WASHINGTON — The Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office, established just over two years ago, isn’t going to be just about rushing to develop electronic warfare, position, navigation and timing, and cyber capabilities.
While the top three priorities laid out by the RCO at its inception in August 2016 address major capability gaps in the force that could be filled quickly, the office’s new director Tanya Skeen — who took over roughly six months ago after more than 10 years in the Air Force’s RCO — sees the office as a place that can tackle much bigger challenges.
The RCO was developed about a year and a half ahead of the Army’s revolutionary move to set up a new four-star command — Army Futures Command, which was formally activated this August and will reach full operational capability next summer.
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Under the command, the service will take on six modernization priorities that align with how the Army envisions operating in the future against peer adversaries with similar capabilities.
“You listen to where the Army needs to go in terms of modernization, and I took a look at our structure in the RCO and said, ‘The Army needs more out of its RCO. It needs to cover the full expanse of the modernization priorities,’” Skeen told Defense News in an interview just ahead of the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference.
With the RCO team, Skeen set out to restructure the organization to focus on the six modernization priorities set out by the Army.
Like Army Futures Command, the RCO has leaders assigned to each of the six priorities. For AFC, those leaders spearhead Cross-Functional Teams for each priority. Projects fall under each of the RCO’s modernization priority leads.
“Some of them are smaller, but all of them feed the cross-functional teams and some of them lead to more permanent capabilities in their own right,” she said, “and others feed programs of record and where they are going in support of Army Futures Command.”
While she doesn’t want to call it a pivot, Skeen said she sees the RCO as undergoing a transformation “definitely growing in scope and a refocus on the six priorities.”
For Skeen, the RCO is not a place to take on minor projects.
“You use an RCO to attack big problems where you are trying to take strategic risk to do things differently. It’s for major transformational capabilities that are done in just a different way, very streamlined, reduced processes, reduced documentation, those kinds of things, that enable us to be very agile," she said. "And when you do less documentation, when you have less oversight, when you have less process, that is a business risk in some respects, but it does allow us to deliver capabilities faster.”
While the RCO seems to follow the mold and principles of the AFC, it’s complementary, not redundant.
AFC has the entire expanse — from science and technology, requirements, prototyping and experimentation all the way to delivering true modernization for the Army, Skeen said.
“The RCO is an enabler of some of that,” she said. “The RCO doesn’t develop its own requirements. We get requirements from CFTs and elements within Futures Command, and the RCO can provide prototyping and experimentation to inform and refine requirements.”
Those efforts can inform a future program of record or deliver a full-up capability, but “we don’t solve the entirety of Futures Command challenges,” Skeen said.
The RCO still plans to roughly abide by a time goal of delivering capabilities within a one- to five-year time span, but “I don’t consider that a hard constraint,” Skeen noted.
The RCO brings to the table the ability to find ways to take a 10- or 15-year program, for example, and shrink the delivery timeline, even if it doesn’t move the effort into a one- to five-year period.
And while the Army’s acquisition chief, Bruce Jette, earlier this year said he believed the RCO would become its own Program Executive Office, it’s looking like the organization will not formally take on the moniker.
Skeen said the charter for the RCO gives it all the authorities of a PEO, so a name change isn’t necessary.
The RCO already has played a big role in one of the efforts within the Army’s top modernization priorities — Long Range Precision Fires.
The Army’s LRPF CFT is focused on extending the range of cannon artillery and also on developing a very advanced strategic range cannon.
The RCO jumped into the fray in recent months and demonstrated an initial incremental capability to extend a cannon’s range.
On Sept. 19, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, the RCO was able to double the range of cannon artillery using a modified M777 howitzer by adding a supercharged propellant and the XM1113 round, which takes a 155mm artillery round and extends the cannon range to more than 60 kilometers by providing rocket-assist capability.
“So that provides us a towed capability that gets us closer to the objectives of extending long-range precision fires,” Skeen said.
There also are some other elements that go with that capability that also inform the longer-term programs of record, she added.
For example, when a projectile is fired at a long distance, it needs something that is going to track the round out to its target. The system uses a radar that tracks the round.
“This is the first instantiation of how we might do that with this tracking radar,” Skeen said, that would enable not just the M777 extended range towed cannon but also for longer fires in the future.
“It gives us an immediate capability, if you will, but it also informs the program of record in terms of how do you work with this beyond line of sight and track the round at longer distances,” she said.
The near-term objective on the program now is to deliver approximately six batteries of the towed howitzer capabilities to be used in the field, according to Skeen.
While the RCO is not abandoning the work it’s already done on rapidly infusing the force with electronic warfare, PNT and cyber capabilities, it is aligning those efforts underneath various modernization priorities.
It is still geared up to test a PNT system on the Stryker this month.
And the RCO just finished an artificial intelligence challenge that captured how to — within the electronic warfare spectrum — analyze signals quickly and help determine what action should be taken based on what appears in the spectrum.
The RCO had 150 participants across the board that looked at data sets of the EW spectrum and how algorithms did against the various data sets to pick out signals of interest.
“We will look at the results of that and determine what of this do we want to immediately harvest to put into EW systems that we deployed to Europe,” Skeen said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.