Army Stands Up Office to Develop New Capabilities
Defense Department leaders have responded by standing up a slew of organizations across the Pentagon aimed at cutting red tape and rapidly acquiring new technology and capabilities.
The latest effort is the Army’s rapid capabilities office, which was established in late August. The RCO “will expedite the acquisition of select capabilities to meet soldiers’ immediate and near-term needs and serve as the breeding ground for ideas that enable a more agile and innovative acquisitions process,” said Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning.
The office will initially focus on the execution of rapid prototyping and equipping within the areas of electronic warfare, cyber, survivability and position navigation, he said.
“We’re not embarking on creating new systems or new platforms. We’re not focused on building a new helicopter, but we would turn to this office if some capability on an existing helicopter is no longer sufficient,” he said during an event hosted by Bloomberg Government in Washington, D.C.
With many threats around the world, now seemed like the perfect time to focus on a new way to acquire equipment, he said.
“It’s clear as we watch our adversaries that they have studied our capabilities. They have looked for vulnerabilities. They’ve embarked on ambitious modernization efforts to narrow the technological gap between our forces,” he said.
“For our commanders in the field today, and from exercises I’ve observed in my travels with the Army, it’s clear that … the Army’s overmatch against a potential adversary is not what it once was and it’s not where it needs to be,” he said.
The office will have a short chain of command, which will make it more agile and responsive in meeting operational demands, he said. It will have a board of directors, which Fanning will chair. Members include the Army’s acquisition executive, Katrina McFarland, and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.
“[We] mean it when we say, ‘rapid.’ We’re not aiming for the perfect solution that will field to the entire Army 15 or 20 years down the line,” Fanning said. “We have great programs already working to do that. This office is closing on capability gaps where we know there are technologies out there today that can make a difference, inside the Army or out.”
The office’s board of directors was expected to meet in mid-September, RCO Director Douglas Wiltsie said in August.
RCO differs significantly from the Army’s already established Rapid Equipping Force, Wiltsie said. The REF does “very little modification,” he said. The RCO “will do some level of development, mostly integration pieces.” Additionally, the REF’s “sweet spot” is delivering a technology within a day to a year of receiving a request, he said. The RCO, on the other hand, is focused on addressing a capability within one to five years.
Timelines can be problematic when differentiating organizations, said Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“The timeframe issue can be a little tricky,” he said. Modifications are often needed with many of the commercial-off-the-shelf items the government buys.
“It’s just the nature of the military art that things that were designed originally for commercial operations require a little … something extra when you want to put them into a military context for a variety of reasons,” he said.
“There tends to be a little bit of development and then … when you get through all the rigmarole of testing and everything, the timeframes can start to blur together between the … less–than-a-year and the one-to-five-year timelines. I think they are not as clean and distinct as they would want them to be in all cases,” he said.
McFarland was mum on details about specific budget figures for the office. Army acquisition leaders have asked for flexibility in how much and what type of funding it will use to support the effort.
“We’re not going to state at this time how and what money we’re going to have because we’re still working that, but we believe that we are going to have the adequate resources from the Army and within the Army to do that,” she said.
However, she noted that she was looking at the “two-digit level right now for the immediate start,” which could be up to $99 million.
Analysts said they expected that there was enough groundswell within the Pentagon and Army that the RCO could secure a revenue source.
“Given the priority that it has got within the leadership, I don’t anticipate they’re going to have real challenges with funding,” Hunter said. “My sense, from what they were sort of essentially hinting at, is it’s a little bit pre-decisional. They haven’t briefed the Hill. They are obviously going to get it started with funding they already have at hand, which probably means some sort of a reprogramming.”
Paul Scharre, director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, didn’t expect an uphill battle in Congress to secure funding.
“There is support on the Hill,” he said. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has already discussed the importance of rapid acquisition processes in the Pentagon, he said.
“The money is where the rubber meets the road,” Scharre said. “The Department of Defense’s budget isn’t going to get bigger to accommodate this new process, so the money is going to have to come from somewhere. It’s going to have to come from within the Army’s budget.”
While the service will have to make offsets, rapid acquisition efforts are usually not extremely expensive, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at CSIS’ international security program.
“You’re not talking about pushing in billions of dollars,” he said.
The RCO effort could make a real difference for the Army, Hunter said. The fact that there is widespread support from service leadership is “indicative of the fact that it’s going to have an impact,” he said.
“That’s always a key piece of the puzzle in making … sure there is actual follow through in implementation,” Hunter added.
Rapid acquisition organizations play an essential “translation function” between senior leadership and parts of the bureaucracy, he said. Hunter previously led the Pentagon’s joint rapid acquisition cell.
Offices like the RCO will also be important as the military responds to evolving threats around the world, Scharre said.
“It’s really important for responding to things like many of the innovations we’re seeing Russia employing in the Ukraine in terms of precision fires, electronic warfare and drones,” he said. The current acquisition process, which can sometimes take seven to 10 years, is “just too slow for the world we live in today,” he said.
While the office is a step in the right direction for the Army, service leaders must make sure that they don’t take away process where it is needed, Cancian said.
“To make this rapid acquisition process work, the Army and all of the services are really going to have to limit what they try to do to systems that are really ready for rapid acquisition and not try to expand the authority to systems that need a development cycle and would be more appropriate for the regular acquisition program,” he said.
Pushing through a technology or capability that was not ripe for rapid acquisition “could endanger the whole thing and the Congress would get angry and pare back on it and they would be back to where they were before,” he said.
It’s important that the Pentagon doesn’t forgo important steps in the acquisition process, such as operational testing for certain technologies, he said.
“For mature technology in a relatively mature system or subsystem, that’s not a problem but the Army … has to be very careful they don’t push something out in the field that turns out to have needed this kind of operational testing,” he said. “Back in the ‘80s when the services didn’t do that, they ended up with systems out on the field that needed a lot of upgrades and fixes.”
Standing up an office like the RCO will help the Army better address innovation in the future, Scharre said. That is needed following acquisition failures during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pointed to the procurement of mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, which the Pentagon fielded in the thousands at a cost of billions of dollars to respond to the growing improvised explosive device threat.
“The delay in bringing MRAPs on the field is a horrible stain on the department’s bureaucratic processes and frankly leadership,” he said. “When it comes to … the acquisition of the systems, once the secretary of defense made it a priority, industry was able to produce the MRAPs and get them to theater relatively quickly. But the requirements process failed and it failed miserably and initial requests from the field languished for two years inside the Pentagon before they bubbled up to the secretary of defense.
“That’s a failure of adaptation and innovation inside the department. We can’t have an innovative organization if it requires the secretary … personally intervening every time the department needs to adapt,” he said.
With the rapid capabilities office being stood up so close to the end of President Obama’s time in office, there is a question of whether it can endure in a new administration. Cancian said he didn’t foresee that it would be an issue.
“There is a very broad interest in rapid acquisition and in innovation that will transcend the change of administration, whether it’s Republican or Democrat,” he said. “Both of them have talked a lot about innovation so … that would be of interest to both parties and a new administration no matter who” is the next president.
Besides standing up the RCO, the Army has made acquisition reform a top issue. In August, Army Materiel Command and Training and Doctrine Command conducted the third iteration of the Army Innovation Summit. The two-day event, which was held in Williamsburg, Virginia, focused on fostering more collaboration among the Army, the Defense Department, industry and academia.
“This year we initiated the innovation campaign on behalf of the U.S. Army to facilitate evaluation, feedback and … collaboration across the materiel enterprise because that’s what we need to ensure that our soldiers … continue to be the best equipped fighting force the world has ever known,” said Gen. Dennis Via, commander of AMC.
Innovation cannot be achieved all at once, but is an evolving process that will require the military to work alongside industry and academia, he said.
Gen. David Perkins, TRADOC commander, said innovation requires collaboration. “Generally speaking, the number one characteristic of an organization that has a high rate of innovation is that they have a high rate of collaboration,” he said. “The people that innovate the most aren’t necessarily the people that put in the most money and [research and development] and all.”