fielding of the LRHW.
Path to RCCTO: Farmer started her civilian career one month after the tragedies of 9/11/2001, supporting the Army’s DEVCOM - Aviation and Missile Center in the Reliability Engineering field. Here, she led Army and Foreign Military Sales customer reliability programs and traveled the world to support various aviation and missile systems. After graduating from the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), she took the advice of senior mentors and looked for opportunities in hypersonics, which led her to the RCCTO. “I’ve had a series of tremendous mentors throughout my career who challenged me to be comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Farmer said.
Current Job: As the AUR+C DPM, Farmer supports the unique teaming effort with the Navy, which is critical as they align resource management, contracting and acquisition, design, supply chain management, production, testing, logistics, schedules, safety, and more.
How This is Unique: “As an engineer, there is a desire to capture copious amounts of data and strive for continuous improvements and perfection,” Farmer said. Switching to delivering Soldiers experimental prototypes with residual combat capability, at an unprecedented pace, is wildly different from anything she’s ever been a part of before.
Achievement She’s Most Proud Of: Being part of her family’s realization of the ‘American Dream.’ Farmer’s parents and sisters immigrated to America in 1978. Her father, a South Vietnamese Naval officer who worked alongside the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, was a prisoner-of-war after the fall of Saigon. He fled the country with his family, eventually making a home in Huntsville, Ala., where Farmer was born. “My family is proof that America is truly the land of opportunity where anything is possible,” Farmer said.
What’s Next: With the Critical Design Reviews complete, the team is now focused on refining the design, preparing for upcoming joint flight campaign test events, and delivery of training canisters to the field to execute a logistics demonstration for loading, handling, storage and inspection of the AUR+C.
Why Engineering: Both of Farmer’s sisters are engineers so it’s in her blood. “My technical foundation as a mechanical engineer, coupled with my NPS Masters in Program Management, provided me with a solid framework to apply my strengths and make a difference in how we deliver products to Soldiers,” Farmer said.
What People Might Not Know: Growing up, she was a trained ballet dancer and a member of the Auburn University Tiger Paws Dance Team. She’s now a mom to two spunky kids and her husband of 20 years is also an Army civilian. It’s full-time, joint program management at home and at work.
Takeaways: “It’s evident that when we take care of our people, they will move mountains to take care of the mission.”
Directed Energy Project Office (DEPO)
Name/Title: Dee Formby, Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) Lead Engineer
Project Office Focus: In April 2019, the Army designated the RCCTO responsible for oversight and execution of all Army directed energy efforts. As part of this effort, the RCCTO is on-track to deliver its first combat-capable DE systems that will address near-peer threats. First up is DE M-SHORAD, which Formby works on. This 50kW-class laser, to be delivered to a platoon in Fiscal Year 2022, will be mounted on Stryker vehicles to help address the growing threat from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and rockets, artillery and mortars (RAM).
Past Work/Path to the RCCTO: An early pioneer in Directed Energy, Formby worked in the science and technology (S&T) community at the Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) prior to the RCCTO. Transitioning with the DE capability from S&T to the RCCTO provided an exciting new opportunity. “Most of my experience was in the S&T world, where you develop the technology and hand it off,” Formby said. “With this, I’ll get to see it go full circle.”
Current Job: Formby collaborates with both the RCCTO and contractor engineering teams to integrate DE M-SHORAD technologies onto the Stryker. On a day-to-day basis, this means working through all the challenges and issues that can come up with integrating a new technology onto a platform for the first time.
How This is Unique: The accelerated schedule, says Formby. The RCCTO took over the DE M-SHORAD mission in April 2019, had a prime vendor on contract by July 2019, did development and integration work throughout 2020 and early 2021, and will now begin risk reduction events prior to a combat shoot-off later this year en route to prototype fielding in 2022.
Achievement He’s Most Proud Of: The success he and the team of engineers he worked with at SMDC had in advancing laser and directed energy capabilities to this point. “A lot of the technologies I worked on are now enabling us to do what we’re doing today at the RCCTO, so I’m very proud of that,” Formby said.
What’s Next: Formby is focused on one thing: getting the prototype DE M-SHORAD 50 kW-laser to a combat shoot-off at Fort Sill, Okla. later this year. There, it will face scenarios designed to test the system and establish design characteristics for combat-capable lasers.
Why Engineering: Formby always had a love of engineering, and while still in college began working with the government through a cooperative program with SMDC. There, he was exposed early to the Army and laser technology. This promising new technology grabbed his attention and 14 years later, he’s still involved.
What People Might Not Know: On his days off, Formby is an avid fisherman.
Takeaways: “Directed Energy has been used in different ways within the Army, but being able to integrate these onto a vehicles is unique and exciting.”
Mid-Range Capability (MRC)
Name/Title: Casey Cooper, MRC systems engineer, and Brad Brown, MRC systems engineer supporting fielding and transition.
Project Office Focus: In July 2020, the Secretary of the Army assigned the RCCTO to deliver a prototype ground-launched, mid-range fires capability as part of the Army modernization strategy to deter, and if necessary, defeat near-peer competitors. After rapidly forming the MRC execution team, and partnering with joint programs to tailor existing capabilities to the new mission, the RCCTO in November issued a prototype Other Transaction Authority (pOTA) agreement to deliver an operational prototype MRC battery by FY 2023.
Past Work/Path to the RCCTO: Cooper spent a decade in industry, working to advance microelectronics packaging and assembly, then supported the U.S. Army DEVCOM - Aviation & Missile Center in rapidly transitioning a new launcher capability from S&T to an acquisition program. Brown supported the Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar (C-RAM) project office from its inception in 2004, working on urgent materiel release capabilities that protected deployed Soldiers against incoming threats.
Current Job: Both Cooper and Brown dig deep into the engineering aspects of MRC, translating the system’s common elements from joint programs into a solution that meets Army performance requirements. “One of the things we don’t have the luxury of at RCCTO is time,” Cooper said. “We are under such an aggressive schedule that we really have to lean our approaches to meet the safe, capable, and relevant delivery.”
How This Is Unique: The MRC prototype isn’t following traditional acquisition processes, but instead applying rapid methods and making trades to deliver to Soldiers at the speed of relevance. Says Brown: “Any solution now is better than no solution they have.”
Achievement They’re Most Proud Of: In 2009, Cooper received a patent on a microelectronics packaging method used by the Office of Naval Research. For Brown, it was hearing feedback from Soldiers overseas who witnessed C-RAM systems in action providing protection.
What’s Next: Completing a Critical Design Review of all systems within MRC in 2021.
Why Engineering: Solving the hardest problems. “The problems that are messy, not well-defined, a very aggressive timeline – those are the ones that get me to come to work in the morning,” Cooper said. “By solving those problems, we’re able to make a difference.” Brown also draws inspiration from his mentors, including his father, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers, and his fourth grade teacher.
What People Might Not Know: Cooper grew up on a farm in southern Alabama, raising cows and crops, and is continuing the tradition with her own husband and children. Brown has four daughters, who convinced him to sing in the choir at church.
Takeaways: “You don’t work on these programs unless you love what you do – making a difference and helping Soldiers in the field,” Cooper said. Brown stressed the group effort involved in turning a concept into a rapid prototype: “It’s bigger than any one individual,” he said. “We’re proud to be part of this team.”