A Plan to Make — and Break

By April 28, 2014Commentary, General
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By Mr. Dale A. Ormond, Director, U.S. Army Research, Development And Engineering Command

Most planning involves developing a series of concrete steps and conditional decision points that together define a good way ahead, and then—as no plan survives contact—adjusting that. As director of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), when I contemplate the Army’s 30-year plan to modernize the force, I see our goal as not only to break that plan, but to break it often and before anyone else does. It is our job to make the Soldier’s kit obsolete. This we must do if we are to help the Army maintain its unparalleled dominance on the battlefield.

It’s a mission that requires the kind of incremental modernization you can plan for, and which we pursue with our partners every day, but also leap-ahead technologies that change the way the Army operates on the battlefield. We also have to be prepared to help Soldiers deal with any disruptive technologies an adversary may bring to the fight. To do this, we keep our technology pipeline full—from discoveries in our basic research labs to operational capabilities engineered in our prototype integration facilities (PIFs)—to give the Army the enterprise agility to modernize as funding becomes available, or we lose overmatch in an area. In other words, we have to have a plan for making our current world-class equipment obsolete before someone else does.

Precision munitions demonstrate the type of leap-ahead technology that RDECOM has played a part in developing, with different areas of research converging to allow a dismounted special operations Soldier to pull the trigger on a weapon carried by a B-52.

Many already take this kind of capability for granted, but you don’t have to look far into the past to find a time when large Army units had to fight across enemy territory to get artillery within range of important targets. Then, the option was to have Air Force or Navy bomber pilots brave anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighter planes to get into position to drop dumb bombs from on high. In both cases, the United States had to accept not only the cost in people and materiel, but also whatever collateral damage resulted.

Today a Soldier can wield the power of smart munitions launched from a ship or aircraft that is far away and in relative safety. That Soldier doesn’t have to carry the biggest weapon possible, be part of an exposed battle formation or harbor hope that a pilot can survive long enough to find the target so that one of the bombs hits it. A few well-trained Soldiers with the right technology are sufficiently lethal, light and stealthy to take out strategically important targets in the middle of enemy territory. It’s a perfect example of what we mean when we say our mission is to empower, unburden, protect and sustain Soldiers.

Lasers and GPS are two of the technologies that make this particular capability possible. I doubt anyone envisioned a Soldier guiding a bomb with light in the 1950s before the Army Research Office decided to fund Charles H. Townes’ early work on lasers. Nor did those conducting the Army’s early research into atomic clocks know that atomic timekeeping would become a key technology in the GPS. The Army was doing then what the RDECOM team continues to do: conducting and sponsoring basic research to advance our understanding of the fundamental properties and principles of our world, harnessing that knowledge to develop new technologies and ultimately engineering those technologies into new capabilities for Soldiers.

Making technological advancements does take planning; in fact, it takes different kinds of planning at several levels as development progresses. But as the example above illustrates, research and development (R&D), especially in the early stages, often has no defined goal. If research is limited to only areas of interest, we virtually guarantee that we will miss important innovations. We conduct research to discover what might be possible and how to make it possible. Once we understand the basic research, we can progress from discovery to application, and more traditional planning can start.

This makes creating the conditions for success all the more important. It takes a world-class workforce in world-class facilities, working at the leading edge of their fields, to create leap-ahead technologies. It also takes a willingness to accept risk and to reward bold failure. At RDECOM, we have long pursued these ends with human capital and infrastructure development, as well as programs that allow us to fund promising research that may have a big payoff but also has a high risk of failure.

For example, we are exploring several new ways to open the aperture on new ideas. One is our Virtual Lab initiative, which will mitigate the restrictions of time and distance to allow our researchers and engineers to put together the best possible team, whether that means involving a colleague next door or one across the country. Another initiative is an Army Research Laboratory open-campus project that will allow our partners in academia, industry and other government agencies to set up research facilities alongside our own. One of these initiatives seeks to erase boundaries within the organization, while the other is intended to erase the boundaries between us and external partners. The United States does not enjoy the same lead in technological capability over potential adversaries that it once did, and we believe that the kind of synergy these initiatives make possible is necessary for us to continue to lead.

But these are things any organization that wants to conduct R&D must do. Developing leap-ahead technologies for the Army takes more. It takes an understanding of war and Soldiers, and a willingness to scour the world to find the best technology available. RDECOM brings together these elements in our work with the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, our science and technology advisers and our RDECOM forward element commands. This helps us to understand not only the state of the art but also what is possible in moving the state of the art forward. In turn, we can help make the Army better at asking for the technology that will meet its requirements, and a smarter buyer of those technologies once they are developed. This becomes more critical as affordable modernization becomes less a goal and more an imperative.

Yet RDECOM will still break the plan—break it often and before anyone else does. Providing technologies to enable the overmatch our Soldiers deserve mandates that we do exactly that. We need to balance the day-to-day development of technologies that modernize our Army with leap-ahead technologies, such as quantum computing and synthetic biology. (See related article, “Evolving Innovation,” on Page 86.) We need to keep the technology pipeline full to create capabilities to defeat the next IED-like disruptive technology, while working on breakthroughs in power and energy that will make dangerous convoys a thing of the past.

We do this with a balanced portfolio that spans the R&D process, from scientists working on breakthroughs that may take decades to field to engineers working with program managers to make the current kit more effective in the field.

As Henry Ford famously said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” ­RDECOM is working to make the horse faster and simultaneously searching for the next revolutionary technology, like the horseless carriage. Without drawing comparisons to autonomous vehicles and robots, that’s what it takes to keep our Army the most powerful in the world. Our Soldiers, and the American people they protect, deserve nothing less.

MR. DALE A. ORMOND, director of RDECOM since February 2012, holds an M.S. in environ­mental systems engineering from Clemson University and is a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He is Level III certified in acquisition program management. He was selected for the Senior Executive Service in July 2004.

This article was originally published in the April – June 2014 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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