The future of innovation has found a home in Michigan, where military assets and capabilities are being used as testing grounds and creating synergies for private businesses to invent, test, and produce technologies in protected and safe environments.
The companies are revolutionizing military vehicles, developing the next iteration of flight, taking mission planning to the next level for the private and public sectors, and providing crucial satellite information to soldiers on the ground, improving — and saving — lives in the process.
This activity can all be found within the National All-Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC), an effort by Michigan’s National Guard to unite four different existing capabilities spanning the Lower Peninsula: the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, and Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township.
Together, these four locations offer everything necessary to propel innovation, thanks to the unique combination of Michigan’s inherent land and climate, and the intangible leadership and vision of those in charge of the resources within NADWC.
Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, adjutant general of Michigan, is an experienced and visionary leader who previously served as the director of the U.S. Army’s Tank and Automotive Research and Development Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, where he worked alongside businesses, startups, and academic institutions in addition to the U.S. Army.
“I think that experience really gave me an appreciation for the strong dynamics in the Detroit area between the business sector, academia, and the government sector, and the influence (that collaboration) has across the entire state,” says Rogers, who earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Michigan Technological University in Houghton.
“Getting into this role, I’ve recognized that we have some capabilities to bring to the table. We’re always seeking ways of making people aware of the capabilities/resources available within the NADWC and showing them how they can leverage the resources here in Michigan to really amplify their business models, their research, and their development, in any different form or fashion.”
Rogers has turned his sense of appreciation into a new vision for what Michigan’s National Guard could do not only for the U.S. Department of Defense, but also for industry partners with — and even without — a military nexus. He wanted to promote Michigan’s capabilities in a new way, making them more attractive and accessible to businesses with civilian purposes, which was one of the key reasons Rogers was appointed adjutant general of Michigan, according to Capt. Andrew Layton, deputy state public affairs officer.
Since his promotion in early 2019, Rogers has moved at the speed of business. By July 2020, he and his team had successfully rebranded the four individually existing installations within the National Guard into one entity: NADWC.
“It was a way for us to take all of the separate entities and put them into one brand, and then present it to the Michigan market and the national market as a resource that can be harvested,” Rogers says. “Coming into this position, even after being a part of the (National Guard) for three decades, I never had full visibility until I became the adjutant general of what we had available and (saw) the possibilities of connecting it all together to really make something that’s unique to Michigan and unique within the entire nation.”
Over the last year and a half, the 148,000 acres of ground maneuver space at Camp Grayling, the 17,000 square miles of restricted airspace at Alpena, the 9,000 feet of runway at Selfridge, and the 35,000 square feet of classified processing areas in Battle Creek have been owned and operated as one under Michigan’s National Guard.
“Those two words are very key: ‘own’ and ‘operate.’ We schedule, we manage, (and) we own the largest overland air space complex east of the Mississippi River,” says Brig. Gen. Bryan Teff. “When you combine all of those things together on the airspace side, and (see) how it overlaps and integrates with the ground maneuver space, we have tremendous capability in Michigan.”
Last year alone, Teff says 7,000 military aircraft were able to rack up 60,000 training days — and that’s only a portion of the military training conducted within NADWC. With events like Northern Strike, a semiannual military exercise that offers some of the most extreme conditions in the cold of January and heat of August, Michigan presents itself as one of the best places for such training to occur. It also allows opportunities for innovators to test their latest technologies.
As the military and private industry come together for exercises like these, they’re not only bolstering the strength of the DoD, but also the productivity of Michigan’s economy. As reported by the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the Northern Strike generates approximately $30 million in military pay, travel, and local spending each year.
Beyond its natural landscape and resources, Camp Grayling offers an urban environment that simulates small towns in Michigan. Details such as roundabouts have proven to be big factors when testing ground mobility vehicles.
“(Grayling has) roundabouts and paved streets and underground tunneling with sewer systems and multi-floor complex buildings. All of those things provide an environment that’s extremely useful when we talk about mobility or ground mobility,” says Col. Scott Meyers, the commander at Camp Grayling. “We’ve had a couple (industry) partners reach out who want to test some of their ground mobility vehicles and (find out) how they work in a roundabout, unmanned.”
As a result, businesses from around the state, and even around the nation, have been able to take advantage of the resources at what Meyers calls a “disgustingly inexpensive” rate, noting that one industry partner was able to use 3,000 acres for just $150 per day.
Meyers says that in the past, the National Guard didn’t necessarily advertise the opportunities available at Camp Grayling, but as more and more businesses have come to the site for testing and demonstrating their products, word has gotten out.
“Ever since we unveiled NADWC, my phone has been ringing off the hook with private industry trying to get into this space. And the advantage is that we have a lot of availability and a lot of land for folks to come out here and play,” Meyers says. “The interest I have as the commander here at Grayling is to try to create an environment where you always have the latest technologies around those war-fighting functions when they’re ready.”
There’s still plenty of room for more interest, as Rogers says they’re nowhere near the point of having to turn people away because of how much land there is to support demand. The facility and its environs attract companies like EOTECH in Ypsilanti, an award-winning optics company recognized by the National Rifle Association, and AM General, an automotive company that produces specialized vehicles for military and commercial use — most notably the Humvee. After using the facilities at Camp Grayling for its product testing and development, EOTECH decided to open a manufacturing facility in Traverse City. AM General, meanwhile, has found great value in the real-time feedback it receives from the military at Camp Grayling.
“One of the things we’re looking at is how we can better improve the effectiveness of soldiers and provide better survivability. We currently tow artillery systems behind our vehicles, and the way they’re currently in place hasn’t really changed since World War I and World War II,” says Michael Evans, director of soft recoil technology and mobile fires capabilities at AM General. “We’re fighting new and improved enemies with much better capabilities, so what we were looking at was developing howitzers that could drive into position, shoot, and drive out, and convert their existing towed cannons into a mobile wheel platform.”
Over the last two years AM General provided soldiers at Camp Grayling an opportunity to test the new soft recoil technology, and from those exercises the company obtained a contract with the U.S. Army to buy two prototypes for further testing.
“We can fail and not have to worry about having the whole world come down on us, as if we were in a formal test,” Evans says. “I think it’s really important to get the engineers out there in the real environment, not just a test track, and actually take (the equipment) out and put it through the rigor of going over various types of terrain and various weather conditions.”
Orb Aerospace, an electric aviation company based in Lowell, east of Grand Rapids, is another example of the impact of the testing grounds and facilities at Camp Grayling. Since 2017, Orb Aerospace founder Alex Taylor has received several contracts with venture capitalists, a Thiel Fellowship, and most recently, a Phase II contract from the U.S. Air Force, which he says has helped his company scale by 1,200 percent in the past four months.
“We just got our Phase II Air Force contracts, in large part due to the support of (Camp) Grayling and the Michigan National Guard, by making sure the Air Force knew it was able to provide Orb the opportunity to demonstrate at a military exercise at the end of this contact,” Taylor says.
“There’s no other test range that has four seasons, there’s no other test range that has the spectrum availability, there’s not another test range that has even just the personal relationships. So when it comes to being the first electric aircraft company to take four special ops guys and drop them on the roof of a mock school or a mock bank, we can only do that because we’re in Michigan.”
Personal relationships are something Taylor has found to be pivotal for the growth of his company. As Orb Aerospace and other pioneers within this community of innovators test their wares while military leaders work on their own projects, Taylor says they’re able to share common goals, values, and even frustrations.
Instead of pursuing ideas that have already been tested and found unworthy of further pursuit, or instead of waiting months for research to be finalized or to find the perfect contact, the trailblazers at Camp Grayling and across NADWC often share information and experiences, collectively expediting their successes.
“Having a group of people who are running into the same struggles is always beneficial, and we can, I hate to say, use each other, but sometimes that’s what it comes down to. We can all benefit from each other,” says Aaron Schradin, co-founder and interim CEO at Virtual Sandtable in West Olive, south of Grand Haven. “The saying is the tide raises all ships, so when we’re able to get ahold of (Meyers) or someone else and have a question answered, it’s not on (Meyers’) shoulders, necessarily, to go and convey that information to everyone else. That’s something that sometimes we can do ourselves.”
Virtual Sandtable is a virtual reality technology company that creates both the hardware and the software for soldiers and civilians alike to use when planning missions or events. The technology allows users to fully rehearse a situation through an immersive experience before anything ever takes place — a large improvement from the dirt and sticks that Schradin says his friends were originally using for mission planning in the special forces.
“We had friends in the special forces that, believe it or not, when they planned missions, they were using dirt, sticks, rocks, and little army figurines. They reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, is there maybe a better way that we could go about planning our missions so that we could have a more realistic idea of what we’re up against?’ ” Schradin recalls. “I went away with a question and came back in a couple of months with a prototype, and that was the first Virtual Sandtable. This was six or so years ago.”
Now, Virtual Sandtable is being used across all industries, from military missions in the Middle East to private organizations planning events. It’s even used in schools, to prepare for active shooters. Soon, groups looking to test and train at Camp Grayling will be able to prepare in advance, as the company is in the process of creating what Schradin calls a “digital twin” of the facilities and environment at Camp Grayling, allowing people to come in even more prepared.
This fast-moving innovation and tight-knit collaboration between military and industry partners is all part of Rogers’ vision for NADWC and the unique role he expects it to play within the DoD. There’s a sense of urgency here, something Taylor says used to exist in Michigan, and he’s determined to bring it back — and it’s becoming possible because of NADWC.
“Michigan used to be known for mobility. In fact, the very first regularly scheduled commercial flight was from Grand Rapids to Dearborn,” he says. “So, long ago we were the first, and we’ve kind of lost that through the Great Recession and automotive companies becoming complacent and Tesla taking that crown from them. We sort of lost that ‘What is more bold? What is really the next 10 years versus the next two years or three years?’ ”
Helping that transition is Steve Jacobs, CEO of Velocity Management Solutions, a defense contractor in Ann Arbor. The enterprise helps other private companies coordinate with Meyers and the rest of the team at Camp Grayling by offering logistic services like warehousing and ranges, while also providing the technology necessary for data capture and analysis.
“There’s a technology platform that we can offer to help capture that data (and) computer systems, so folks can have those engineers iterate those development cycles faster because they can be right there,” Jacobs says. “They can see the results of the test, and then they can make the change and test again immediately.”
Jacobs calls his company “the easy button” for helping companies use the capabilities at Camp Grayling and make the most of their time there, which is just another example of how NADWC is set apart in terms of speed and collaboration among private industry and the DoD.
“(This) is the very early stages of what (Rogers) would like to see happen as part of his strategic vision … to create within the NADWC framework a sustainable, long-lasting innovation ecosystem,” Jacobs says. “(It’s) all of us working independently on our own programs and our own systems, but also working very closely together, looking for opportunities to create (a) force multiplier effect on our innovation. At the end of the day, it’s part of the reason Camp Grayling is going to become a very important place, because it gives the opportunity for that innovation to get into the hands of the warfighter quicker, and we can make that happen quicker.”
And that’s exactly what’s happening. For example, Orbital Effects, a radar satellite imagery company in Ann Arbor, has developed new technology that provides satellite imagery directly to people in less than seven minutes from the time of their request.
“We’re talking a lower-level solider on the ground getting satellite imagery upon request. That’s just unheard of,” Meyers says. “We’re really opening that aperture and getting some unique technologies.”
Just because these technologies are available, it doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be used immediately by the United States military, although they could be used in the private sector. That’s where NADWC comes in. It offers unparalleled assistance by not only fostering the environment and community to allow such innovation to occur and provide the resources necessary to do so, but also by offering a third and crucial component: direct military access.
“Camp Grayling is a land of opportunity, a great framework proving ground to hang many successes on,” Schradin says. “The current leadership of Rogers and Meyers understands that, and they’re fighting the good fight to create those opportunities and are jointly risking, along with industry, to start something that could be big and self-perpetuating.”
Many military groups and companies share this mission: creating many opportunities and solutions, all in one state. And that’s what NADWC is fighting to promote. “The National Guard is a community-based organization, so if our communities are successful, then the National Guard in Michigan is successful. And those communities are never successful unless business is successful,” Rogers says. “It’s a tie that binds us all together.”