WASHINGTON — Since Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood took over the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, he’s overseen the Pentagon’s attempt to build the U.S. hypersonic weapons industrial base, begun fielding hypersonic launchers and other equipment to the first unit to receive the capability and has started building out the first battery of a laser-weapon equipped Stryker combat vehicle.
The RCCTO’s job is to rapidly bring high-end technology into the force. Thurgood has been tasked with breaking free of the normally sluggish acquisition process and moving critical modernization capabilities toward or across the finish line.
Thurgood sat down with Defense News at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference to discuss the office’s progress in making prioritized capability a reality.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
One of your largest portfolios is managing hypersonic weapons development and fielding for the Army. Where is the Army in terms of delivering hypersonic capability to the force?
The hypersonic mission is going really well. In fact, [on Sept. 28], we [finished fielding] all the ground support equipment to our first hypersonic unit at Joint Base Lewis McChord. And now they’ll begin training and learning how to use this new piece of equipment. They’ll start to understand the techniques, tactics and procedures to employ the weapon system.
While they’re doing that, we’ll finish the development work and the testing of the missile system, what we call that all-up round. And so we have a series of flight tests over the next year and a half, 18 months, that will complete that work and so by the end of [fiscal year 20]23, which was our mission set, we will have a warfighting capability for our nation.
We’ve done this at this speed because there was a lot of great [science and technology] work done in the Army, in the labs, and with the folks at Sandia National Labs. And so we’ve taken that now and moved it from the labs into the industrial base, creating the industrial base to do that work. We do that jointly with the Navy, actually, we share the all-up round that is common with the Navy. That partnership is really a strength of our program. And that keeps us together and focused for the outcomes in ‘23 for the Army and ‘25 for the Navy.
You should be getting close to a major hypersonic glide body test by the end of the year. Is that still on track? When will the first unit start receiving all-up rounds and training with those?
It’s really important to recognize that we give them the equipment so they can train right and be ready before we give them live rounds to go shoot. This year, we’ll have, in FY22, three flight tests. And we’ll have an additional flight test in ‘23.
Those flight tests will actually be done by the unit, they’ll come to the flight test, they’ll shoot off of their equipment and we’ll use those flight tests to train the unit as they get ready for the completion of their fielding. And so each of our flight tests have very specific objectives, things that we must do.
The reason we do that is so not only do we finish the design work and prove that the design works, but there are safety considerations we have to account for as we give equipment to soldiers. We just don’t show up with that shiny piece of equipment; it has to be ready, it has to be trained and and I’m the one who actually signs the document that says it’s safe enough for a soldier to use. It’s not just the design work, it’s the safety work and all the testing that validates objectively that the weapon system is safe to use.
You’re supporting the joint office in charge of counter-small unmanned aircraft system pursuits. The JCO has completed two demonstrations, but the RCCTO was directly involved in the second one this past September. What are you looking for next in the process?
UAS — it’s the [improvised explosive device] of the future. It’s low cost, it creates a pretty robust capability pretty quickly. For the last 20 years, all the services have been putting counter-UAS systems in the battle space for all the right reasons. And then in 2020, the secretary of defense said, ‘Hey, we need to get this consolidated, we need to be better at this.’ That [directive] was given, what we call an executive agency, to the Army. For all of the Department of Defense, Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey leads that effort [and] the RCCTO was given the mission to support him on the materiel acquisition side.
We now have a joint team of the materiel folks from the Army, Navy, Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Space Force is part of that. Maj. Gen. Gainey, on the operational side, created a joint requirements document that was staffed and approved by all the services, and then in that document, they prioritize the gaps. What we did was we gave industry a chance, we call it a semi-annual demonstration, we’ve done two, [and] the next one will be next April.
We are going to do it in April and September each year. What we do is we put out a request for white papers, a request for information from companies, and we give them the gap. We invite companies to bring their equipment to a live fire event. We go out to Yuma Proving Ground, they show up, we have targets, we have ranges, we measure everything. And we look for things that work.
Industry loves that event; it gives them a chance to see their investment come to life. The second demonstration we just did was low collateral from the ground, the first one was from the air.. And then the third one, which is coming up and and the request for white papers will be probably about a month away, will be really for two things: directed energy and counter-UAS as a service.
Having a service construct is a very different model than us buying a widget, paying a company to set up a site and run a site and keep it modernized as a service. We’ll keep doing this as we go right down that list of priorities that Maj. Gen. Gainey has given us until we fill those gaps.
How do you demonstrate counter-UAS as a service?
What the companies will have to do is develop a model that, say we will give them ranges and types of equipment that they need to be able to destroy, and then they’ll put together the materiel solution to do that. Depending on how many sites we want them to protect, it may be one site, it might be 10 sites, and so they have to develop the structure to maintain and man the sites. Then they have to have the equipment to destroy the targets that we need to destroy.
It’s likely the business model will end up being a prime with multiple partners because you might want to have some electronic means, you might want to have a high energy means, you might want to have a kinetic means. There’s lots of ways to do that. But rather than we buy the widget and and do all of that work, we’re going to try a different model, which is as a service.
What is your path for directed energy both on the maneuver side and for the Indirect Fires Protection Capability?
We’re super excited about our high-energy laser programs. Directed energy just is generally high-energy lasers and high-power microwave, electronic burst, and so we have multiple programs.
One is the [Directed Energy Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system] that’s designed to fight with the maneuver elements, to fight with our brigade combat teams. We chose to put the 50-kilowatt [laser] in a Stryker vehicle. We did that in a competitive environment. There was a very detailed gated process that both of the teams agreed to prior to signing the contracts, and it was pretty black and white. You either meet the gate and continue or you don’t meet the gate and you have to make your own decisions.
We just went to Fort Sill last summer for about 45 days and did what we call a combat shoot-off. We had soldiers, not contractors, soldiers in the vehicles engaging UAS — Groups 1, 2 and 3 and mortar rounds. It was very successful, we had over 400 engagements in that 45-day period. The work is not done. That was just the first vehicle. We have to deliver the first battery, which is four vehicles, by this time next year so September of next year.
We learned a lot of things; we use a process called soldier-centered design. Even before we made the first prototype vehicle, we had soldiers in a virtual environment, sitting in the virtual vehicle, virtually working through the mechanics of where they sit. Is there enough room? Is there enough space? We really have the opportunity with today’s technologies to engage our soldiers much earlier.
We have about 1,000 hours of soldier time on the vehicle for our first vehicle, and that’s a little different way of doing business than the traditional model. We have a lot of work to do on that program, we learned a lot of things we want to fix, which is why we do it — it isn’t perfect. But it’s on track. And again, that industrial base for directed energy is a little more mature than the hypersonics industrial base. Most of this technology we’ve taken is from commercial industry and now we’ve applied it in a military application.
Where are you in the process of bringing a high-energy laser and a high-power microwave capability into the Indirect Fires Protection Capability program?
For the IFPC program, there’s a kinetic side and a high-energy laser side. I have that high-energy side and so it is designed for fixed and semi-fixed, so it’s a truck versus an armored vehicle like a Stryker. We’ve chosen to team with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] for a 300-kilowatt program.
The Army has some money into that program, and OSD has some money into that program. We do that first demonstration in August 2022. Dynetics will team with Lockheed is our current plan, and they’ll build that vehicle or build that system that you can put on a truck in fixed and semi-fixed and we pair it with high-power microwave.
Lasers are sequential targets; you see a target, destroy a target, move to the next target. In swarms, you can’t react fast enough either with kinetic or high-energy lasers so we pair with high-power microwave, which is just an electronic burst from a point out in a cone shape and it kills everything in that cone that’s electronic. It’s a layered defense. You know, lasers can reach out further, high-power microwaves are relatively close.
I’m a big fan of I don’t have to invent it myself. If somebody else has it, it looks like it’s going to work, let’s get past service parochialism. Let’s use what’s out there. We’ve teamed with the Air Force for a system called Thor, which they’re doing an operational test [of] right now. For the IFPC program, we’ll make our decision on the laser and the high-power microwave August of ‘22. And then we have to deliver those first batteries in ‘24.
What else is emerging in your portfolio?
We get the wicked hard problems. That’s what we do. Our team looks tired for a reason because they’re working so hard. One of our next interesting mission sets is hybrid electric vehicles, so taking the technology that you’ve seen in the automobile industry and moving that into our combat vehicles. We have a team that’s working on [a] hybrid electric Bradley [Infantry Fighting Vehicle], [the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle] and Humvees.
When I say electric, it’s not just an electric engine, not an electric drive train, it is what we call vehicle electrification, so it can run silent for a certain period of time and do all its combat missions in a very quiet mode, especially if they’re in a defensive position. It also extends their range on the battlefield, so that means they have to have [fewer] fuel trucks on the battlefield. Then it also means the vehicles might be able to provide not only their power as we increase our sensors, but they might be able to provide off-vehicle power, so that reduces the number of generators you need on the battlefield.
Bradley should be testing next year. Right behind that will be JLTV and Humvee. The key is that we don’t get any relief on the requirements of slope and torque and power and speed and range. All that doesn’t get to change because you applied different technology. So the question will be can the commercial technology be used in a combat application? We believe it can be. But it’s a super exciting mission and we’ll see if it works out.
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.