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Scientist In The Foxhole
by Daniel Gaffney, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
August 29, 2019

Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Scientist In The Foxhole program is an effort within the Research and Development Directorate to take chemists, biologists, physicists and engineers out of the laboratory and put them in the dirt, mud or rubble where their technology operates. The program was created to ensure scientists fully understand ... not only the punishing environment their technology must work in, but also the conditions and limitations of the warfighters that must carry and use their products.

May 10, 2019 - A scientist observes a fellow scientist try squeezing into the seat of a tactical vehicle wearing the equipment a typical soldier would be wearing, in order to better understand how little room there is for bulky equipment. (Photo courtesy Dugway Proving Ground Public Affairs Office)
May 10, 2019 - A scientist observes a fellow scientist try squeezing into the seat of a tactical vehicle wearing the equipment a typical soldier would be wearing, in order to better understand how little room there is for bulky equipment. (Photo by Stacy Smenos, Dugway Proving Ground Public Affairs Office)

The Scientist in the Foxhole program is the brainchild of Dr. Ronald Hann, director of the Chemical/Biological Technologies Department. An enlisted infantry soldier-turned chemical officer-turned senior DoD scientist, Hann has extensive experience in the well-lit, sterile labs where scientists work and the gritty, harsh warzones where troops operate. He also knows that his experience, while not unique, is rare.

“Not a lot of scientists serve on active duty within the military. At any one time 0.4% of the population serves on active duty, and only about 7.3% of the population have ever served in the military… and once you break it down in terms of how many scientists have served, I bet the number is dramatically smaller.”

Hann’s experience as a chemical officer in Operation Desert Storm, taught him both the value of good equipment that works in the field and the cost and trouble of equipment that didn’t.

“I remember as a user the third time the (chemical) alarm went off I threw it in the back of the vehicle and I wasn’t going to pull it out again. I bought canaries for my units in Desert Storm as we had M8 automatic chemical agent alarm system alarms going off and driving me nuts… at one point the entire 7th corps went into MOPP4 protective gear because of the alarms, and at $68 a suit, times 128,000 soldiers, that is not a trivial event.”

The Scientist in the Foxhole program, just a few years old, started with Army units but has expanded to include other harsh environments typical of the troops and units that DTRA supports: Scientists on the Flight Line (Air Force), Scientists at Sea (Navy), and Scientists in the Sand (Marine Corps). This specialization helps scientists understand specific challenges to the unique environments, and that what might work in cramped but climate-controlled spaces aboard a ship or down in a missile silo might be useless on a tank or a helicopter.

May 10, 2019 - Scientists watch soldiers sample simulated leaking chemical weapons in an underground facility in order to get a better idea of both the bulky protective gear soldiers must wear as well as the dark, constrained environments they sometimes work in. (Photo by Stacy Smenos, Dugway Proving Ground Public Affairs Office)
May 10, 2019 - Scientists watch soldiers sample simulated leaking chemical weapons in an underground facility in order to get a better idea of both the bulky protective gear soldiers must wear as well as the dark, constrained environments they sometimes work in. (Photo by Stacy Smenos, Dugway Proving Ground Public Affairs Office)

Scientists also get feedback from the troops that operate the equipment. A detector as small and sleek as a modern smartphone might be perfect inside a university lab in the hands of a Ph.D. candidate, but if the end user is a 19 year-old soldier wearing thick leather gloves and carrying a 20 lb. machine gun, the term “user friendly” probably means something completely different.

The ‘Scientist’ programs bring developers and users together and allows for real-time feedback, eliminating months of back-and-forth trial-and-error, shortening the development timeline, and improving the form and function of equipment.

Feedback from both scientists and soldiers (and sailors, airmen and Marines) that confirm the program is working as intended. Dr. Hann’s ultimate goal of the Scientist in the Foxhole program remains making sure our troops get the best equipment for the task at hand, as soon as possible: “This exposure, these experiences, eliminate months of back-and-forth design and testing, and help the scientists focus on the mission objective, not just the end product. The return on investment we get from this is priceless, and we can see how scientists have changed their way of doing things which benefits the men and women in uniform.”

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Mission
The Defense Threat Reduction Agency enables DoD, the U.S. Government, and international partners to counter and deter weapons of mass destruction and improvised threats networks.

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