Team Ignite Fires Up: Futures Command Initiative Unites Scientists, Soldiers
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” At the heart of the U.S. Army Futures Command is a fundamentally new approach to revolutionizing communication across the Army’s modernization enterprise. The Army recognized that communication between scientists, concept developers, technologists and requirement writers was failing to keep pace with the speed and complexity of relevant technological developments needed to stay ahead of increasingly capable adversaries. Futures Command brought this intellectual capital into the same command to ensure a focused energy on the future.
Our four-star command, formed in July 2018, unites the architects of the future Army. In the Futures and Concepts Center (FCC), operational experts write concepts that describe how the Army must fight in the future and specify warfighter capabilities required to overcome projected threats. This includes requirement documents that serve as blueprints for engineering the delivery of materiel solutions.
The technical experts in FCC’s sister organization, the Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), are the complementary skillset. They are the scientists and technologists who convert futuristic ideas into reality. For example, scientists discovered new knowledge like microwave radar that freed the Atlantic of the German U-boats in World War II; technologists engineered night-vision technologies that allowed the Army to own the night. CCDC is the Army’s storehouse of problem-solvers who tackle future warfighter challenges identified by operational experts in the FCC.
Unity of Effort
But unity of command does not in itself ensure unity of effort. These Futures Command experts still face the challenge of understanding each other’s jargon. For example, scientists tackle energy production based on the motion of particles inside the nucleus, while sustainment logisticians compute energy production in gallons of JP-8 hauled to keep an armor division fueled. Thus, Futures Command’s success requires a new way of doing business to integrate our diverse expertise that also accounts for our geographic dispersion across the country.
Enter Team Ignite.
What started as a coalition of the willing has been turned into an enduring team effort that consists of experts from both FCC and CCDC. Focused on new events to foster bidirectional collaboration, Ignite envisions a modern-day Manhattan Project.
Our nation’s emphasis on centralized coordination of science and technology to maintain military advantage dates back to World War II. Early in that conflict, leaders identified the importance of technological superiority, leading to the famous Manhattan Project. This effort unified the technical community toward development of the atomic bomb and realized a fundamentally new capability based on a scientific discovery in nuclear chain reactions. The Manhattan Project was instrumental in bringing World War II to an end.
Later, when nuclear parity placed the two superpowers in a strategic stalemate, operational forces became more critical in forging national objectives. The number of Soviet tanks and artillery forced scientists to develop the “Second Offset”—precision guidance and night vision that enabled the West to manifest an ability to “fight outnumbered and win.” The success in both areas drove policies that underpinned our nation’s science and technology strategy for the past 70 years, making the U.S. a leader in military technological revolutions.
But the world has changed—again—and this change is significant. The rapid proliferation of new technology has drastically changed the global security environment. The National Defense Strategy warns of an erosion of our military advantage.
Now the challenge is an abundance of research funding, with global commercial and governmental investment in science and technology approaching $2 trillion each year. The U.S. is only 25% of this worldwide investment, and within the U.S. funding, 75% of it comes from nongovernmental sources. The new reality requires a consolidated approach to link core science and technology initiatives to threat-based capability needs. A competitive science and technology strategy requires a fundamentally different approach.
Cue Ignite. Our new FCC-CCDC initiative focuses on a simple fact: direct, in-person collaboration and communication enables a shared vision and understanding between experts who architect the future Army. Scientists inject innovative ideas from knowledge discovery much earlier into warfighter concepts, like nuclear chain reactions during the World War II era, and operational experts inspire new directions for scientific discovery to transform how the Army dominates.
This collaboration marries the likelihood of future threats with the most compelling technical approaches to counter them. Such early synchronization will be essential to realize the transformational overmatch capabilities envisioned by the Army’s Multi-Domain Operations concept—or a new concept inspired by Ignite collaboration.
Ignite orchestrates events to unify effort across expert communities. Scientists and soldiers learn to speak a common language and improve their ability to communicate “what could be.” They debate the operational and technological environments, then jointly design transformational warfighting capabilities. Success occurs when both sides understand the operational challenge, why current technological solutions are insufficient, and what recent scientific discoveries offer the most promising means to advance capabilities. The intent of the bidirectional collaboration is to transition what seems like science fiction on a glide path to become a warfighting reality.
As Futures Command forges the future, the Army’s capabilities must continuously exploit breakthroughs in science and technology to ensure overmatch against U.S. adversaries. The Army requires a deliberate science and technology planning and investment strategy that both acknowledges and exploits the distinct, yet interdependent, roles of scientific discovery and technological innovation.
The complexity in achieving and maintaining military advantage in the future operational environment is that capabilities needed in the future are not static. They will change in response to an adversary who will intentionally exploit constant knowledge evolution.
Military leaders often describe the future as a distinct entity in time and space that will one day overtake the present. That paradigm, however, leads to the idea of planning for a future operational environment so the Army is ready when it arrives. Such planning embeds a fallacy.
The future operational environment is not a fixed point but a progression of the current operational environment. One only need look at our challenges with COVID-19 to see how fast the world changes. Therefore, success in maintaining an advantage requires active management of how the Army evolves its present readiness to future capabilities. Army modernization must be a persistent endeavor as articulated in the 2019 Army Modernization Strategy.
Ignite’s vision for a competitive science and technology strategy proposes a fundamentally different approach: The Army must no longer treat science and technology as a singular activity. Scientific discovery and technology development are distinct activities, yet they are inextricably intertwined—driven by a constant dialectic between soldiers and scientists.
Viability of Model
Futures Command has an opportunity to implement new policies, processes and procedures to separately leverage them. Scientific discoveries are appropriately informed by future Army concepts since both are early in maturity and identify potential future capabilities to overcome projected adversary threats. Technology development efforts are appropriately informed by Army requirement documents since both are more mature technical knowledge that can define the right product features for engineering future capabilities. Team Ignite has demonstrated the viability of the Ignite model by shaping emerging concepts to match scientific possibilities and refining scientific exploration based on future opportunities for operational capabilities.
Ignite hosts workshops where technical and operational experts sit in the same room and debate the best path for the future. A recent workshop explored opportunities to sustain the future Army. A modern armored brigade combat team requires 170,000 gallons of fuel each day, received in two deliveries. With three BCTs in a division, six deliveries are needed every 24 hours for that division.
Collaborative discussions about scientific discoveries in power and energy inspired ideas about how advancements in propulsion could integrate with “beyond fossil fuel” energy sources from isomers, or be harvested from indigenous biomass or sunlight in deployed environments.
The Army has long been a pioneer in exploiting the intersection of disparate but complementary scientific phenomena and emergent technologies. Ignite proactively identifies and forecasts the potential Army-relevant impact of technological advances. The result is a strategic and innovative approach to deliver game-changing concepts and capabilities that best exploit the intersection of multiple advances. Team Ignite generates a demand signal in the concepts and requirements process to accelerate delivery of disruptive capability.
Unity of Effort
Ignite also hosts focused excursion events to guide the focus of scientific discovery based on future opportunities for operational capabilities. Consider a recent focused excursion that examined a discovery in deep reinforcement learning, a method within the class of machine-learning algorithms known as enablers for artificial intelligence. Scientists were proposing to augment tactical decisions at the squad level, while operational experts thought artificial intelligence/machine learning was limited to image processing problems.
However, each viewpoint was limited by their respective expertise. Through collaborative deliberation, they identified a more advantageous target for warfighting capabilities: augment decision-making at the operational or even strategic level of operations at echelons above brigade. By integrating expertise across the command, Ignite outcomes ensure scientific investments are inspired by operational need.
Team Ignite is one example inside Futures Command that benefits from unity of command. But Futures Command enables more than a command structure. It is the opportunity provided and enabled by a single command that allows relationships to create a unity of effort—an effort with shared understanding focused on the Army’s future. The challenges the operational force faces today and into the future are unprecedented. Science and technology advances occur at a rate never witnessed before.
A key challenge the Army faces is not a lack of science and technology to invest in, but rather, making the “right” strategic and integrated investments from an ever-growing global pool of discoveries and technologies. Futures Command’s unity of effort across FCC and CCDC is the Army’s newest breakthrough. Ignite has already implemented the connective tissue and outcome-focused communication across the command. These approaches have measurably sped up the definition of “right.” FCC talent ensures new warfighting capabilities fully exploit the potency of emergent science and technology. CCDC ensures its science and technology talent gives the operational force what it needs and what it doesn’t yet know it needs.
Shaw was right. We have to ensure we are not falling under the “illusion” of communication. Breakthroughs often start, simply enough, with new ways to “ignite” communication across the Army’s innovation ecosystem.