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National Guard Members Showcase Innovation

  • Published
  • By Air Force Master Sgt. Erich B. Smith,
  • National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. - The 2023 National Guard Bureau Innovation Challenge showcased the inventive prowess of Guard members nationwide Dec. 7 at the Herbert R. Temple Jr. Army National Guard Readiness Center. Among the concepts featured: a virtual reality application by the Arkansas National Guard, a South Carolina Army National Guard initiative for robotic automation of personnel data, and a Michigan National Guard medical system revolutionizing casualty care in austere environments.

“This is an opportunity for you to show us how we can become a better organization,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, who hosted the event. “As I looked through the topics that each of you are presenting today, many of them are unique to the Guard but can also have applicability to the entire Joint Force.”

Ultimately, the Arizona Army National Guard clinched top honors at the competition with its pioneering idea — an exportable live-fire range.

“We’re pleasantly surprised and very honored,” said Army Lt. Col. Loong Lee, the state training officer for the Arizona National Guard’s Joint Force Headquarters.

The team bested the three other finalists — all with solutions that support one of Hokanson’s key priorities: modernization, which the 2022 National Defense Strategy stresses as crucial in building “enduring advantages across the defense ecosystem” and sharpening “the Joint Force’s technological edge.”

The competitors submitted their proposals at the state level, followed by elimination rounds conducted in four regions and then semifinal rounds. The finalists created visual products showcasing their ideas, followed by a presentation to Hokanson and three other senior leader judges.

The competitors were chosen based on their ability to identify a challenge, develop a unique solution and explain the overarching benefit, said Keith E. Buchholz, the NGB’s programs and resources comptroller, who coordinated and organized this year’s challenge.

“By virtue of the fact you are here today as finalists, you have already shown your initiative to seek answers to the questions of how we will do things better, faster, cheaper in the Guard,” Buchholz said.

For Lee, the training officer for the Arizona Guard, this meant identifying challenges in meeting live-fire and training requirements while complying with environmental and safety regulations.

That kind of training at major installations hundreds of miles away from a home station, he said, also “results in loss of time, increased costs, and potential unresolvable conflicts for resources against other units.”

“A solution to these problems is increased utilization of short-range training ammunition as well as a combination of battery-powered simulation devices and training scenarios” that follow Army guidance, said Lee in his team’s presentation.

This provided the means to produce what amounted to a mobile range.

“Through these tools, we can create an exportable maneuver live-fire range that can be safely established in existing training areas that are traditionally too restrictive for standard ammunition,” Lee said.

While minimal transportation can cut costs, the “time savings” could propel units forward, said John Ralph, an Army budget analyst for the Arizona Army Guard’s operations and training directorate.

“In a Guard environment, where you typically get one weekend a month and two weeks to train, every minute is precious,” he said. “And we can give back that time to those commanders to let them get after [the mission].”

Many Guard members who hold relevant civilian jobs helped bring the team's proposal to fruition, said Sgt. 1st Class John McCrory, a transportation management coordinator with an Arizona Guard training center.

“With one of my technicians, if he was just brought up as a Soldier in the active-duty Army, I don’t think he would have the civilian experience with electronics” needed to “adapt to whatever situation we were in,” said McCrory, who also headed the team’s “proof of concept” efforts for the proposal.

Ralph said Soldiers and Airmen should always consider themselves part of the innovation ecosystem and always push ideas — however big or small they may be.

“Don’t be afraid to say something if you see something that needs to be done better because we can always do anything better,” he said.

The National Guard Bureau will further explore each team’s presentation to determine the feasibility of advancing ideas from concept to reality, according to senior leaders. The factors they will consider include funding, scope and impact on the Guard force.

Hokanson closed out the event by emphasizing innovation is imperative and that more competition is on the horizon.

“The four teams that got here did remarkable work, and we were fascinated by the level of innovation going on in our organization,” he said. “And that just inspires us just to continue to do this.”

The NGB plans to conduct innovation competitions biannually through December 2025. Guard members are encouraged to work with their designated innovation lead specialist, typically positioned at a state’s headquarters element, to advance their ideas.