The world doesn’t wait.
While the U.S. Army was securing Afghan mountains and Iraqi deserts, Russian aggression fermented in Eastern Europe. While we were churning out equipment to track terrorists and survive roadside bombs, China doubled down on its anti-access/area denial capabilities. While we struggled to bend the defense bureaucracy into the mold of Silicon Valley, our adversaries bought cutting-edge technologies with few constraints.
In an environment where change is the only constant, the Army is fighting to reassert its technological overmatch to reassure allies and deter future conflicts. Limited resources and competing demands constrain our options for revolutionary modernization investments. With more than 180,000 soldiers operating each day in more than 140 countries around the world, demand is high and readiness must come first. We train constantly to prepare for the next call. Yet focusing on readiness today should not come at the expense of relevance for tomorrow. We can and we must do both.
Indeed, complacency—in decision-making, in process and in attitude—is the ugliest form of unpreparedness. To make up for lost time, the Army must take the risks required to modernize faster where the strategic dangers are highest: areas that would make us vulnerable in a high-intensity, high-tech conflict against a near-peer adversary. Fortunately, the Army has a secret weapon: the Rapid Capabilities Office.
How do we modernize more quickly in the short term, to avoid strategic surprise and keep pace with evolving threats, while making smarter modernization investments for the long term? We do rapid prototyping with soldiers at the table. We take the systems we have, repurpose them in new ways and integrate emerging technologies from across the spectrum of government and industry. We follow the science and experiment with what will work and what will not. We put quick solutions into the hands of operators, not only to fill capability gaps on the front lines, but also so they can train with the latest prototypes and task-organize for success. We make upgrades and deliver them incrementally, evolving with the pace of technology. We grow the good, learn from the bad and move forward.
This rapid approach is the exception in an acquisition system that discourages taking risks. To be ready today and relevant tomorrow, I believe the exception must become the new norm.
I say this from perhaps a unique vantage point. After serving until March 2015 as the deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Europe, whose soldiers stand front and center in deterring threats to the national security of the U.S. and our NATO allies, I spent two years at the Pentagon, one cog in the system that prepares those soldiers for battle and delivers the equipment they need. First as the director of operations, readiness and mobilization in the office of the deputy chief of staff, G-3/5/7, and then as the director of operations for the Army’s new Rapid Capabilities Office, I observed the tremendous things the Army can accomplish when we push past institutional complacency to meet worldwide demands. Now, serving with the 10th Mountain Division soldiers who answer when crisis calls, I recognize with new urgency the need to close capability gaps today and prepare for an unknown future.
The Army is not the first to create a Rapid Capabilities Office. The Air Force stood up a similar office in 2003, but our approach is distinct to our service’s needs and the current national security environment. While the Army was engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we deferred modernization in areas where our dominance was previously unquestioned, such as long-range precision fires, electronic warfare, and active protection systems for ground vehicles and helicopters. Adversaries took advantage by developing systems that target our strengths: anti-access/area denial zones to deny air superiority, and electronic jammers to disrupt our radios and GPS.
Traditional System Too Slow
It’s not just other militaries that are going faster. Technology is evolving so quickly that our traditional procurement system can’t keep up. In areas like cyberspace operations and cybersecurity, what’s acceptable or even innovative today could be obsolete within months.
Faced with this strategic problem set, in August 2016 then-Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley created the Army Rapid Capabilities Office. Reporting directly to the secretary, the chief and the Army acquisition executive, the Rapid Capabilities Office does not aim to field systems across the force, but instead accelerates prototypes to select formations and regions to close gaps and deliver overmatch. The organization combines operational and acquisition expertise so it doesn’t provide materiel solutions in a vacuum—as “the shiny new widget that will save the universe”—but instead incorporates the training, doctrine, staffing and other factors involved in delivering battlefield effects.
Initially, this work has focused on four capability areas critical to ground maneuver in contested multidomain environments: cyber; electronic warfare; survivability; and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), which allows soldiers and systems to operate in environments where GPS is denied. The Army attacked these areas first for a simple reason: If units can’t navigate or communicate—on the physical battlefield or in the electromagnetic spectrum—then they can’t execute precision fires or deliver other complex effects. The goal of the Rapid Capabilities Office is to tailor prototypes to the point of need and deliver an operational effect within one to five years. It bridges the gap between readiness today and relevance tomorrow.
Prototyping With a Purpose
The beauty of prototyping is there’s no single blueprint, so the Army can tailor its approach to each project. Because the Rapid Capabilities Office is operating on a small scale, usually focused on a specific theater or formation, it can take risks that larger programs cannot. The unit receiving the equipment can be closely involved with its development and assessment, helping the Army to learn faster what’s right, what’s wrong and how to improve it.
For example, in electronic warfare, the Rapid Capabilities Office is answering operational needs in Europe by repurposing multiple existing systems in the Army’s inventory and combining them with emerging technologies to provide new electronic detection, support and attack capability in contested environments. Working closely with the program manager for electronic warfare and cyber, the office is executing a series of operational assessments in Europe and the U.S. this year to get system data and user feedback in support of rapid fielding. With each phase, the capability will improve and soldiers will hone the skills and tactics needed to fight in the electromagnetic spectrum—a critical component in any potential near-peer conflict.
In such a scenario, the Army must be prepared to operate in a partially or significantly degraded environment. While the military depends on GPS for countless functions, GPS is inherently vulnerable to terrain conditions and enemy interference. We need to deliver systems that are resilient and reliable in fast-paced maneuver combat operations. To assist in this problem set, the Rapid Capabilities Office is accelerating ongoing prototyping for PNT solutions across several technology areas. Expediting the timeline for development, integration, operational assessment and fielding of these technologies will allow the Army to incrementally deliver electronic sensing and protection in combat vehicles, with an end state of maneuver in GPS-denied environments.
Not Perfect Solutions
We know these prototypes are not perfect solutions. That is the point. Starting with the answer in the form of an exhaustive requirements document prevents outside-the-box thinking and initiative. The Rapid Capabilities Office’s job is to push the acquisition risk to follow the operational risk. If the adversary is ahead, and the strategic consequences are high, then we must be willing to take chances on promising technology and compromise on certain parameters where it makes sense. We must accept the possibility of failure to have any possibility of success.
It is still early in the Rapid Capabilities Office’s mission, and one small office is only a piece of an institutional modernization process. But I believe there is strong momentum for rapid experimentation throughout the Army. It is the only way to sustain our technological and warfighting edge in critical capability areas until next-generation solutions arrive. It boosts short-term deterrence while providing lessons that help us at the long-term and strategic levels. That also makes it a smart investment.
Moving on to a new assignment back in the operational Army has only reinforced my conclusion that the exception must become the norm. Embracing a rapid approach to uniting the acquisition and operational communities will benefit not only the soldiers who receive prototypes, but also improve current and future readiness across the Army. We must evolve or face the alternative. The world will not wait.