WASHINGTON — Setting up a brand-new four-star command to try to improve the way the U.S. Army develops and acquires capabilities for future operations is a big deal. Pair that with the service’s relatively abysmal track record in fielding new weapons and there’s bound to be skepticism in the service’s drastic plan to fix a broken system.
Army leadership got mixed reactions from lawmakers during a Sept. 13 House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee hearing that ranged from deep skepticism to hope.
The new Army Futures Command would put all modernization tasks that “generate a war-fighting capability under one roof,” Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy said at the hearing. “These tasks include war-fighting concepts, requirements, experimentation, and fielding of materiel and non-materiel solutions.”
The command was officially activated last month in Austin, Texas. The Army envisions the command as nimble, agile and better able to communicate and work with academia, entrepreneurs and innovators.
The service has argued that establishing a new four-star command is a disruptive and innovative way to address problems of the past.
But lawmakers had questions on the roles and mission of the new command, asking upfront “will it help” in the title given to the hearing itself.
“The Army’s past attempts to change internal policies, command relationships and organizational structures in an effort to improve the acquisition process has met mixed results," the subcommittee’s ranking member Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Gaum, said in her opening testimony. So I look forward to hearing how you believe it will be different this time,” she said, addressing Army leadership.
Bordallo said she was concerned that the service was at risk of creating another massive bureaucracy, that it might be duplicating the role of the Army’s staff and that the new command could create “long-term risk to civilian control of the acquisition system.”
She added that the four-star command would have up to three lieutenant generals as deputies to the commander “without a clearly defined command relationship and an organizational plan.”
McCarthy took pains to explain the command is not like anything seen in the Defense Department before. “This is not your normal Army command. It can’t be,” he said. “To thrive in the information age, we must operate in a fast-paced, dynamic and evolving ecosystem. We’ll become comfortable being uncomfortable.”
This means no uniforms down in Austin, Gen. Mike Murray, the new AFC commander, testified during the hearing, and it also means having the ability to get out into communities that can help the Army modernize, whether that’s embedding a group of personnel at an entrepreneurial hub or working alongside engineers at a university lab.
The Army isn’t just creating a new command, Murray emphasized; it’s finding a way to get commands to better work together from beginning to end in the acquisition process.
The command will be built from existing organizations dispersed across the United States, he said, and will involve everyone — from requirements developers, to testers, to maintainers and sustainers — being at the table from the beginning.
For example, Murray explained that parts of Army Training and Doctrine Command, like the Army’s Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), will now fall under the AFC as well as elements of Army Materiel Command and Forces Command.
McCarthy added that now TRADOC will hone in on assessing individuals and preparing them for the operational force. FORSCOM will focus on readiness and, by taking out the research and development portion of Army Materiel Command and moving it to AFC, AMC will now be able to look solely at sustaining the force.
Murray will have a deputy commander, Lt. Gen. James Richardson, but a few other stakeholders within the Army’s enterprise will be direct reports as well, including the military deputy to the acquisition chief.
McCarthy said that the acquisition chief’s deputy is being tied to the new command so that he can perform oversight and management of the program managers that are “matrixed” into the command.
The AFC is focused on six major modernization priorities, and cross-functional teams have been created to work on each. Those teams will be tied to traditional program managers to help move development out of science and technology and into soldiers’ hands.
McCarthy stressed that the military deputy’s instructions will come from the acquisition chief, as has always been the case.
Several lawmakers asked how the command would know if it is succeeding.
Murray said that for him, the “ultimate metric” for measuring the value of the organization is “soldiers on the battlefield being able to utilize the equipment and concepts we’ll produce.”
Others were concerned the new command might take money from basic and applied research to pay for its endeavors.
Murray assured lawmakers that the Army was preserving that funding and would not use it to cover the development work being done within his command.
And addressing the concern that the command was imbalanced with too many general officers at the top and not enough civilian leadership, Murray stressed that he is working to hire civilian talent, particularly a chief technology officer, that will help the Army recognize feasible technologies that can be realistically pursued and help understand how they can be effectively integrated into capabilities.
While members of the subcommittee peppered Army leadership with skeptical questions, several lawmakers said they believed a move like creating a new command seemed like a good solution.
“I actually have optimism for it because if you look at where our acquisition process has been, we have a long line of almost hall-of-fame-type failures to show for what has not worked in the last 30 years,” said Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., who served extensively with Gen. Murray in his military career.
“Future Combat System, Crusader, Comanche, Land Warrior, melting plastic rifles at Fort Benning that we almost adopted and thank God we didn’t,” Russell listed among the failures of the past.
But the Army also saw success in communications equipment development, unmanned aircraft and night vision capabilities, largely driven by the special operations forces community circumventing traditional acquisition processes.
“The warriors know what they need and this is an approach to try to get at it,” Russell 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.