Helping Partners Help Themselves Through Grassroots Innovation
By Ernest John C. Jadloc, Leo Blanken, and Kevin Jones
Security cooperation with partner nations is increasingly important for the success of American security policy in an era of strategic competition. After twenty years of large-scale counterinsurgency operations, during which security cooperation largely consisted of the rapid building of (often inappropriate) “mirror imaged” partner forces, new thinking is required. We provide a novel and scalable mechanism for partner force enablement efforts here: grassroots innovation among partner force personnel through the leveraging of commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies. More specifically, we show the potential for partner forces to create affordable, sustainable, and tailored solutions to their own capability gaps as a mechanism for better partnering.
We begin our story with a real operational challenge for an important partner force in the Pacific region. The southern Philippines is largely covered with dense vegetation. Although Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) ground troops are equipped with identification-friend-or-foe (IFF) devices, the tree cover can prevent the identification of these troops by friendly aircraft. The situation is aggravated when firefights happen at night, in vegetated areas, and when troops seek concealment and cover while engaged with the enemy. This all presents significant challenges for Filipino Air Force pilots to distinguish friend from foe when conducting close air support (CAS) operations, resulting in the significant potential for fratricide. Given this challenge, AFP ground troops need to be able to deploy a visual reference for pilots above the canopy of vegetation while they remain concealed physically. Moreover, this visual reference should not have a direct back azimuth to the soldier’s specific location. The absence of such visual reference may result in the delay of pilots positively identifying the friendly forces, provide additional time for enemy action, unnecessarily expose aircraft to enemy fire, and potentially cause fratricide. Our co-author, Colonel Jadloc, has lived this experience. In a recent operation, he led units of the Philippine Army to neutralize a terrorist group who were positioned in rough and highly vegetated terrain. Attack helicopters were sent to support his troops. The helicopter pilots, however, had trouble demarcating friendly from enemy forces on the ground. This delayed their ability to provide supporting fires, as it took considerable radio conversation and repositioning of troops before friendly force location was clarified.
In response to this operational challenge, Colonel Jadloc has prototyped a solution to this capability gap while he earned a Master’s degree at the Naval Postgraduate School. His Maneuverable Aerial Identification Friend-or-Foe (MAIFF) system uses a quadcopter drone mounted with infrared lamp and other electronic and non-electronic parts. The illumination provided by the lamp is invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen using a night vision device. It can operate for six hours and is visible up to at least one mile away. The lamp’s mounting design is stable and versatile, enabling the lamp and the drone to fly as one unit. The design parameters of this project sought to create an affordable and sustainable solution, utilizing COTS components, and are tailored specifically to the needs of the AFP ground and air forces. The sub-250 gram drone used in this prototype is a combination of hobby parts that are available anywhere in the world along with a few bespoke parts that were designed and manufactured in an on-campus maker-space. Quad-copter designs such as this are very forgiving when it comes to configuration changes – substitutions to the motors, propellers, camera gear, et cetera. This improves the chances of producing and maintaining these systems as the availability of COTS materials in the marketplace change over time. Total cost of the materials for these airborne platforms starts at around $100 and can include features like starlight cameras (providing near IR visibility at night) for about $30. For an additional $50 or so, high-level autonomy can be introduced, which allows for waypoint navigation, position hold, and RF-free operation for stealth.
Colonel Jadloc’s efforts to prototype this innovative solution were based on his access to the expertise and facilities at the Naval Postgraduate School. These included the time and space to tinker, prototype, and fabricate in the school’s maker-space (the “Robo-Dojo”), access to a wide-range of faculty expertise from multiple departments on campus, and the leveraging of COTS components to produce an effective and affordable military capability. Further, his project built directly upon the research project of a previous Filipino military officer, Major Romulo Dimayuga, whose own innovation project inspired the design of the drone upon which the MAIFF system is mounted. This cumulative evolution among projects by Filipino students at the Naval Postgraduate School serves to maintain continuity, increases the likelihood of innovation adoption, and serves to build a network of innovators among AFP personnel over time.
What does the story of Colonel Jadloc and Major Dimayuga tell us about the future of building partner capacity writ large? It is a story of opportunity for improving American security assistance efforts in an era of rapidly changing technology, strategic competition, and constrained resources through the enablement of grassroots innovation among partner force personnel. Given that not all partner force personnel enjoy access to graduate research opportunities, how could their experiences be scaled up to achieve strategic impact? We argue that there would be four necessary components to scaling this concept:
The first component is access to subject matter expertise. Colonel Jadloc and Major Dimayuga benefitted from pursuing their work while graduate students at the Naval Postgraduate School, as this gave them access to wide range of engineering and applied science expertise. Scaling up these efforts by partner force personnel within their home countries would provide new opportunities to leverage local academic and private sector expertise to fulfill this need, thereby energizing a wider web of relationships and deepening the host nation’s own innovation ecosystems.
The second component is synchronization with inter-agency partners relevant to economic and technical development in the partner nation. This is “a feature not a bug,” as it would invigorate inter-agency efforts to engage the host nation across multiple socio-technical domains. This knitting together of a wider array of American capabilities and authorities would not only improve the number and quality of innovation projects but would broaden and deepen the relationships between American actors and the host nation.
The third component is deconflicting this activity with existing security cooperation efforts and foreign military sales. It would be important to convey to all actors involved that such grassroots innovation efforts may not be appropriate for all the partner force’s needs and that existing mechanisms of support would not be threatened or undercut. If planned and executed thoughtfully, these efforts should, in fact improve existing security cooperation efforts by giving a greater voice to partner force personnel in articulating their needs and concerns.
The final component is embedding grassroots partner force innovation into the doctrine of those units tasked with building partner capacity. US Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) and Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs) would be the ideal entities to spearhead the implementation of this concept. Existing capabilities, such as the US Army Special Forces (SF) Groups’ Technical Information Support Companies (TISCs), could be utilized as springboards to pilot and prototype these activities for the broader units.
Prototype MAIFF being piloted by Prof Kevin Jones. Photo by Ernest John Jadloc