WASHINGTON — The Army has a painful track record in acquisition for getting it wrong when it comes to developing and procuring major equipment, letting requirements, cost and length of time it takes to field capabilities spiral out of control.
But the service officially launched its Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) on Wednesday in an attempt to get acquisition efforts right in an age of fast-paced technology development amid hybrid warfare in a highly unpredictable world.
For the Army, the RCO is what was missing from its acquisition process.
The service has a Rapid Equipping Force that only covers fielding off-the-shelf and ready-to-go capabilities to war fighters at a unit level, and typically capabilities are fielded within 180 days. Then there are major acquisition programs that take 15 to 20 years to field and are often canceled after years of development or, by the time the equipment is fielded, there is already something out there with greater capability.
The focus of efforts within the RCO will be "primarily on the highest Army requirements," with the intent to deliver capabilities within a one- to five-year horizon, Army Secretary Eric Fanning said at a Bloomberg Government event in Washington. It won’t be building a future helicopter and it won’t be quickly shipping out off-the-shelf gadgets to soldiers in the field, he added.
The Army’s RCO "will expedite the acquisition of select capabilities to meet soldiers’ immediate and near-term needs and serve as a breeding ground for ideas that enable a more agile and innovative acquisition process," Fanning said.
The service is also waking up after 15 years in counterinsurgency fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, and realizing technology has opened up a new hybrid type of warfare.
"Our adversaries, they have studied our capabilities, they have looked for vulnerability, they have embarked on ambitious modernization efforts to narrow technological gaps between our forces," Fanning said. "For our commanders in the field today and from exercises I’ve observed, it’s clear the Army’s overmatch against potential adversaries is not what it once was and it’s not what it needs to be."
For example, Fanning noted, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the threat in Syria and Iraq have shown the US military there’s a new type of game. "We have seen the combination of unmanned aerial systems and defensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities and how they provide Russian forces a new degree of sophistication," he said.
Fanning admitted that Russia’s capabilities and the need to counter and exceed those was a "major driver" in coming up with a way to be more agile in acquisition and in setting up the RCO.
The emerging need to operate in an environment where the US military would not necessarily have easy access or might be denied access — something the military refers to as anti-access, area-denial — is another driver to rapidly grow capability to fight in those environments.
"The RCO will execute rapid prototyping and initial equipping of capabilities beginning with the areas of electronic warfare, cyber, survivability, and position, navigation and timing (PNT)," Fanning said. Assured PNT is needed to operate in GPS-denied environments.
"The goal of the RCO is to prioritize cross-domain and integrated solutions," Fanning added. And the solutions will be put directly in front of senior leaders "enabling us to provide necessary pressure at the start of the process to drive innovation, continuous improvement and iteration," he said.
The office will have a short chain of command, according to Fanning, in order to make it more "agile and responsive in meeting operational demands," which includes a board of directors that he will chair. The organization will also work to strip some of the unnecessary bureaucracy from the acquisition process.
The board will make all of the decisions including tailoring acquisition, testing and fielding as well as executing contracts, Fanning said.
Army acquisition chief Katrina McFarland and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will serve on the board and Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall will serve where appropriate, according to Fanning.
The service — through the RCO — plans to engage extensively with industry to look at innovative and disruptive technology and ideas.
The outreach, Fanning said, will be conducted through a "dedicated cell" within the RCO called the Emerging Technologies Office, which will host industry days and forums where the Army will make its "expectations clear" in terms of specific needs and garner ideas collaboratively.
Fanning said if there isn’t a more tangible plan for getting after the initial priorities in electronic warfare (EW), cyber, survivability and assured PNT in the next five or six months, then the office hasn’t done "the rapid part very well."
Initially, the RCO will look "at aspects of EW to be able to do positioning," Douglas Wiltsie, the executive director of the Army’s System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate, told reporters after the Bloomberg Government event.
The Army will look at how to do that at Fort Bliss, Texas, in October during its annual Army Warfighting Assessment, he noted, such as trying out non-GPS solutions — "some kind of inertial navigation system paired with an atomic clock," for example.
The office is also watching the Army Warfighting Assessment for defensive cyber solutions.
"That will give us some insight as we come out of the board of directors [meeting]. This is where we think technology can be. Some is repurposing equipment that we already have that allows us to get a very fast jump," Wiltsie said.
The RCO’s board is expected to meet no later than mid-September to begin its work.
Yet as the RCO kicks off its efforts, it’s not clear how the office will be funded or how much money it should get each year.
"We have been over to engage with authorizers and we are going to engage with appropriators" on Capitol Hill, Wiltsie said. "There is a discussion that has to go on because the budget for ’17 is already over there."
McFarland wants to leave flexibility in the funding conversation on the Hill, but "clearly dollars dictate velocity to an extent, no question about it," Wiltsie acknowledged.
But "we have ways to pay for ’17," he added.
And in 2018 and beyond, the Army will put the RCO into the normal budget process. The idea, possibly, is to create a fund similar to what the Strategic Capabilities Office has where there are dollars available for research, development and technology, procurement, and some operations and maintenance. It’s also possible some funding could come from the Overseas Contingency Operations account, according to Wiltsie.
"The idea is to give us some flexibility that will tell [Congress], as we go into the budget, this is what we think we are going to use it for," Wiltsie said, "based on what is happening in the world or based on what emerging technologies are available," but with the ability to adjust funding as situations change.
The RCO is also an organization that does not necessarily require more people or a ton of money to work, according to Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, the director of operations in the Army’s acquisition branch.
The RCO will look heavily at "existing technology today, existing equipment we have already in theater we are seeing can do more," he said, and will look at how to integrate the capability or leverage technology to meet war fighter needs. Those efforts would by nature require less money than a new program would.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.