GAO: Army Futures Command's Plans for Weapons Development Puts Programs at Risk (UPDATED)

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Mayor of Austin Steve Adler, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley and Gen. John M. Murray during an Army Futures Command press conference

Photo: Defense Dept.

Army Futures Command's plan for weapons development could lead to cost overruns, delivery delays or inadequate capabilities, the Government Accountability Office warned in a new report released Jan. 23.

Futures Command is meant to shake up the service’s acquisition process and speed the delivery of new technologies. The organization — which is based in Austin, Texas, and led by Gen. John M. Murray — is slated to reach full capability by July 2019. Its objective is to focus on the Army’s top modernization priorities which include long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift, the network, air-and-missile defense and soldier lethality. The service has created eight cross-functional teams that will be spread across those lines of effort and allocated more than $1 billion in science and technology funding to support them, according to the GAO.

“The Army plans to begin weapon systems development at a lower level of maturity than what is recommended by leading practices,” the government watchdog said in its report titled, "Army Modernization: Steps Needed to Ensure Army Futures Command Fully Applies Leading Practices."

“GAO has raised concerns about this type of practice for almost two decades for other Army acquisitions, because proceeding into weapon systems development at earlier stages of technology maturity raises the risk that the resulting systems could experience cost increases, delivery delays, or failure to deliver desired capabilities," the report noted.

Embarking on such an approach raises similar concerns for the Army’s top six modernization initiatives, it warned.

Additionally, the Army has not developed a plan for capturing lessons learned from the service’s eight cross-functional teams, the report said.

The government watchdog noted that the Army’s October 2017 science and technology review indicated a goal of demonstrating new technologies in a “relevant environment, such as a highly realistic laboratory setting, before transitioning them to specific platforms or programs.”

For example, the soldier lethality cross-functional team began maturing technology for the next-generation squad automatic rifle to that level of maturity to prepare for transition to product development. 
However, “under leading practices that we identified, prototypes should be demonstrated in an operational or realistic environment — not simply in a relevant environment — prior to starting system development to ensure that they work as intended for the end user,” said the GAO report, which was signed by Jon Ludwigson, the office's acting director of contracting and national security acquisitions. 

“The Army’s choice to start a formal acquisition program at lower levels of technology maturity raises concerns that are consistent with those we have raised in the past,” it continued. “Our past work indicates that by demonstrating technologies only in a relevant rather than an operational environment, the Army increases the risk that new capabilities will not perform as intended and require further technological maturation while in system development.”

That could raise costs and extend timelines for delivery, it noted.

In order to ensure that Futures Command is successful, the Army will need to fully implement a series of best practices designed to better determine weapon system requirements and establish effective cross-functional teams, it added.

“To date, the Army has generally applied leading practices identified by GAO to its modernization efforts,” the report said. However, there are areas where the service has not, the report warned.

The GAO listed a series of eight best practices for leading effective teams, but some of them have not been incorporated into the new command, it said. So far, the Army has incorporated the following best practices: well-defined team goals, open and regular communication, autonomy and committed team members, the report said.

However, the service has only partially applied the following leading practices: senior management support, empowered team leaders, well-defined team structure and inclusive team environment, it noted.

Additionally, “the Army has not yet definitively established the cross-functional teams’ roles, responsibilities and how they will operate within Army Futures Command,” the report said. “As a result, it is unclear if the Army will benefit from the experience and expertise of these teams applying leading practices as they transition into Army Futures Command.”

The command does not have a formal plan to identify and share lessons learned from the cross-functional teams' efforts to experiment with new approaches, the GAO said.

“If the Army fails to institutionalize these lessons learned in the new command, it risks losing the benefits from the experiences of these pilots, thereby either repeating past mistakes or failing to benefit from past practices that worked well," the report said.

As a result of the GAO’s findings, the government watchdog made four recommendations to Secretary of the Army Mark Esper. These include calling on Futures Command to: apply leading practices as they relate to technology development; take steps to incorporate the experiences of the cross-functional teams in applying leading practices; execute a process for identifying and incorporating lessons learned from the CFTs into the command; and fully apply leading practices for mergers and organizational transformations as roles, responsibilities, policies and procedures are finalized for the new organization, it said.

James Faist, director of defense research and engineering for advanced capabilities in the office of the undersecretary of defense, concurred with all four of the GAO’s recommendations.

Col. Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for Army Futures Command, said the command plans to follow GAO’s guidance.

“We appreciate an external set of eyes to see what we’re doing, to take a look at us," he told National Defense. "[We] certainly are going to take all that … into consideration as we continue to move forward."

Seiber noted that the command worked alongside the GAO as they developed the report. "We’re pleased that they can see the progress that we’re already making with our cross-functional teams and as we move toward becoming fully operational," he said.

Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Army Futures Command.

Topics: Army News, Defense Department

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