DUGWAY PROVING GROUND, Utah — Gen. Mike Murray opened the doors of a brand-new four-star command in Austin, Texas, in August 2017 that was tasked with modernizing the U.S. Army.
As the first chief of Army Futures Command, he knew the organization had to be — and was created to be — disruptive and different, partly to prove the service learned lessons from previous development and procurement failures.
Murray traded in the buttoned-up halls of the Pentagon, where he last served as Army G-8, for the dressed-down, open-office casual vibes of young business entrepreneurs and innovators in the country’s weirdest city.
And there in Austin, he set to work to — by 2030 — bring future capabilities to a force the U.S. government wants to be able to fight and win against near-peer adversaries across multiple war-fighting domains. Those capabilities include long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift aircraft, a new battlefield network, air and missile defense, soldier lethality systems, and a synthetic training environment.
While Austin serves as the command’s headquarters, Murray has continuously traveled around the country, even during the coronavirus pandemic, as soldiers at installations and training facilities began experimenting with prototypes ranging from an Integrated Visual Augmentation System to robotic combat vehicles and extended-range cannons.
Many of the systems chosen just a few years ago as priority developmental modernization efforts are expected to reach initial fielding in just a few short years, such as the Precision Strike Missile. And the Army expects there will be even more working prototypes flying and driving, like the future attack reconnaissance aircraft and unmanned vehicles.
Murray has stressed that the Army must interface more with academia and nontraditional businesses, not just to brainstorm future capabilities but also to collaborate on development efforts.
He created the Army Applications Laboratory — which has set up several cohorts to work on specific problems soldiers must solve if battlefield operations are to improve — and the Army Software Factory — set up to establish a force capable of coding at the tactical edge, as weapon systems are expected to increasingly rely on embedded autonomous and artificial intelligence technology.
AFC then found a way it could link all of its burgeoning capabilities to measure its progress: The command organized its first Project Convergence in the fall of 2020 at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, which was likened to the Louisiana Maneuvers — a series of mock battles during World War II. The campaign of learning will continue on a yearly basis as a major checkpoint for driving technology and doctrinal development into the future.
Murray is expected to retire before the end of the year after serving as AFC commander for almost four years. Defense News sat down with the general in May at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, as a major Army aviation exercise — Edge 21 — took place in the air above, led by the 82nd Airborne Division. The exercise was designed to identify the Army’s next steps in modernizing its aerial capabilities. Lessons learned will feed into the next Project Convergence held later this year.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
As the first commander of Army Futures Command, you’ve had to make a lot of decisions to carve out its path. What have you gotten right since it was formed about three years ago?
I think things like you saw today [at Edge 21] we’ve gotten right. The thought process is that we don’t know exactly what we want; we have an idea of what we want and this concept of [minimum viable product] prototypes, early experimentation — we’re learning. And the powerful part of what you see different here is the 82nd [Airborne Division], getting it into the hands of the kids that will have to use this. I’ve said this all along: They’re going to come up with a hundred different ideas that I would never come up with sitting in Austin. I think all that is right. I think Congress accepts that as a viable way forward. I think they’ve given us the acquisition authorities that we need to do that.
A lesson learned for Project Convergence 2020 is — what I think is a fact, you can call it an assumption for now — that we’re going to have to have young soldiers, not [field service representatives, who are assigned to units to make sure equipment works properly], with the ability to write code at the tactical edge. And so with the Army Software Factory, we’re off to a good start.
Army Applications Lab took me a long time to get right. But I think we’re in a good spot now in terms of the use of Small Business Innovation Research dollars, the forming of cohorts and starting with a problem upfront, as opposed to: “Here’s a solution, let’s go find somebody that’s willing to take this on.”
The marriage we created between program executive officers and [program managers] and the cross-functional teams was the right approach.
So [those are] kind of the things I think [we got right].
So the whole concept of soldier-centered design: Yeah, I’ll take credit for it, but it really came out of a book called “The Lean Startup.” It’s no different than [minimal viable product] prototyping and customer-centered design. The Army’s never done it that way, but why wouldn’t you get young soldiers involved that are ultimately going to have to use this?
Talk about growing university partnerships as part of advancing modernization goals.
I came in convinced that we were going to end up with a bunch of whitepapers, which I saw absolutely no value for. And the partnerships we have formed, we’ve been very clear with them: “We need you to work on the things we need you to work on. And we need prototypes, just like you see down here. And help us solve problems that we want to solve, not necessarily the problems that you want to solve.”
And that’s actually the same conversation that goes on with small business entrepreneurs. It’s like, let’s explain the problem in a way you can understand, decompose that problem and then we’ll start working solutions together. So the university partnerships have been very good.
What haven’t you gotten right?
We stood up the headquarters very, very quickly, so there’s probably some things I would change, such as how we’re structured in the headquarters. But just like anything else, I’ve got really good people in place, hired against really good jobs that they were hired to do. So this is going to take some time.
As an example, I think I over-structured the headquarters in terms of grade. So what I’d really like to change over time is to get younger soldiers and younger civilians because it’s going to provide me a lot of continuity in the headquarters. It’s not that I want to see them come and go, but soldiers come and go. I want civilians who are going to be there for 10, 15, 20, 30 years. From the uniform standpoint, what I want to do, instead of bringing in colonels, I want to start bringing in senior captains and majors for really two reasons: They will come from units just like this and bring their ideas with them; and they will also leave AFC and go back out to the bigger Army and help tell the modernization story. So I think we’re over-structured in terms of grade, and that is just going to take some time to turn around.
Every day we’re trying to knock down different parts of the bureaucracy, and I don’t fault anybody for this, but the Army and [Defense Department] and the federal government is a huge bureaucracy. And so we push new ideas all the time and often spend way too long trying to fight through doing things different than we’ve done in the past. I don’t know if that’s a failure, I just think that’s a natural byproduct of what we’re trying to do.
In terms of how we manage talent, it’s outside of the normal [Human Resources Command] cycle; how we acquire things, which is sometimes outside of the normal acquisition cycle that everybody’s comfortable with; how we prioritize our science and technology investments, which we’re doing a little bit differently than normal, and how we get acquisition professionals involved upfront.
[For example, the Future Vertical Lift Cross-Functional Team director,] Maj. Gen. Wally [Rugen] got a PEO and PM that works in a partnership with all his stuff at the earliest day. I mean, we don’t have a requirements document for this stuff yet. And then, importantly, how we keep operational: if not the CFT director, then operators involved in a program throughout its life cycle because our history is, and it is nobody’s fault — well, it’s somebody’s fault, but I’m not blaming this on acquisition communities or the requirements communities — we write the requirement in a vacuum, throw it over the wall and then complain about it 10 years later when the PM delivers, or couldn’t deliver, what we’d asked for because we didn’t consider technology levels, we didn’t consider integration risks, we didn’t consider manufacturing risks, we didn’t consider the systems integration, we didn’t consider the human interfaces we were building.
On his way out, then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy released a memo that attempted to further iron out the responsibilities and funding authorities focused on Army Futures Command and the acquisition community. Do you think that memo got it right? Is this relationship still a work in progress? In some cases, it gave more authority to AFC and moved it away from the acquisition branch. Is there still room to grow?
There is always room to grow, if you listened to [Army Secretary Christine] Wormuth’s testimony [at her Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing held on May 13]. I mean, that was Secretary McCarthy and that was his interpretation of the authorities granted to the secretary of the Army and the authorities granted in Title 10, the statute.
We’ll see, in the end. I would just say of myself and AFC: We will figure out ways, just like we do a lot of the time, just like we’re doing out here, to make things work. And what are the most important things out of all that are the relationships between not just [the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology] and AFC, but AFC and the G-8, AFC and the G-3, AFC and [Army Materiel Command], and AFC and [Training and Doctrine Command].
Just like everything at this level you get, it’s a piece of paper. But to get the most out of it, [it comes down to] the relationships you build to work through the hurdles that are going to be thrown up no matter what that piece of paper says.
Does that memo still stand?
I have not heard either way. I have not heard it was revoked, and I’ve not heard it’s still standing. That was not the first memo, as you know, so it was tightening up a bunch of stuff over the last couple of years. So I don’t care who gets credit, I just want to get capability into the hands of soldiers.
What I don’t want to have happen is all this stuff that is in [science and technology development] never gets developed. That’s what I need to avoid, and not all of it will. So figuring out what works, what doesn’t work. You know, cutting bait on everything that doesn’t work early before we’ve spent a dollar figure in the billions. And then the things that are working, let’s move it fast, and the things that are most important to our soldiers based on their opinions from the soldier touch points. We tell people all the time that the next step is to listen to what soldiers are telling you.
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.