Deployable innovation team debuts at Cope North 24—reoptimizing amid Great Power Competition

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Alyssa Letts
  • Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs

Cope North 24 brought together six nations, 2,400 service members, and a team of four engineers as part of the first-ever, deployed Scientist and Engineer Demand Force Team, (SEDFT) specializing in rapid prototyping to innovate critical problems in an operational, field environment.

SEDFT falls under the umbrella of Project DooLittle, an Air Force Research Lab program to revitalize the scientist and engineer career field.

“We are a forward deployable team of innovators trained and equipped to solve problems,” said 1st Lt. Garrett DeMeyer, SEDFT Lead. “With a wide range of technical skills and a rapid prototyping kit, we’re ready to innovate in remote environments.”

Throughout history, victors have usually been the ones who have the best technology and adapt the quickest. DeMeyer’s team, Capt. Xavier Little, SEDFT Robotics Engineer, Lt. Josh Piel, SEDFT Electrical Engineer and Lt. Matt Kusman, SEDFT Software Engineer and himself - is getting after just that.

“We believe the next war will be a war of science and technology,” said DeMeyer. “And in that future conflict, whoever can innovate the fastest will win. In this world of exponential technological growth, it wouldn’t take long for an asymmetric technical advantage to turn into a war-winning capability for adversaries.”

His team was asked by the U.S. lead of the Trilateral Exercise Coordination Office, Lt. Col. David Overstreet, to test those innovative capabilities with real-time problems during Cope North.

“I brought his team here to find problems, relate them to Cope North 24 objectives, and immediately start trying to solve them,” said Overstreet. “Their presence allows the people in the exercise to focus on their job, while Garrett’s team finds solutions in the background. If you really think about what they’re trying to do, it’s a no-brainer that we would need them in a conflict situation.”

Throughout their time at Cope North, the self-proclaimed  “Nerdy Seals” have scoured every level of the exercise, from strategic to tactical, to solve problems of all shapes and sizes.

And problems they found. This Cope North iteration has pushed the boundaries of interoperable forward-deployment capabilities more than any previous exercise. One of the seemingly simple processes that becomes a headache quickly is tracking equipment.

“Things are hard to track as they move to the spokes,” said Lt. Col. Tim Higley, the 36th Mission Support Group Deputy Commander.

After hearing about this problem, the SEDFT created an app to track equipment using QR codes, that would make the process much more efficient and effective.

“They created a viable product in three days,” said Higley “Agile Combat Employment is a key component of Cope North because it's critical for us as a coalition to be interoperable while working out of remote locations. Garrett’s team is finding solutions to make it easier for us to achieve that objective.” 

With one happy customer, DeMeyer’s team took on the most glaringly obvious obstacle, the language barriers inherent to bringing together six partner nations from across the Indo-Pacific.

“I asked Garrett’s team if they could help us find a way to translate faster during briefings,” said Overstreet. “It’s critical for us as a coalition to have synchronized communication during missions, and we want to dig into any avenue to make that process smoother.”

With these marching orders, the SEDFT coded an entire secure translator app using AI to transcribe speech into text, providing real-time, ‘closed-captioning’ of a brief. Going as far as teaching the app Cope North-specific verbiage to catch all military jargon and output the correct interpretation.

This capability took two days to complete.

Over the course of three week-exercise, they introduced innovations geared toward a high end fight, such as an agile combat employment focused counter drone system, airborne drone jammer, and emergency aircraft radio navigation aid. The team also worked with local units to 3D print new phone holders, a SATCOM clip antenna clip, and designed a portable spectrum analyzer to improve the efficiency of Airmen. Finally, to keep the exercise training schedule on track, the team built a life-like search and rescue dummy.

“Once we started to build our portfolio, and established credibility, the opportunities started to flow,” said Capt. Xavier Little, SEDFT Robotics Engineer. “We were able to work with Airmen in the field, see their problems and then instantly deliver a solution. Working this closely with the operators allowed us get after their vision much more efficiently and effectively.”

Throughout the whole process, the team has received mentorship from Ally counterparts - Royal Australian Air Force Innovation leads, Wing Commander Kylie Cimen and Squadron Leader Myles Clarke.

“We’ve used the opportunity to design, develop and test tools that support the implementation of this capability,” said Cimen. “An assessment process based on risk and feasibility ensures the team is solving the right problems at the right time.”

Cimen and Clarke worked to develop the framework and concept of operations for a similar or coalition SEDFT to ensure it is a scalable capability that the RAAF could adopt.

“Rapid capability development is an essential key to our ability to adapt in the strategic environment,” said Cimen. “It’s survival of the fittest. The organism that can adapt the fastest is one that will win.”

Year after year, Cope North acts as an avenue to bring Allies and partners together to improve interoperability while practicing dispersed operations. This year the exercise planners had ambitious goals to make it the most accelerated, interchangeable and enhanced warfighting experience to date.

These goals came to fruition through the incredible hard work of Airmen on the ground, in the air and the innovative efforts of teams like Garrett’s, said Overstreet.

“Our end goal is we want commanders across the region to say we need the engineers here,” said DeMeyer. “Whether it be an exercise or a wartime environment, we can’t do what we're trying to do without the nerds.”