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Interview: Army Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson

January 19, 2016 (Photo Credit: Army.mil)

The Army faces the possibility in the upcoming budget round of being the big bill payer, having to wait for some of what it wants while other services pursue multibillion-dollar programs such as the Long Range Strike-Bomber, the joint strike fighter and nuclear modernization. Top Pentagon budget officials have made it clear that a $15 billion delta between what is funded through the congressional budget deal and what the Pentagon needs will mean cutting and slowing vital programs. The military deputy at the helm of managing what weapons and equipment get purchased for the Army is Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson. In an interview with Defense News, the three-star discussed how the Army plans to keep the force in top-notch condition and to keep talented personnel as the service crafts its fiscal year 2017 budget.

How might the planned acquisition reform affect the Army acquisition office?

There has been a lot of engagement on acquisition reform. I obviously have some views on acquisition reform and it starts with the less regulation and oversight the better. So, I am encouraged by this notion of giving the services more authority and more leeway to implement the modernization needs that we have. What is really important for people to understand, though, is that acquisition is fairly complex. And as a result, it is not the single points that I see people gravitating to. You cannot fix acquisition by saying, “Let's extend program managers in their jobs longer,” or “Let's impose a penalty here.” You really have to take a whole government approach to how you deal with acquisition, and that includes starting with: How do you fund, how you define requirements, what authorities people have in terms of making quick changes …  I think I have seen some really good points, and I think there are some others that will require some additional thought as we work our way through this.

What are you doing now to let Congress know what you believe will work and what won’t?

We are going through, in detail, the entire acquisition process. Again, funding, personnel, authorities, statute, oversight and looking at those areas where if we tweak them left or right, or even make wholesale changes, we can speed up the process. As you look at the NDAA language, there is an opportunity for us to come back. What we did not want to do is just fire from the hip. What I appreciate about [former] Acting Secretary [and Army Secretary nominee Eric Fanning] and the chief [Gen. Mark A. Milley, Army chief of staff] is that what they have asked for is a detailed analysis to inform them in terms of what our response will be on this language.

There are two aspects here that I think people have to focus on. The first one is risk and the second one is time. Because, at the end of the day, as our adversaries have more access to technologies, if we continue to use processes that take too much time, you are not able to give capability to your soldiers where and when you need them. And, the impact of that is you increase risk . . .  First, you are not able to accomplish the mission, which is unacceptable. And, two, you can accomplish the mission, but you end up with more casualties.

In terms of not shooting from the hip, but coming up with a very well-thought-out plan, do you know when you might take your analysis or a plan to Congress?

I would tell you it is going to be a while. So, I think, we have some requirements to get back to the service leadership in the February-March timeframe, and then, I suspect, they will review courses of action and approaches. We will go back to Congress after that.

The Army is having to reduce its civilian numbers. How is the acquisition office, with a strong civilian workforce, going to manage and retain the talent that you have?

The argument that I make on talent is that my responsibility for talent management is not just about being able to accomplish today's mission, but also make sure that I am developing people, so that I have the folks who are going to build, develop, test programs 10 years from now, 20 years from now and 30 years from now. And what that requires us to do is make an investment in talent management. And I think, more than ever, you are going to hear from the Army about, “How do I recruit and retain talent?”

Do you have any ideas how you can get at that issue?

This is one of those things that continues to evolve. We have programs now today. I will give a great example . . . . We have 785 programs that we manage every day. That is far more than the number of green suit, uniformed program managers. What we have really invested in is, how do we develop the skill sets from our acquisition workforce so that they can assume more of those program management positions?

Innovation is the big buzzword these days. The criticism is that it is tough sometimes to define innovation. How do you identify a game-changer from a bad idea?

Innovation has become a buzzword and it is really important that people pause and think about the application of innovation … When people talk about innovation, in many cases, they are talking about a specific technology that they would like to go out and buy. But, here is an argument … When you put chalk on a chalkboard in a classroom, that was innovative. How you were delivering information to people became very innovative. Today, we would look at that and say, "Oh, chalk on a chalkboard? That is a throwback to cavemen."

The reality is, it is not necessarily about the thing … In some cases there is a specific technology that will give us a new capability. In some cases, it will be the combination of existing technologies used a different way. A change in our organizational structure that will make a huge difference in our ability to fight and win our nation's wars and to keep soldiers safe. … Do not be fooled that it is only about a new radio or a new vehicle. In many cases it is going to be, “How do we use things that we have today differently that will give us a different effect?”

And that seems key, considering there is not a lot of money to buy new things, your innovation will need to come from that?

What I love about our workforce is this notion of creativity. One of the things that I have tried to do is ask people to think about problems differently. How do we look at the world differently? If I can use something differently and I can do that for a dollar, as opposed to buying something new for $100, I consider that to be innovative. And, as long as I am getting the effect, we have been highly successful. Do not get me wrong, money is a factor. And as an Army who has global responsibilities, it is important for us to be funded at a level that allows us to support those missions.

How is the Army coping with the possibility of having to slow down modernization? For example, the Army seems to be wrestling with choosing a baseline solution for a future air and missile defense system or investing more money in something that would better stand up to future threats.

We are making decisions right now in every portfolio . . . We are making very hard decisions about modernization versus modification. So, in some cases, because of our understanding of the threat, it will require us to implement new investment in order to give you that competitive advantage that I talked about. In other cases, we will be able to take some risk, and do some modernization of an existing platform to keep that capability. I think your example of air defense is one of those areas that we want to make sure that we maintain a competitive advantage, so we will make different decisions. But, I would argue that we have to have that same logic, that same discipline, across all of those portfolios bounded by the funding that is available to us.

DoD acquisition chief Frank Kendall said the DoD does not have enough money to do what it needs to do and that is going to result in the need to target equipment for cuts. Is the Army preparing to take it in the chops?

I think our chief has been very clear in terms of priorities, readiness being number one, equipment and modernization being number two, and soldiers. When you look at that, as we deal with budget and budget constraints, that is the guidepost that we will use in terms of meeting our leadership’s intent. Will there be an effect on modernization? Absolutely. But, again, it takes us back to, where do we make those hard decisions … We have got to be able to modernize and modify the existing equipment that we have. And in some cases, there are things that we know, like the M113, we cannot keep soldiers in those. And that is why we are buying the AMPV, that is why we are buying the JLTV, because we knew we had to have something new to transport and protect soldiers. And then, we also have to have the S&T investment.

Where in the budget, in acquisition, can you put things on the backburner?

From a modernization standpoint, we will employ tools like stretching out the production, changing the basis of issue, the numbers of people who will receive them, and when they will receive them. We will make those kinds of hard decisions. Does the potential exist that some programs will have to stop in order to fit within the budget? Absolutely. But, I think it has to be a very conscious and disciplined approach to understanding, not the thing, but what the effect is on the capability that we want our soldiers to have.

There are a number of different scenarios that we are working our way through, all of which will be presented to our leadership. And remember, that is being done in the context of the support that our Army has to provide to the COCOMs, so this capability is really important. It may fit into our budget to do something, but it does not meet the COCOMs requirements. So, there will be a set of scenarios played out with various courses of action that will help us to fit within whatever those budget numbers are.

Email: jjudson@defensenews.com

Twitter: @jenjudson

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