By KARI HAWKINS
Army civilian of year honoree motivated to help save lives
Since the early 1990s, Rich Kretzschmar’s career has been on the ground floor of opportunity.
And in those years, he has seen that opportunity soar repeatedly on the wings of the Army’s unmanned aircraft systems.
Today, as the deputy project manager for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Program Executive Office for Aviation, Kretzschmar is working to ensure that the organization’s more than 400 employees also get the development and technical opportunities to make a difference for the war fighters in the field who operate the Army’s much-in-demand unmanned aircraft systems. He knows it is those types of opportunities that keep engineers and technical specialists engaged, motivated and committed to the missions of UAS.
“The key to keeping people motivated is not so much the money, but the challenge and the reward of the work they do,” he said. “Keeping Soldiers safe with the best weapon systems is the driving force for us. It is very rewarding to know the systems you are developing are saving lives. That is a huge motivator.”
Kretzschmar is well-known within the UAS and Redstone Arsenal circles. He is also becoming a recognizable leader on a national level with his selection as the 2014 Department of the Army Civilian of the Year for the Army Aviation Association of America at the organization’s national summit in Nashville May 4-6. In April, he was named the 2014 DA Civilian of the Year for the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, which makes him the chapter’s nominee for the Third Region Award later this summer and, possibly, for the national award in the fall.
“It’s very humbling for sure because this isn’t all about just me,” he said. “In my acceptance speech I attributed this award to the team. Nothing that we do is an individual accomplishment. This is certainly rewarding for me, but the credit should really go to the UAS team.”
He admits the recognition does do well by UAS, providing a means of promoting the accomplishments of unmanned aircraft systems during the past 20-plus years of development, fielding, training and deployment.
“We are charged as the life cycle managers of the Army UAS systems and are therefore responsible for the acquisition, development, fielding and sustainment – all life cycle aspects – for UAS. All of our work is in support of the guys down range,” Kretzschmar said.
Every day, Kretzschmar is focused on the programmatic management of the UAS project office, teaming with its commander, Col. Tim Baxter, to lead efforts to ensure that war fighters have the best UAS available. The UAS project office supports a fleet of 8,099 aircraft, including 530 deployed aircraft.
Kretzschmar began his career as an aerospace engineer, first working in private industry at Dynetics Inc., and then with the Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center and then with PEO Aviation. His first job with the Army introduced him to unmanned aircraft systems, where he worked aerodynamic investigations and test programs for such UAS as Hunter, Shadow and Outrider. His chose to join the Army in the early ‘90s because of the opportunity to lead technology efforts, particularly in the area of groundbreaking work on the Hunter system.
“It was a new mission area and there was a free-wheeling nature to it,” Kretzschmar recalled. “It was a combination of taking existing commercial off-the-shelf hardware and limited development to make something the Army needed.
“It hadn’t been done before so there were a lot of firsts, a lot of integration challenges and communication challenges. Every day there were new problems that had to be solved that made it exciting.”
For example, Kretzschmar and other Redstone engineers conducted a proof-of-principle effort to weaponize Hunter UAS.
“We basically merged two weapon development efforts – Hunter UAS and the Low Cost Precision Kill Rocket. Although successful, it was put on a shelf because the user demand for the technology was just not prevalent,” he said.
Later, when the Air Force introduced the Predator/Hellfire program, which was executed by engineers at AMRDEC, the idea of weaponizing a UAS became much more palatable, he continued.
In the late ’90s, the Army followed up Hunter with the Shadow, which satisfied the Army’s need for organic situational awareness and reconnaissance. Today, the Army’s fleet of UAS includes Gray Eagle, Sky Warrior, Hunter, Shadow, Raven and Puma along with mission and communication technology systems.
The impetus behind the rapid growth of UAS was the Global War on Terror and the recognized value UAS brought to the fight.
“The war not only provided an opportunity to show the mission but also to recognize the value of these systems. There was a deliberate effort to increase UAS at every echelon,” he said. “Shadow was the first mass produced UAS. Now, we have four programs of record, and UAS are operating at every echelon. The innovation that came from employing UAS in a real-world environment has strengthened the capabilities of systems.”
During those hurry-up years of the war, the Army’s tactics, techniques and procedures for UAS changed and evolved with Soldiers, who knew innately how to get the most out of UAS in the field.
“Being in the fight like that put a sense of urgency on things. The community developed and fielded a lot of capability very rapidly,” Kretzschmar said. “It would be nice if we could keep that sense of urgency in development as the war comes to an end. I believe it would ultimately save the Army a lot of money with regard to system development.”
Now, as the war winds down and UAS is facing a more austere budget environment, UAS engineers are “looking more deliberately at how to use these systems more efficiently,” Kretzschmar said.
Future UAS development will focus on expanded use of manned-unmanned teaming, reduction in system footprint and increased expeditionary capability, life cycle cost reduction, enhanced reliability, reduction in the cognitive load on the operators, payload optimization, and improved performance such as signature management, enhanced survivability and collaborative autonomy.
“As we prepare to address future threat,” Kretzschmar said, “we have to take on a more expeditionary mentality for our systems. We have to reduce the footprint on our systems so they can move more easily and take less Soldiers to operate. We have to do more reconfiguring of our systems to allow them to be more deployable.”
With more Soldiers training on UAS at U.S. bases and more manned-unmanned team testing in the U.S., the project office is also working to decrease the limitations on where UAS can fly in the national air space.
“For all of our systems, we want to train as we fight,” Kretzschmar said.
“But UAS can’t currently fly unfettered in the national air space as manned systems can, so collective training for manned-unmanned teaming operations is more difficult. The Army UAS office is the service lead for Ground Based Sense and Avoid technology and is working hand-in-hand with the other services and the Federal Aviation Administration to develop the policies, procedures and the technology to allow safe use of UAS in the national air space.”
Much of the success of UAS has been attributed to the partnerships the project office has established and maintained with industry. In this area, government and industry have worked toward common goals that benefit all members of the team and ultimately the war fighter.
“At the beginning, this was a very small community. Over the years, the companies and organizations associated with UAS has certainly gotten larger, and more diverse and more dynamic,” Kretzschmar said.
“The Department of Defense is no longer driving technology development in this area because of the many potential commercial applications. There is now cross-fertilization across many technical disciplines to push the technology forward. The technology has matured to the point that it’s applicable more readily to other areas.”
What used to be a technology push is more of a mission pull today, with the user community identifying needs and then UAS filling those needs, he said.
And while UAS has been successful so, too, have been the civil servant and industrial engineers behind the systems. That success starts with being technically proficient, Kretzschmar said, and includes pursuing advanced degrees and focusing on skills that are marketable.
“Make sure you are technically grounded and keep your skills honed,” he said. “Make a commitment to lifelong learning. Work in an environment that challenges you and keeps you interested.”
Now in a position where he is more of a leader of engineers than an engineer himself, Kretzschmar said it is important for a leader to have integrity, empathy and credibility.
“People need to know they can trust you, and need to think of you as a servant leader who recognizes and understands the challenges of those working above, beneath and around them,” he said.
“They also need to be technically and programmatically knowledgeable so that people are more willing to follow them.”
The UAS project office, Kretzschmar said, is staffed with employees who have the technical skills and knowledge, personal characteristics, and potential to execute the mission both confidently and competently. He hopes he is an example and mentor to those employees much like he has been mentored throughout his own career.
“One of the keys to my success has been the advice and mentorship I’ve gotten throughout my career,” he said. “Those mentors have challenged me do to more than I thought I could and have put me in leadership roles before I thought I was ready. They taught me to set goals and challenge my limitations, and to reflect.
“My mentors have been people who I have deliberately asked for advice and people who I had an opportunity to work with and pull examples from.”
Kretzschmar enjoys working in an environment with top-notch professionals, both on the government and industry sides of the business.
“Redstone is very unique. What we have here is different than other places,” he said. “There is a depth of talent and the recognition that the public-private relationship is really valuable. There’s an esprit de corps and a collective desire to prove your worth in this community. This continual drive to do better and to achieve is what makes the Redstone community so successful.”