For the Army Rapid Capabilities Office, fast solutions are the new black. As its former director heads for retirement, he looks back on the office’s success and promise as a forerunner for the new Futures Command.
by Mr. Douglas K. Wiltsie
When the Army undertook its major modernization reform initiative this year, it had a running start.
The Army Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), launched in 2016, helped forge a path for the rapid prototyping approach now embraced by the cross-functional teams and the Army Futures Command. As Undersecretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy put it in October 2017: “The Rapid Capabilities Office is a foundational element where we want to scale that type of behavior and capability to the larger enterprise.”
Focusing on high-priority projects that will enable the Army to better deter and defeat rapidly modernizing adversaries, and addressing combatant commanders’ needs for solutions to critical capability gaps, RCO helped define the new possible in rapid acquisition. By uniting operational users and a specialized project team, and taking advantage of acquisition authorities that Congress and our charter provided, we demonstrated a way to deliver complex solutions, fast.
After spending the last 19 months serving RCO—and watching it flourish, from idea to startup to enduring organization—I believe we have learned much that can scale up to the broader Army. We also know that some missions still will require a more tailored approach, and that RCO must keep evolving to reach its full potential. On April 15, the organization gained new Executive Director Tanya Skeen, a veteran of the Air Force RCO and a former naval officer.
Acquisition reform is complex, but it’s clear that changing the paradigm only matters if it gets results. RCO already has put new capabilities in the hands of deployed Soldiers, and it will continue to push their needs to the front of the line. Even though I write this in early May and will retire at the end of the month, I can say I am immensely proud of the results the RCO team has achieved, as well as the collaborative concept we have created with program executive offices (PEOs) and project managers. I am confident the organization will continue to break the mold to the benefit of the greater Army.
A New Model
RCO quickly went to work after its creation in August 2016. It reported to a board of directors—which included the secretary of the Army, the chief of staff of the Army and the Army acquisition executive—and prioritized projects for RCO to tackle. In short, our job was to fulfill these highest-priority Army requirements and to deliver an operational effect on an accelerated acquisition timeline. From an organizational perspective, the goal was to work in the space between the program executive offices, which field long-term programs of record across the entire Army, and the Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which meets immediate, specific needs with off-the-shelf equipment. RCO, by contrast, focused on quickly providing solutions that integrated several different capabilities, and tailoring them for a specific theater and formation.
Together with the new cross-functional teams and the Futures Command, which focus on speeding requirements development for the Army’s top six modernization priorities, this setup gives the Army a range of options to deliver capabilities depending on urgency, complexity and intended scope. At the Association of the United States Army Global Force Symposium in March, McCarthy used the analogy of a golfer’s short game to describe the benefit of having different acquisition options in the Army’s arsenal.
“I look at the REF and the RCO, and they’re like golf clubs. I need something now, I’m going to REF it: Here’s the seven iron,” McCarthy said. “If it might take longer, two to three years, the RCO is a wedge, and it might take a couple shots to get there. … They do remarkable work.”
The wedge also takes some of the trickiest shots—consistent with our mission to give combatant commanders what they need to maneuver and succeed in contested environments. While answering these operational needs, RCO allows the Army to make small bets on promising new technology without necessarily committing to a program-of-record status. Through phased prototyping and direct feedback from Soldiers, RCO helped establish a new approach to acquisition that is now spreading across the Army.
Out of the Gate: Electronic Warfare for Europe
While it was still filling positions, finding office space and creating a battle rhythm, RCO hit the ground running, addressing an operational needs statement from U.S. Army Europe for integrated electronic warfare systems. These new, dedicated electronic warfare capabilities would be critical to ground forces’ effectiveness on the continent. To maneuver, you have to be able to communicate—and know when your communication systems are compromised. Working hand in hand with the Project Manager for Electronic Warfare and Cyber (PM EW&C) and the PEO for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, RCO adapted existing systems for a different purpose by incorporating emerging technologies that provided new electronic warfare effects. The integrated capability enables ground maneuver freedom of action by providing mounted, dismounted and command-control electronic warfare systems for the first time at brigade and below. Soldiers can use the equipment to implement electronic protection for their own formations, as well as to detect and understand enemy activity in the electromagnetic spectrum and to disrupt adversaries through electronic attack effects.
These prototypes, assessed and delivered in less than one year after the capability was first envisioned, are now in the hands of Soldiers with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade and the regionally aligned Armored Brigade Combat Team in Europe. Part of a phased fielding, this new approach to delivering prototypes instead of 100 percent solutions allows the Army to incrementally build electronic warfare capabilities while continuing to upgrade as new technology becomes available, such as aerial electronic warfare sensors and artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies for signal classification.
It also highlighted how a partnership between RCO and a project manager could be used to move a capability to the field faster by taking advantage of a manager’s expertise, RCO authorities and resources from both sides. The collaboration is now serving as an example for PEOs, project managers and cross-functional teams to leverage RCO as a way of getting capabilities into the hands of Soldiers quickly. This approach not only answers an operational need, but it also allows capability developers to begin to incorporate user feedback and inform requirements. RCO and PM EW&C worked together throughout multiple phases of technology development, integration and operational assessment. In the process, we provided early risk reduction for technical capabilities, learned how Soldiers will use the systems in a tactical setting and eliminated unsuccessful concepts earlier in the development cycle. The actual users—electronic warfare officers from the receiving units—were with us every step of the way. The cross-functional teams and the Futures Command can apply many of these same approaches to their work.
Based on the success of the rapid delivery of electronic warfare prototypes, RCO is now using that model to accelerate capabilities that address position, navigation and timing (PNT) assurance and protection for ground combat vehicles in GPS-challenged environments. A Soldier-led assessment of a PNT prototype on these vehicle platforms, expected to take place later this year, will help inform an equipping decision for units in Europe. RCO is also moving out on new initiatives aimed at addressing critical gaps in other theaters, and expanding its capability portfolio to include chief of staff of the Army priorities, such as long-range cannons, optical augmentation and loitering air munitions.
Watch, Assess, Execute
In approving the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Section 804, Congress authorized alternative approaches to rapid prototyping and rapid fielding. Along with the RCO charter, this newly defined middle tier of acquisition enables RCO to streamline many aspects of capability development and delivery.
Within this framework, RCO determined it would need an internal process that enabled multiple efforts to run simultaneously, instead of one that relied on tiered succession. The team established a “watch, assess and execute” process that shepherds projects through various stages of prototyping with the input of experts from program management, finance, contracting, testing, and science and technology.
The process enables RCO to actively monitor and prioritize emerging technologies (watch); create multifunctional teams that evaluate potential solutions to close a combatant commander’s strategic gap (assess); and conduct operational assessments with the receiving unit to establish the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy (DOTMLPF-P) analysis (execute). Each stage is tailorable to the project and the need, acting as an outline rather than a checklist so we can go fast.
Another important factor in RCO’s early success was the presence of a general officer from the operational side of the Army serving as director of operations. Our first director of operations was Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, now commander of the 10th Mountain Division and of Fort Drum, New York, and the second was Maj. Gen. Wilson A. Shoffner, now commander of the Fires Center of Excellence and of Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Both were instrumental in uniting the operational and acquisition communities to lay the foundation for rapid capability delivery. They applied their experience to align RCO projects with tactical operations and ensure that we captured DOTMLPF-P factors in capability solutions. For the same reasons, it is encouraging that the cross-functional teams are led by combat-experienced generals.
The Future is Now
As the Army Futures Command takes shape, RCO will be complementary to PEOs and cross-functional teams and a tool they can use. Much like a PEO, RCO can field capabilities, and much like a cross-functional team, it experiments and takes risks in order to move fast. Yet it operates in the near term, where there is a critical need. Equipping Soldiers in this time frame reduces operational risk and buys the Army time to get the program-of-record capability correct. And in some cases, RCO will prove essential in accelerating projects that fall outside a designated cross-functional team or that cross multiple cross-functional team portfolios.
Additionally, we expect the RCO role to continue to grow from its core of rapid prototyping. This growth would likely occur on both ends—in fulfilling immediate needs and in fielding more complete systems. This will allow the organization to stay flexible, agile and responsive to combatant commanders, as well as to Army senior leadership.
The Army Rapid Capabilities Office set out to do one thing: deliver urgently needed capabilities that bridge the gap against rapidly modernizing adversaries.
During my short time at the organization, we met that challenge by fielding equipment that allows brigades to understand the electronic warfare environment and incorporate electronic warfare threats and responses into their decisions. We established an RCO process and formed a small but fearless team to carry it out. We secured the resources to enable financial stability and future growth.
In doing so, RCO became a foundational element to Army modernization and acquisition reform. As the Army tackles its largest institutional transformation since the 1970s, the rapid way of doing business can help achieve our greater modernization goals.
DOUGLAS K. WILTSIE served as the first director of the Army RCO, from August 2016 through April 2018. He retired from civil service on May 31 after a 34-year Army career. A member of the Senior Executive Service, he previously served as the executive director for the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology’s System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate; the program executive officer for Enterprise Information Systems and the deputy program executive officer for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors. He holds an M.S. in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces of National Defense University and a B.S. in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech. He is Level III certified in systems engineering and in program management and is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
This article will be published in the July – September 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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