Monday, December 4, 2023

Retired general, ex-PPD CEO hosts an expo for military applications

Last Wednesday, I was in a field in Bladen County, a half-mile from the Cape Fear River, watching a live-fire exercise. To my left, a series of rapid explosions simulated mortar rounds being fired by bad guys holding a hostage. I had ear plugs and knew it was coming and I still jumped.

To my right, in the distance, were soldiers — not real soldiers but real-looking— advancing into the bad guys’ compound. There was a lot of shooting as they searched and cleared buildings and tunnels.

We were at the Osprey Training Facility, an outfit run by retired Brig. Gen. David L. Grange around 60 miles southeast of Ft. Bragg, one of his many stops in a distinguished, 30-year military career. Even in a blue polo and khakis, Grange, 74, looked like a general, and was in command, getting briefed and running the day.

The occasion was the Defense Applications Expo — DAX — hosted by Osprey. Vendors wanting to sell products useful to the military had come to this 180-acre farm in the Council community.

It is easy to miss, by design. Osprey is not open to the public. “I bring in units here that don’t want a lot of people around,” the general said. “Delta, SEALs, Special Forces, SWAT teams.  They don’t need a lot of people watching them.”

David Grange

After combat in Vietnam (Purple Heart, Silver Star), Grange spent much of his career in Special Operations. He was deputy commander of Delta Force and commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, before becoming commander of the 1st Infantry Division in the ‘90s.  After retiring in 1999, he eventually returned to North Carolina to become CEO of the Wilmington-based contract research organization PPD.

The bigger picture

Grange is a strategic thinker.  His 1999 article in Armed Forces Journal on problems with the way the Army measures unit readiness got attention in defense circles.  Twenty years ago, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about Afghanistan, and if you read his prophetic words from 2002, you’ll understand the challenges of nation-building. Nearly a decade ago, he told a group of MBA students that the most common problem facing both the military and business was maintaining effective communications.

His strategic mindset could be seen Wednesday.  The live-fire exercise wasn’t just some bang-bang for attendees. The “soldiers” were using the products and services brought by vendors, which meant that the detailed script for the exercise had to incorporate a wide range of technologies. It raised the level of engagement among the vendors.

So, when I watched the process of entering the tunnel complex, I saw a small, rugged Throwbot 2 being tossed into the opening. I had just talked to folks at the ReconRobotics booth, from Edina, Minnesota, who make these things. The wi-fi in this way-off-the-road facility was courtesy of Tekniam, a Kansas vendor, which set up a portable, satellite-connected broadband network, a Remote Universal Communications System (RUCS).

Military legacies

Grange was a kid when his father, the legendary Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr., was a captain stationed at Ft. Bragg in 1956 with the 77th Special Forces Group. David E. Grange, for whom the Army’s Best Ranger Competition at Ft. Benning is named, passed away earlier this month at 97.

The younger Grange lives in Wilmington with his wife, former state Rep. Holly Grange, a West Point grad,  Army veteran and 2020 gubernatorial candidate, Her father, the late Brig. Gen. Charles Getz, was once assistant commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.

Grange established Osprey Global Solutions a dozen years ago. It provides security consulting, logistics and medical and humanitarian assistance  in difficult places, like Ukraine. Osprey has been there multiple times, providing medical support and training local personnel to defuse explosives. “Because when the Russians move out of a village,” said Grange, “they booby-trap everything . . . kids’ toys, beds.” Osprey started in Ukraine evacuating orphanages and helping to move the disabled and seniors back from the front lines.

“We do Afghanistan, too.  We’re still getting people out of there,” said Grange. “Very difficult.”

Around 2016, Grange began building the training facility, which is across the road from the historic Oakland Plantation, now a turf farm. “This used to be a sod farm, like Oakland.”

“We started small, a little bit of this . . . and by the way, this facility, besides training, we do as much research and development as training. We test stuff here all the time. We test radios.  That RUCS . . . . system right over there on that table was tested here for certain capabilities. The Internet today is provided by that.  I’m taking that over to Ukraine, just like I took those ReconRobotics over to Ukraine.”

Products that are put to the test pretty intensely are the walls in the training village that are constantly getting shot up, particularly in the tunnel complex.  “This gets shot to death,” said Richard Kristof, chief operating officer of Cary-based TriHelix Investments. Amidon Ballistic Concrete is one of the private equity firm’s companies. The 30-inch-thick concrete walls absorb bullets instead of ricocheting them in a confined space.

Kristof was our tour guide through the many rooms off the 194 feet of tunnels and the nearby shoot house.  “The shoot house has been fully operational for seven years. We’re just about to repair it for the very first time,” he said.

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