The Army is at ‘an inflection point,’ and modernizing is job No. 1 and priority No. 1. But modernization will take every ounce of leaders’ will and a massive culture change to the slowest, most hidebound acquisition system in DOD to make it a reality.
by Ms. Margaret C. Roth
There’s a new wave of change—a big one—cresting in Army acquisition, with the potential to fundamentally reorganize how the Army will accomplish its modernization priorities and a sense of urgency born of real-time, real-life threats to U.S. military prowess.
About a dozen acquisition reform initiatives aimed at getting needed battlefield solutions to the warfighter faster have washed over the Army since the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. Now Pentagon leadership has called for DOD and the Army to take quick, dramatic action in modernization and acquisition to address irrefutable advances in military technology by four major potential threats—North Korea, Russia, China and Iran—in addition to nonstate adversaries. Indeed, in many respects, the Army leadership team seems to have been handpicked by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis to do just that.
As decades of great-power competition escalate to a bona fide threat of great-power war of a new and unfamiliar kind, the goal of streamlining Army acquisition is to reduce, by half, the time it takes to get a product from concept to contract award.
This time, there is an uncommonly strong consensus among government, Congress and industry that the Army has the slowest acquisition machinery of the three military departments and urgently needs to shift its focus from hidebound processes to useful and quick results.
The Army’s new approach centers on the creation of a futures command, which will launch this spring and become fully operational by next summer. The new command will center on the eight cross-functional teams working the Army’s six near- to midterm modernization priorities and using acquisition processes that speed up requirements generation, foster early prototyping and involve Soldiers in developing solutions from the very beginning to avoid wasting time, money and manpower on systems that prove unusable. (See “One Roof“.) Of equal urgency to modernization is speeding vital capabilities to the warfighter, starting with the six priorities but ultimately applying the same rigorous schedule to other acquisitions as well.
Since his swearing-in Nov. 20, Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper has made acquisition reform one of his top three priorities. The first priority, he said in his initial message to the force, is readiness “to deploy, fight and win across the entire spectrum of conflict, with an immediate focus on preparing for a high-end fight against a near-peer adversary.” The second is modernization to build greater long-term capacity and capabilities—“growing our operational force while maintaining quality, reshaping it to be more robust and successful in all domains, and modernizing it with the best weapons and equipment available to guarantee clear overmatch in future conflicts.”
To accomplish reform, Esper said, the Army must improve “the way we do business, including how we implement these priorities, to make the total Army more lethal, capable and efficient. This means changing the organizations, policies, processes and tasks that consume time, money or manpower without delivering real value, and applying the savings to our top priorities.”
In prepared testimony Dec. 7 to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Esper stated, “Our failure to modernize as quickly as possible will most likely exacerbate the significant risks the total Army now faces. This makes reform of our industrial-age acquisition system a strategic imperative. … We intend to reduce the requirements development process from up to 60 months to 12 months or less.”
FUTURES IN PROGRESS
A task force led by Lt. Gen. Edward C. Cardon, director of the Army undersecretary’s Office of Business Transformation, has been laying the groundwork since last summer for senior Army leadership to make decisions on the new futures command. The official launch of the command was set to take place March 26, the opening day of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Global Force Symposium and Exposition in Huntsville, Alabama.
Already, the command has become Topic A in Army acquisition, starting at AUSA’s annual meeting Oct. 9-11 in Washington, where it was discussed in numerous forums. It’s no small wonder. At a presentation Feb. 8 at the Brookings Institution, Undersecretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy said his office is keeping Congress informed of the evolving details because some of the changes being contemplated would require legislation.
The fundamental difference that the new command is intended to make—to bring the stakeholders under “one roof” to make decisions that will produce effective, achievable, affordable capabilities and requirements rapidly and thus get the products to the warfighter fast—lies in the cross-functional teams , each led by a military or civilian leader from the operational side of the Army. Each cross-functional team has representatives from requirements development, program management, science and technology (S&T), test and evaluation, resourcing, contracting and sustainment, as well as U.S. Forces Command and, as needed, Army service component commands, the operational organizations that serve as Army components for combatant commands.
The teams, which report to the undersecretary of the Army and the vice chief of staff, will seek industry and academia’s involvement early in the process of developing solutions to get their input on potential private-sector solutions available or in development.
Experimentation and technical demonstrations, will also be integral to the cross-functional teams’ capability development process, involving Soldiers to help determine if a solution will actually work, as needed, well before the Army decides to acquire or develop it. In remarks Oct. 10 at AUSA, Gen. Mark A. Milley, Army chief of staff, described this “significant streamlining of processes” as a “shift to a SOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command]-like model of buy, try, decide and acquire, rather than the current, industrial-age, linear model that takes years to establish requirements, decades to test and may take a long, long time to go from idea to delivery.”
Among experienced practitioners of rapid acquisition, hopes are high that the command will succeed, but there are caveats. The command will require a well-defined independence and authority, said Peter Newell, who directed the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF) from July 2010 to May 2013 and now heads BMNT, a consulting firm in Palo Alto, California, that connects DOD and corporations with cutting-edge Silicon Valley problem-solvers.
First, he said, “They have to have the authority to write and modify requirements. I personally think that they have to have the mandate to find problems and articulate them before they write anything.” The REF director has the authority to approve requirements, Newell noted, an authority handed down from the Army G-3.
Next, “They need experienced warfighters, as well as experienced contracting officers who understand the technologies that they’re going to be responsible for putting on the contract. They need acquisition officers who are agile, who understand innovation.”
What the command should not look like, Newell added, is the first version of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, which, he said, DOD established “with a big fanfare … [but with] no people and no credit card and no authority. I hope they understand that they’re not actually gonna get it right until they’ve done a half-dozen or 20 or 30 things. They need breathing space to get the metrics they will be graded on right.”
“What the country really needs, and particularly DOD, is a much longer focus in building the apparatus they need to do things right,” he said.
Paul Scharre, senior fellow and director for technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security, testified Jan. 30 before the House Armed Services Committee that “the U.S. military is not ready for the threats we face today.” He said in prepared testimony that “in a major power war, we will be required to innovate on timelines of months, not years. And we must have these processes of innovation in place today.”
With a nod to the creation of new organizations, such as DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office and the Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office, to institutionalize some of the rapid innovation processes used in Iraq and Afghanistan, Scharre stated, “We must also make speed-to-market a goal in our standard acquisition process as well.” A former Army Ranger who deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan, Scharre subsequently worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he played a leading role in establishing policies on unmanned and autonomous systems and emerging weapons technologies.
“The reason we have failed to adapt is because our system lacks sufficient strategic agility,” Scharre stated. “We have seen these threats coming a long ways off. We have spent money. Yet we have a force that is not appropriately designed for the threats we face because we have not adapted quickly enough.”
MODERNIZATION PIVOT POINTS
Identifying the most pressing needs was one of the Army’s first steps toward an effective modernization strategy.
The Army’s mission remains fundamentally the same: Move, shoot, communicate, protect and sustain. But as the barrier to entry continues to fall for extremely sophisticated technology, including, increasingly, artificial intelligence, the nature of battle has become ever more complex. Key systems and equipment are far past due for replacement.
“Our modernization strategy is now on a curve of diminishing returns,” McCarthy said Oct. 11 at AUSA. In the past 16 years that the U.S. military has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, he noted, a technologically inferior enemy has created techniques to adapt quickly and cheaply. Potential adversaries Russia, China, North Korea and Iran have invested in technologies that had long been strengths of the U.S. military, “while we have made incremental improvements to our legacy close-combat capabilities.”
Russia, in particular, has invested significantly in standoff technology, especially anti-access and area-denial capabilities, including cyber, anti-ship, long-range fires, robotics, unmanned aerial systems and air and missile defenses.
“Our current ways of thinking, executing and organizing are limiting our capability to keep pace with change with respect to modernization and acquisition,” McCarthy added, saying, “To use a sports analogy, Russia and China are training as a boxer. We continue to train as a wrestler. They focus on throwing punches from a distance to prevent us from getting close enough to use our strengths, and they are improving faster than we are.”
HEIGHTENED FOCUS ON TRAINING
To beat the threats of the future battlefield, the Army will need modern systems that meet the challenges of this new era of multidomain battle. Supporting new capabilities will require significantly more sophisticated training, starting at the Soldier level, McCarthy and Milley said. “We want our leaders at all levels, at all echelons, to make thousands of simulated combat tactical decisions against a thinking and adaptive enemy in order to gain confidence and skill and learn from their mistakes.”
The Army has upgraded its combat training centers to reflect the stresses of actual combat across multiple domains, Milley noted. Next, it plans to build a large-scale urban combat center. But even expensive, state-of-the-art, live-fire or live force-on-force training doesn’t provide nearly enough repetitions to develop the high-level leader and Soldiering skills that future battle will require, Milley said. “We will do this by radically improving our synthetic training environment,” currently geared to helicopter pilots and some tank crews, with limited simulation systems available for individual and squad training.
“The technology exists now,” he said, “to conduct realistic training in any terrain in all the urban areas of the world with any scenario against any enemy—anything that the commander deems necessary. … We just need at our level to focus our resources and provide them the opportunity.”
‘A LEADER ISSUE’
The Army’s dramatically new approach to modernization is much more than a capability road map, however. It represents a new way of thinking about acquisition leadership, said McCarthy, whose perspective on leadership reflects broad-based experience—as a Ranger who was involved in early combat operations in Afghanistan, a special assistant to Secretary of Defense Dr. Robert M. Gates and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, a congressional staffer and, most recently, as a vice president of Lockheed Martin Corp. with an MBA.
Taken together, the Army’s plan for acquisition reform follows four principles to improve Army processes, he said:
- Early engagement and collaboration among stakeholders.
- Centralized planning with decentralized execution.
- Cost- and resource-informed decisions.
- Consistent metrics to evaluate success.
To that end, McCarthy, as acting Army secretary, directed the personnel supporting the capabilities and acquisition processes to obtain enhanced training, education and experience certification. “We will develop a broadening assignment program for DA civilians,” he said at AUSA, with opportunities to work in S&T, engineering, materiel development and sustainment as well as fellowships with industry to develop leaders with a broader understanding of the generation and acquisition of Army requirements.
“Initially, we will develop a talent management plan for future program managers to gain experience in science and technology and engineering and requirement contracting. This plan will include a one-year operational assignment between majors to full-bird colonels to enhance their understanding of user operational needs.
“This is a leader issue. We are adjusting our organization to put capable, proven leaders at the head of every organization who will be singly focused … in order to provide focused clarity to the requirements process,” McCarthy said.
His directive, coupled with the congressionally mandated return of milestone decision authority for most acquisition programs to the services, promises to have sweeping effects on the education and career development of acquisition personnel, both uniformed and civilian.
In February, Lt. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology (ASA(ALT)), approved a new curriculum for acquisition personnel to emphasize the technical aspects of program management over the traditional business administration focus. “Time will tell, of course, if the desired results emerge,” observed John T. Dillard, a retired Army project manager who is now a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. “But these are the largest confluence of changes I have seen in my entire acquisition career.”
Is the Army really ready to make innovation happen as it modernizes?
There is a sense of urgency among major players that is unlike any in the recent past.
“At REF, I heavily invested in the teams that we had forward,” Newell said. “Their job was to find problems and pull them from the battlefield, and not wait passively for someone to bring them something.” That’s exactly what McCarthy and Milley want to see.
The new futures command will need flexibility to innovate, Newell went on. “They need to be funded in a manner that doesn’t artificially tell them you’re going to buy 17 widgets this year. They don’t know how many problems they’re going to solve a year. … The money they’re given needs to be treated as investment-like dollars.”
The first pieces are now in place for the most significant organizational change to the Army’s procurement system since Gen. Creighton W. Abrams replaced the Continental Army Command in 1973 with U.S. Army Forces Command and U.S. Training and Doctrine Command, which, with U.S. Army Materiel Command, have formed the foundation for the Army since then—organizing, equipping and training forces to conduct prompt and sustained land combat operations in support of combatant commanders.
As the new futures command takes shape, the Army has aligned 80 percent of its $2.4 billion in S&T funding with the six modernization priorities and, through a threat-based strategy, has taken steps to ensure that technological solutions are mature before the Army transitions them to a program of record. Lastly, the Army is putting the right people in the right places to execute the newly streamlined requirements and acquisition processes.
“We are at an inflection point in history, as we must reform how we modernize our Army: the roles, responsibilities, structures, organizations,” Milley said. Readiness has improved in recent years, he said, “but we are not there yet. And we must continue to lean into the readiness with a laser-focus sense of urgency like we’ve never had before.”
Judging from the Army acquisition leadership now in place, the futures command has a promising future. The current ASA(ALT), Dr. Bruce D. Jette, “brilliantly designed the Rapid Equipping Force,” said Newell, who called Jette “probably the most significant innovation figure that I know of who came out of uniform within the Army. He’s impassioned. I think that he will absolutely drive some folks crazy.
“Ostrowski also worked at REF and was a great counsel to me while I was at REF and he was the PEO [program executive officer for] Soldier. So you now have some guys who were together eight, nine years ago, 10 years ago, back together again—which I think is a great thing” for innovation, Newell said.
“I think within the Pentagon there’s a clear movement in that direction,” he said. “Now the question is how long it will take them to get the albatross to move.”
MARGARET C. ROTH is an editor of Army AL&T magazine. She has more than a decade of experience in writing about the Army and more than three decades’ experience in journalism and public relations. Roth is a MG Keith L. Ware Public Affairs Award winner and a co-author of the book “Operation Just Cause: The Storming of Panama.” She holds a B.A. in Russian language and linguistics from the University of Virginia.
This article is published in the April – June 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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