Army Looks to Change the Conversation With Defense Industry
Photo: ArmyThe storyline on the Army’s bid to modernize its aging equipment has been one of fits and starts.
A litany of fruitless weapon development efforts over the past decade has cost the Army billions of dollars but delivered little in the way of advanced equipment. Congressional leaders have hammered Army officials amid fears that U.S. forces are losing technological ground to adversaries.
Army leaders insist they are forging a new path forward, and promise to get more bang for their limited procurement bucks. Notably, they have concluded that past failures partly were brought on by poor communications with defense contractors.
“We have identified several problems,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, deputy director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, who discussed the Army’s latest thinking on how it plans to recover from its modernization slump.
Dyess summed up the situation in blunt terms: “Industry doesn’t know what the Army wants. There is no forum to address these needs. And small businesses don’t have a chance to present their ideas to the government.”
It falls on the organization that Dyess leads, known as ARCIC, to define as much as possible how the Army should be equipped for future wars. “Our mission is to design the Army,” he said in a conference call with reporters. “We look at the current and future force, we determine gaps and recommend solutions.”
But unless the Army can clearly articulate its vision for the future to contractors — so they can redirect investments and talent to meet those requirements — it will be difficult to move forward, Dyess suggested.
ARCIC last month hosted a “capabilities information exchange” at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Virginia, the first in a series of forums aimed at restarting a dialogue with contractors. Eustis is home to the Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Nearly 300 people participated in the exchange at Eustis, many via livestream. There were both unclassified and classified sessions. One issue for the Army is contractors’ reluctance to openly talk about their trade secrets out of fear they will leak to competitors. “We are discussing the possibility of having ‘break-out’ sessions with industry participants which would provide the opportunity to discuss proprietary information,” said Lt. Col. Eric Van De Hey, an ARCIC official who works in the science, technology and research division.
“We want to engage all business entities to gain an appreciation for what industry is working on which could possibly support Army needs,” Van De Hey told National Defense.
The Army is especially keen on reaching out to small businesses, he said, and has created a “forum for innovative novel discovery” that is geared to nontraditional vendors and startups. The next one will occur in Huntsville, Alabama, in March, concurrent with the Association of the United States Army’s annual symposium. Another “capabilities information exchange” is planned for July or August 2017. Events will be announced on FedBizOpps.
Although the defense industry is deeply entrenched in the military market and keeps its ears to the ground when it comes to equipment needs, there has obviously been a case of missed signals from the Army. The goal is to “engage industry as early as possible to ensure they clearly understand the Army's needs,” said Van De Hey. “Our industry partners have expressed concerns that there is no forum for the Army and industry to exclusively discuss the Army's needs.”
Army officials also are interested in leveraging the industry’s independent research. Having an “early communication with industry on the Army’s needs and concepts regarding potential future conflicts … will allow industry to better focus their independent research and development investment,” said Van De Hey.
The traditional conferences where contractors are briefed on Army equipment needs — generally known as industry days — are hosted by individual commands or program offices, and focus on narrow slices of the market. But these briefings appear to fall short of providing a broad understanding what the Army needs in the out years and a way for the Army to figure out how to capitalize on private-sector innovation.
Dyess said Army industry days also fall short because they attract “repeat customers,” meaning incumbent contractors, but “hardly any small businesses.”
One frequent complaint from contractors is that while they are amply informed about upcoming short-term opportunities, they lack insight into where the Army believes it is headed in the next five to 10 years.
“They need to articulate their vision,” said defense and national security analyst Ben FitzGerald, of the Center for a New American Security. The industry, Congress, and others in Washington worry that the Army is listless. “The Army is its own worst enemy right now,” said FitzGerald. “They don’t know what type of combat vehicle they need. The Army today is where the Marine Corps was in 2010. The Marines have figure out what they need to do. The Army is less clear.”
ARCIC Director Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster has laid out a laundry list of equipment gaps in the Army today. The service for the first time since World War I does not have a new combat vehicle in development. “We can only hang so much stuff on our Bradleys and Abrams tanks before they are overburdened,” he told lawmakers. Other items on the Army’s wish list are “layered” air defense systems to protect forces from enemy direct and indirect fire, including armed drones. Army weapon systems also need to be hardened against cyber and electronic attacks.
Officials also have to address the elephant in the room, which is the Army’s budget — most of it consumed by personnel, maintenance and training costs, leaving just a small portion for new weapons and hardware. In the Army’s base budget request of $125 billion for fiscal year 2017, about 18 percent — or nearly $23 billion — is for research, development and procurement of new weapons. These accounts will continue to get squeezed because the top line will stay relatively flat and the Army has vowed to protect funding for readiness and force size over modernization.
“We spent three years under sequestered budgets,” said Dyess. “We made sharp reductions in modernization dollars as we try to maintain readiness. We’re doing the best we can with the dollars we have.”
Meanwhile, the “technology gap is closing,” warned Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. “Precision guided munitions, space based technology, stealth, offensive and defensive missiles, long range artillery, they're all there,” he said during a hearing last fall. “That capability exists in our adversaries. Russia and China, they have a brilliant strategy, they're not stupid. They've got an asymmetric strategy to minimize the great power advantage that we have in our air and maritime capability.”
Former Army Vice Chief of Staff retired Gen. Jack Keane blames the military procurement system for the sluggish pace of modernization. “It has nothing to do with money. It doesn't have anything to do with the White House. It doesn't have anything to do with Congress. It doesn't even have anything to do with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. You know what it is? It's the damned bureaucracy inside the Army,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “They push back on new technology because they want to design it themselves, because you give them money to do it. These are the laboratories and the tech bases. It's the acquisition bureaucracy that stalls this.”
Keane offered a harsh assessment. “The Army's got to do some thinking about where it's going, and also I believe it has to rethink its organization, how it fights, and go after the technology that's available and press the R&D community to get you to new technology.”
Military analysts David Barno and Nora Bensahel, of the Atlantic Council, warned in a report last year that the Army is at a “strategic crossroads.” After 15 years of intense warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has to contend with a “pernicious combination of a shrinking force, declining resources, increasing global commitments, and the renewed possibility of major power conflict.” Leaders face “inevitable tradeoffs between the need to fight today’s wars while preparing for the possible wars of the future — and the need to pay for both,” the report said. This challenge calls for “imagination, creative solutions, and unrestrained thinking about both present and future wars.”
The unquestioned reality is that the Army cannot afford to waste money on technological pipe dreams. Spending on next-generation technology suffered a big blow with the cancellation of the “future combat systems” program in 2009, and the damage has been long lasting. The service has soured on ambitious tech development and asked contractors build vehicles they could offer as turnkey products.
Army Secretary Eric Fanning in August announced the opening of a “rapid capabilities office” to help speed up critical technologies to the field. Dyess said the RCO will be taking on some of the most pressing priorities, such as electronic warfare and the protection of navigation satellites.
The RCO is not a substitute for the normal acquisitions process, he noted. “I’m not necessarily satisfied with the slowness and lack of ability of the acquisition process,” he said. “There’s things we can do in TRADOC but also we have to work with people who do the funding and acquisition.”