Army Futures Command’s Report Card After Its First Year

August 02, 2019
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Army Futures Command (AFC) was stood up on July 1, 2018. It achieved full operational capability on July 31, 2019. In that time, AFC has made some remarkable strides, particularly considering the U.S. Army’s inherent conservatism. Even before the location of the new command’s headquarters was established or a commanding officer selected, the Army organized eight Cross-Functional Teams (CFTs) to advance the Service’s critical modernization priorities. The CFTs are beginning to produce results. Now, while continuing its modernization efforts, AFC, and notably its Futures and Concepts Center (FCC), need to focus on the necessary doctrinal and force structure changes the Army will need in an era of great power competition.

Army Futures Command has achieved a successful startup; it grew from 12 people to more than 24,000 in 25 states and 15 countries. The transition of elements from TRADOC, RDECOM, and AMC to the new command has been relatively smooth. There is said to be a good working relationship between AFC headquarters, the CFTs and the Army’s acquisition bureaucracy as represented by the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology). One of AFC’s major accomplishments is the ties established between the Army and academia: the University of Texas and Texas A&M for foundational support, Vanderbilt University, and the 101st Division to support rapid experimentation, and Carnegie-Mellon for artificial intelligence. The Army Applications Laboratory has set up shop inside Capital Factory, an Austin hub for startups, to help new private-sector R&D firms navigate the Army's acquisition process. 

Over the last year, AFC has managed to move several critical modernization programs close to fielding. These include:

  • The Extended Range Cannon Artillery, which has a projected fielding of 2023;
  • The XM913 50mm cannon and 3rd Generation FLIR for armored fighting vehicles;
  • The awarding of five contracts for prototype Future Attack Recon Aircraft, a process that in the past would have taken 3-5 years;
  • Pending contract award for the deployment of the first unit equipped with the Indirect Fire Protection Capability by 2020;
  • Approval for a prototype of the Interim Mobile Short-Range Air Defense system;
  • The Enhanced Night Vision Goggles-Binocular to be provided to the 2nd ID by September 2019.

There are even greater challenges on AFC’s horizon. The Army needs to restructure itself into a force capable of conducting large-scale, high-intensity combat in two very different theaters. Second, AFC must educate the Army, really the entire Joint Force, in the Army’s new concept of Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) and turn MDO into a working doctrine.

The way the Army structured itself after the Cold War and then to support the conflicts in Southwest Asia is inadequate for an era of great power competition on the European continent and in the Western Pacific. The current brigade combat team-centric force structure needs to be shifted towards a focus on divisions and Corps. The demands of future high-end conflicts require greater integration of capabilities, including critical enablers, long-range fires, and command, control, and communications with brigade-level formations. This requires higher-level organizations.

In addition, the Army must be prepared to fight on two very different fronts. The Army needs to restructure itself into a two-theater force with different mixes of forces for each. The Army should consider standing up two theater headquarters, one for the Pacific and one for Europe. Given the plan to deploy long-range fire systems and the need to integrate distributed fires from multiple domains across entire theaters, it would also make sense for the Army to develop and deploy theater-level fires commands in both Europe and the Pacific.

A Pacific theater headquarters would focus on the defense of the first and second island chains. The apparent willingness of the Marine Corps to de-emphasize large-scale forcible entry operations leaves the defense of the islands of the Western Pacific largely to the Army. This would require an emphasis on long-range fires, engineering support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and air and missile defense. The Army will need to figure out how it manages a theater-wide fire plan that includes long-range air and naval fires.

The Army in Europe would focus, in large part, on heavy maneuver formations. There also needs to be long-range fires, aviation, and air and missile defenses. The backbone of the future Army deployment in Europe will have to be large, heavy armor formations backed up by long-range fires and air and missile defenses. A future fight in Eastern Europe would likely involve Army forces conducting the initial operations to degrade enemy integrated air defenses and long-range missile forces, paving the way for the Navy and Air Force to strike deep into enemy territory. A credible deterrent to Russian aggression against NATO will require, at a minimum two full divisions, one in Poland and a second in Germany. These would be supplemented by corps-level support and enablers.

Deploying major forces forward in Europe and Asia will require a rebalancing of the three components of the Army – Active, National Guard and Reserve. Too much of the Army’s enablers and combat support capabilities, particularly at echelons above Corps and Army, are in the Guard and Reserve. More of these will need to be in the Active component.

The Army’s leadership appears hesitant to turn Multi-Domain Operations from a concept into formal doctrine. This is a mistake. The efforts to modernize Army capabilities and restructure forces will not be successful if it is a bottom-up effort. There needs to be a doctrinal pull that matches the technology push if AFC is going to be successful. Formalizing MDO will also help to integrate modernization efforts by the other Services.

When it comes to giving AFC grades for its first year, clearly the effort to stand up the new command deserves an A. Regarding the modernization agenda, AFC deserves an A-. On the subjects of developing a vision of the future fight and a plan for restructuring the Army, the command gets a solid B+.

Dan 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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