The Army’s International Technology Centers seek the most innovative solutions possible through foreign partnerships.
by Lt. Col. Marc Meeker
When the U.S. Army Futures Command (AFC) was created in early 2019, it brought together requirements writers from the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command with the scientists and engineers from the newly designated Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC). In one bold stroke, the Army put the thinkers with the creators. As part of the deal, AFC also inherited a network of international offices within CCDC: These are the Army’s International Technology Centers (or ITCs), tasked with facilitating collaborative research and development around the globe.
The Army originally established research and standardization groups in 1948 to conduct collaborative research with Australia, Great Britain and Canada. These offices also underpinned technical standardization within NATO, which was formed in 1949. When standardization groups moved under U.S. Army Materiel Command, they stayed true to their original intent of facilitating grants for promising research, keeping the Army apprised of the newest international technology developments and working closely with foreign scientists. Now, reflagged as ITCs, they have further evolved into offices that act as international touch points for the Army’s research and acquisition enterprises. ITCs answer the call for international collaborative research and development in three ways: opening pathways for collaboration; facilitating maturation of Army-relevant technologies; and finding technologies better than the state of the art to give options to Army program managers. The ultimate goal of ITCs is to give the Army’s research and acquisition enterprises the most promising of international options in the materiel development process.
In light of rapidly evolving technological threats and geopolitical tensions, ITCs have become more relevant than ever. China is emerging as a world leader in areas such as artificial intelligence, and Russia is adopting new techniques to counter American superiority on present-day battlefields, such as Ukraine and Syria. Working with international partners is a smart strategy, and ITCs, in close cooperation with the Army’s science and technology enterprise that they support, are a viable pathway to achieve this goal.
As AFC works to define its international footprint, there are four recommendations to improve and leverage the ITCs: Clearly define strategies and roles in the international arena; keep track of what has been done and who is doing it; show our partners we are serious; and hire the right people with the right talent.
STRATEGIES AND PRIORITIES
The creation of AFC changed established relationships in the Army’s acquisition community and created turbulent second-order effects in the complex international arena where ITCs operate. ITCs typically sit at U.S. embassies overseas, where they represent the Army’s research and development enterprise in searching for technologies and facilitating interoperability.
However, for ITCs to effectively accomplish their international collaboration goals, they must also engage with DOD offices, the Army acquisition enterprise, and international partners both within and outside of NATO. As this interactive network slowly evolves, AFC must define and prioritize the research and technology it is seeking. The “Big Six” modernization priorities represent a solid start; in fact, they are a near-term shopping list for many technologies that were developed 20 years ago and are only now coming to fruition.
To make the most of existing international partnerships and relationships, AFC must ensure that ITCs have a top-level engagement strategy that identifies the most important systems, subsystems, and technologies necessary for the Army to dominate the interoperable and high-tech battlefield of tomorrow. The Army Research Laboratory’s essential research programs are an example of releasable, far-reaching, relevant technological priorities that can be pushed to foreign universities, friendly foreign ministries of defense, and even foreign industry to find world-leading research. However, they compete with the immediate goals of the modernization priorities, TRADOC’s Army Warfighting Challenges, and integrated priority lists—often classified and non-releasable—from the Army’s subordinate combatant commands.
Combined with DOD-level technology focus areas, the priority list is too long to be effective. By blending input from key stakeholders and nailing down the challenges to U.S. research (in government and industry), AFC can provide an effective path for ITCs to engage with international partners. The result: The best scientific minds around the globe will be thinking about the Army’s toughest technological challenges and filling the pipeline for solutions down the road. ITCs are well aware of the Army’s modernization priorities and eight cross-functional teams. As scientists, engineers, program managers and cross-functional team leads encounter challenges with U.S. technology development, ITCs stand ready to help with long-established relationships and international collaboration tools.
The CCDC is looking at various methods to track and categorize the wide variety of defense-related technologies in development around the world. Recently, it adopted the Vulcan database used by the Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Center. Vulcan is a web-based scouting tool used to discover and facilitate the sharing of vendor technologies.
This is a powerful step in the right direction for CCDC, even if Vulcan isn’t the perfect tool for the job. A consolidated database would amplify the collection of overlapping efforts from the international arena, which includes ITCs, the U.S. Department of State, DOD, sister services, and Army acquisition offices such as the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for defense exports and cooperation (DASA DE&C).
In late 2018, ITCs in Europe laid the groundwork for a collaborative workshop on hypersonic materials. A month into this effort, the ITCs discovered that the U.S. Air Force was about to sign a bilateral collaborative agreement on hypersonic materials with a foreign partner. A month after that, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Technical Center was named as the lead agency in hypersonic research. These unintentionally convoluted initiatives would benefit from an aggregated and ongoing effort to maintain a database at the AFC or CCDC level, including the network of researchers, supporting agencies, world-leading industry partners and testing facilities.
A technology database isn’t exclusively for a high-profile technology like hypersonics, however; AFC would also benefit from aggregating market research on engines for main battle tanks, or helicopter transmissions, or unmanned ground systems. Through painful experience, ITCs have learned that the Army has a Network Cross-Functional Team with a chief of market research, who competes with market researchers at the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, who get international trade show input from DASA (DE&C), which competes with work being done or funded by CCDC’s C5ISR Research Center.
All of these entities (under the umbrella of the U.S. Army) share the goal of finding world-leading technology to improve command, control and situational awareness on the battlefield. Any one of them would benefit from a consolidated database that allowed them to build on the previous work of colleagues. A database that tied in the efforts from sister services (the Air Force Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research, and DOD), would be even more effective, as all of these offices play a role in the international arena.
A secondary benefit of using an aggregated database to track ongoing work is the ability to keep up with who owns the state of the art in either research or technology. Research journals highlight universities that conduct world-class research and countries that are focused on building fundamental and applied research infrastructure. Databases can quickly leverage analytics to chew through, say, published and peer-reviewed academic papers worldwide.
The U.S. Navy’s bibliometric analysis tool does this, and ITCs have used it to identify the most promising international universities with which to engage. Analytic tools can refine potential partners for collaborative engagement, though they are most effective when their outputs are vetted by seasoned experts—almost like using Google’s language translation algorithms. Users can get a basic translation from them, but to achieve an accurate translation, it is better if users already understand the language’s nuances.
A truly useful management tool would capture past and present government projects, a rundown of leading industry for developed technologies and the most highly rated international universities for basic and early applied research. This would allow a new ITC director, or program manager, or research center scientist, to quickly determine where to apply their efforts for maximum effect. The biggest challenge would be establishing access criteria and classification levels.
WE MEAN BUSINESS
The importance of ITCs cannot be overstated. At times, the director of an ITC represents the breadth of the Army’s science and technology across the table from a foreign partner. To bring that science and technology enterprise to bear, ITCs need to be empowered to reach out to key leaders throughout the research and development and acquisition communities. Those key leaders must also be aware that their decisions to engage internationally may produce technological progress, but also political messaging.
This is a secondary mission that ITCs bear: communication with the U.S. State Department, DOD, and their foreign equivalents to ensure that collaborative research and development sends (or sometimes, doesn’t send) a message to partners and the rest of the world. ITCs don’t have the resources to shape political messages, but they must be wary of how their work can be construed and advise senior leaders accordingly.
ITCs should also be empowered to act decisively if experts deem specific research or a certain technology to be “world leading.” Currently, CCDC’s Global Technology Office acts as the Army’s central executive office for the Foreign Technology Assessment Support, or FTAS, and Foreign Comparative Test, or FCT, programs, both of which are funded at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level. Leveraging those dollars for Army purposes is smart, but slow. Hypothetically, if an innovative foreign company developed a material that could make Soldiers invisible on the battlefield, the purchase of a $300 sample of the material for testing would take 12 to 18 months. If AFC is serious about capturing innovative foreign technologies, at least on a small scale, an internal pot of money for rapid acquisition of test samples would prove effective.
Similarly, in the area of basic or early applied research, the grants proposed by ITCs to foreign academic researchers often pale in comparison with those from private industry, venture capitalists and even other foreign governments. If AFC aims to capture the best of foreign research for the United States, it must be willing to up its game if required. If the research is truly world-leading, then AFC only stands to benefit.
Finally, the Army’s Engineer and Scientist Exchange Program can build sincere relationships with partners. Long-standing partners in the exchange program include Germany, South Korea, and the Netherlands, for yearlong research projects on technology that is relevant to Army priorities. ITCs work hand in hand with DASA DE&C to make the most of this valuable program, and sponsorship by AFC and CCDC leadership would further enhance it.
By bringing ITCs (or their higher headquarters at CCDC forward element commands) in early and often, science and technology and acquisition leaders can facilitate a consistent and intentional message to foreign partners: We are serious about collaborating with our allies and will do so in a logical, defined way.
Working at an ITC is not for everyone. Despite international locations, the job comes with surprising challenges: Every project is slow moving, return on investment is hard to define, and frequent travel means that bags are always packed. An ITC team member has to be extroverted, emotionally intelligent, multi-lingual, technically competent (engineering degrees preferred), and familiar with the breadth of the acquisition enterprise.
Military ITC members also need some slack in the career timelines: Despite their level of responsibility, ITC directorships are not board-selected key leadership (“command slate”) positions, so being in one too long will impact promotion prospects. For many potential candidates, family concerns also dominate, as an international move can uproot school-aged children, force decisions on real estate and limit job opportunities for spouses.
Finally, international experience is a plus, but there is no substitute for training in international program management. The Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) provides only three career certifications for Army officers: contracting, program management, and test and evaluation. However, despite the lack of an international career certification similar to the one offered to Army civilians, Army officers can still take Defense Acquisition University classes, which are essential to developing a foundation for presenting competent and capable collaboration in support of the US Army’s international search for the world’s best technology.
ITCs have been in place for over 70 years and have well-established mechanisms and networks for international research and development collaboration. What does this ultimately mean for the warfighter? In the past, it meant integration of systems such as the L/44 120mm Smoothbore cannon on the M1 Abrams main battle tank (the L/44 was developed in Germany), as Jean M. Dash and David J. Gorsich state in their 2012 publication, “The TARDEC Story: Sixty-Five Years of Innovation.”
In the future, it could mean artificial intelligence algorithms developed in conjunction with Czech universities, unmanned aerial systems underpinned by Austrian Army research, and third-generation forward-looking infrared scopes built with technology from Lithuania. As AFC seeks to answer the Army’s technology needs, ITCs bring the best of what the world has to offer.
How Complicated Is an ITC’s Stakeholder Network? VERY:
- The Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Defense Exports and Cooperation (DASA DE&C), under the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)), has statutory responsibility for international armaments cooperation (which includes collaborative research and development), but Army Futures Command and CCDC own the roughly 13,000 Army scientists and engineers that ITCs tap for the right subject-matter expertise.
- ASA(ALT) also owns the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology (DASA R&T), which channels funding for 6.1 to 6.3 basic and early applied research to the Army’s science and technology enterprise, both within the United States and on the international front. These research and development funds underpin the grants that ITCs use to mature foreign basic research to answer far-reaching Army technology challenges, but ITCs must keep pace with DASA R&T’s research priorities, since DASA R&T pays the bills.
- Finally, ITCs are funded by Headquarters, Department of the Army’s G3/5/7 to facilitate “interoperability,” a term that nebulously describes the Army’s ability to fight side by side with foreign allies. Interoperability encompasses two broad areas: the tactics, techniques and procedures needed to work with allies, and the underpinning technology that allows U.S. systems to shoot, move and communicate with allies. Combatant commands focus on the former with joint exercises; ITCs, in conjunction with U.S. Embassy Offices of Defense Cooperation, the eight Army research centers and program executive offices, focus on the latter, facilitating the co-development of defense technologies and systems that work on the international battlefield.
Innovation Internationally Speaking: How ITCs Demonstrate Ingenuity
Innovation means solving a problem in a unique or creative way. ITCs, by definition, are thinking outside of borders, and here are two examples:
- At the request of then-Chief of Staff of the Army Mark A. Milley, ITCs worked with DASA DE&C and NATO partners to gather testing and evaluation data on fielded infantry fighting-vehicle systems through existing information exchange agreements. This effort provided an “honest broker” evaluation of existing foreign systems, saving procurement, testing and evaluation dollars in the search for the Army’s next-generation combat vehicle (cited in the nomination of the CCDC’s Global Technology Office for the 2019 David Packard Award for Acquisition Excellence), while demonstrating solidarity with our NATO allies.
- An ITC working with South Korea facilitated a co-developmental agreement that directly help U.S. forces address a real-world challenge: To keep errant training rounds from leaving the range’s impact area, tracking radar (part of an international collaborative research project) was put in place at Rodriguez Live Fire Complex, to track rounds for safety while characterizing radar performance in combined fires environments. This project was a win for U.S. Forces Korea, the engineers of the system and the South Korean people living near the range, located close to the border with North Korea.
LT. COL. MARC MEEKER is the director of the International Technology Center – Northern Europe, with offices at Frankfurt Consulate and Koblenz, where he is co-located with the German Ministry of Defense’s acquisition arm. He holds an MBA with an acquisition focus from the Naval Postgraduate School and an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and design technology from Oklahoma State University. He is Level 3 certified in program management and an Army Acquisition Corps member. He speaks conversational Spanish and is fluent in German (with a hint of a Bavarian accent).
This article is published in the Winter 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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