WASHINGTON — The Army's newest outfit — set up to quickly fill land forces capability gaps — will make major headway in 2017, particularly in the realm of electronic warfare, an area where adversaries, such as Russia, have shown startling prowess in recent years.
The Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) — officially formed in August — is designed to zero in on the Army's biggest requirements with the intent to deliver capabilities within a one- to five-year horizon. It's part of the service's aggressive overhaul to its troubled procurement system and pushes even beyond acquisition reform outlined in the 2016 defense policy.
In the coming years, the RCO has decided to prioritize what ground maneuver forces are going to need to fight in contested domains now and into the future.
The Army must be able to operate through the electromagnetic spectrum in a way that influences adversaries and ultimately defeats their capabilities. Because of this need, the RCO is working to develop robust electronic and cyber warfare capabilities as well as the ability to navigate without GPS -- otherwise known as Precision Navigation and Timing (PNT).
The RCO’s board met in mid-December and received approval for a "phased" way ahead to rapidly prototype electronic warfare capability, Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, the RCO’s director of operations, told Defense News in an interview the day after the board meeting.
While Piatt could not detail the effort because much of it is classified, "the purpose is not to wait for perfect, but to get capabilities that exist today that we can rapidly prototype, get them in the hands of operators … to be able to put into an operational assessment," and "over time learn from that and keep improving that prototype or that method or doctrine or training approach so we can get to the right answer and form the more long term program."
The approach is designed, in part, to address an electronic warfare capability operational needs statement from US Army Europe. The RCO traveled to Europe at the end of November into early December to ensure it understood what the European theater needs to operate against adversaries with strong electronic warfare capabilities.
The trip confirmed a "shared understanding of the problem," Piatt said, and the urgency to "get going faster to close that strategic gap and allow our land forces to maneuver in contested domains."
The phased approach, according to Piatt, will repurpose existing material the Army already has within six months and ramp up training across the chain of command.
Col. Jeffrey Church, the chief of strategy and policy in the cyber directorate, has long lamented the slow pace of the Army’s previous fielding plan for EW capability.. He told Defense News in March that bringing the ability to detect signals and jam them wouldn’t reach initial operational capability until 2023. But Church indicated this month he is more optimistic the capability will be fielded earlier due to efforts across the Army including the RCO.
Then the service will rapidly prototype an EW capability for limited fielding and operational assessments within a year. Some of the assessments will be conducted in Europe and some in the US. The RCO is also looking for more opportunities to incorporate capability assessments into more exercises to refine its solutions more quickly.
While the plan will fulfill the electronic warfare operational needs statement from Europe, it won’t be "the answer" in terms of a full capability, Piatt noted.
There isn’t a single system out there that is going to solve all electromagnetic spectrum challenges for ground maneuver, he said. Electronic warfare has three components: electronic protection, electronic support and electronic attack.
The Army has work to do particularly in the electronic support and attack capabilities, Piatt said. The service has to be able to read the environment to know where the enemy is and where the enemy is using its capabilities to deny the Army’s capabilities. Then the commander needs to have options in terms of how to defeat the enemy’s capability.
One system may work well in a mounted version while it doesn’t work well with a dismounted soldier. "Where we use it, how it’s used, each one will have its advantages and disadvantages," but the assessments using prototypes will inform the greater Army on a path forward, Piatt said.
The RCO did not recommend an immediate way ahead in the areas of cyber and PNT at the most recent board meeting, Piatt said.
With PNT, "we are very close," he said. "What we gave them was an update on where we are in our study." The RCO will come back in a month to re-address the approach.
Piatt said the office would have liked to have a PNT strategy approved by now but "it’s a real technical challenge."
The good news, he added, is that with the capability the Army already has, it isn’t starting from ground zero. "We are trying to figure out how, what modifications can be made in our systems, to create a very efficient way to operate in this denied environment," Piatt said. "We think it’s doable but we don’t have all the answers yet."
The RCO is also trying to centralize its focus in cyber efforts because currently there are "too many areas that need work." Once a focus is determined, RCO will be able to design an approach, according to Piatt.
Another capability area that the RCO may end up taking on down the road is long-range precision fires, Piatt noted. The Army has made it a priority within its modernization strategy.
The RCO, the entire Army staff and the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office are working on how the service might move faster to bring on greater capability in that area. Piatt added there are many different ways the RCO can become involved down the road.
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.