The Army Needs to Go Big With Futures Command

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“A big announcement is coming.”

This is how the Association of the United States Army’s (AUSA) website is introducing its Global Force Symposium and Exposition to be held March 26 to 28 in Huntsville, Alabama. According to AUSA, “the Army will use the Global Force Symposium and Exposition as a platform to formally introduce the new United States Army Futures Command and the why and how of changes to Army modernization.”

To this end, the Secretary of the Army, Mark Esper, will provide the keynote address. Following Secretary Esper will be the chief architects of the Army’s reform efforts, Under Secretary Ryan McCarty and the Vice Chief of Staff General James McConville. Also, there will be panel discussions focused on the six modernization priorities that are certain to involve participation by senior representatives of the relevant cross-functional teams.

This will be the first opportunity for outsiders to get a sense of how far the Army intends to go in changing the acquisition system to reduce the time for developing requirements, investigating relevant technologies and, most importantly, procuring new capabilities for the warfighter.

There has been a great deal of speculation in public fora regarding how far the Army will go with this reform effort and how hard senior leaders will fight to overcome the inevitable resistance from entrenched interests. The task force, headed by Lieutenant General Edward Cardon that is responsible for making recommendations to the Army’s leadership regarding the roles, responsibilities and structure of Futures Command, is reported to be studying no fewer than six options for the new organization.

To date, Army leaders have suggested that they intend to revolutionize the acquisition process. The Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, has stated that when it comes to providing capabilities for the warfighter, he is not interested in “a linear progress into the future,” essentially incremental improvements.

General Milley envisions a new acquisition system that can rapidly field new capabilities with ten times the effectiveness or lethality of current systems. Secretary Esper has stated that he wants to see the time it takes to develop validated requirements reduced by 80 percent, from an average of 60 months to around 12.

Army leaders appear to understand that to achieve their desired ends, the reform process must be about more than just moving boxes around an organizational chart. As General Cardon opined: “What's needed is a shot of disruptive innovation.” Changes of the scale and scope proposed by Army leaders will require a radical change to the Army’s decision-making style and current acquisition culture.

According to Under Secretary McCarthy, this is the reason the Army is looking to locate Futures Command in an urban center where it can take advantage of access to business and academia and benefit from the risk-taking culture and penchant for innovative solutions prevalent in the private economy.

So, just how big an announcement is the leadership of the Army prepared to make? The fact that just last month, the Futures Command task force was studying as many as six options is not a good sign. Typically, those tasked with providing decision makers with recommendations have used a “Goldilocks” approach: one option is radical, another is much like business as usual, while the one in the middle – neither too hot nor too cold – is just right. With six alternatives on the table, it is likely that only a couple are truly revolutionary. The others are almost certainly some version of business as usual under the guise of reform.

The Army needs to go big and be bold in creating its Futures Command. Nothing less will send the appropriate signal to the acquisition establishment, the warfighters, industry, Congress and the public. Opponents of the proposed reforms are looking for signs of hesitancy. They hope to slow down the reform process and even wait out the current Army leadership in the hope that their successors will pursue a different agenda. But even supporters of reform, particularly the warfighters, need to know that the Army leadership is serious about making the necessary changes and willing to take the heat that will inevitably come from pursuing disruptive change.

Big and bold change also is the way to deal with the current go slow, risk-averse acquisition culture. A radical restructuring of the acquisition system with its realignment of responsibilities and authorities is a signal that will be clearly read by the entire acquisition community and by the rest of the Army.

The only option that makes sense for Futures Command is one that puts it in charge of the entire acquisition process from concept development through production. Anything less will maintain the existing stove-piped acquisition system with too many organizational seams and opportunities by opponents to slow things down. This strategy will allow the new organization to address the multiple sources of confusion, resistance and delay in developing and fielding new capabilities. It also will ensure that producibility and industrial base issues are given adequate consideration in developing acquisition strategies.

The Army could start by focusing Futures Command on General Milley’s six modernization priorities. This would fit with the goal of achieving an initial operating capability by this summer. In addition, Futures Command should not be encumbered by having to oversee the acquisition of non-priority systems and platforms.

The Army’s reform-minded leadership must appreciate that the chance they have to set the acquisition process on a new course comes only once in many decades. This may be a once in a century opportunity to change the Army’s culture. For these reasons, bigger is better.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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