WASHINGTON — In the Arizona desert, a pair of robots methodically trundles back-and-forth across the craggy earth.

Bulky, angular and slow, they’re not terribly impressive to watch. But U.S. Army leaders see these robots as a vision of the future: part of a new pipeline to put better, more reliable technology into the hands of soldiers faster than ever before.

A year earlier, at the first-ever Project Convergence, held in 2020 at Yuma Proving Ground, users had to tell the robot to go from point A to point B to point C to conduct a reconnaissance mission. For the 2021 event, users simply gave the robots a designated area for the same task, and the system turned to artificial intelligence to determine the best path.

The robots demonstrated how they could keep soldiers out of harm’s way, allow for sensors in new positions that were previously impractical and present new data to commanders.

But even as the service makes these strides, it’s unclear whether the 2021 demonstration marks a substantial technological advancement, or simply minute progression.

The question of whether the robots are ready for the battlefield is emblematic of a long-term issue, as the Army has struggled for decades to get its modernization programs from promising technology to fieldable equipment. Over the past four years, the service has implemented a new strategy to solve its development woes. Events like Project Convergence have stressed the importance of experimentation and prototyping to accelerate modernization, but next year the Army plans to get more than two-thirds of its signature systems to soldiers.

Experts say the service is on track, but they warn that leadership changes, potential budget cuts, and several contracting and technological hiccups could jeopardize those efforts. But for Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, the real question is whether the U.S. is building world-class capabilities faster than its adversaries.

“When the history books are written about Army Futures Command, did they do that or not? And, boy, that’s quite an expectation, isn’t it?” Bowman told Defense News. “That’s war and peace; life and death; ‘mission accomplished or not’-type stuff there.”

Enter Army Futures Command

Just over four years ago, Gen. Mike Murray was plucked from the halls of the Pentagon and dropped into a few empty floors of an office building in Austin, Texas.

Murray was hand-picked to open a new four-star command tasked with modernizing the Army’s technologies for a future fight.

Army Futures Command wasn’t charged with simply updating the service’s technologies. After all, the Army has been updating its technologies and replacing legacy systems with new ones for decades. Instead, AFC was established to reform what many have described as a broken acquisition pipeline — one that takes too long and ultimately produces the wrong items.

Army Futures Command and its flagship demonstration, Project Convergence, emphasize a new, more flexible developmental approach than the Pentagon’s traditional buying process. Instead of selecting a single provider from the outset, the Army now wants to use more flexible contracts that task multiple vendors with quickly building prototypes; this way, the service can find out what works and what doesn’t before moving forward.

The approach is meant to reduce risk early in the process, increase competition and ultimately give the Army more pathways to successful technological development. Whereas technology failures are the bane of the traditional process, one goal of Project Convergence is to fail early, understand those challenges and address them.

“To the degree that Army Futures Command is succeeding, I think the prototyping process — we get things in the hands of soldiers sooner rather than later, and it’s an iterative feedback loop — is really, really positive,” Bowman said.

The command also emphasizes the importance of soldier touchpoints, where those who will use the technology can try out prototypes early. That enables the Army to incorporate soldier feedback into the end design.

Other AFC initiatives, such as the Army Applications Laboratory, have also born fruit. That lab has been successful in using Small Business Innovation Research dollars, forming cohorts and starting with problems upfront. This is counter to taking a solution and figuring out how to fit it into operations.

In an interview last year, Murray told Defense News the command is headed in the right direction with experimentation and prototyping. And perhaps more importantly, he said, Congress accepted the process for those experiments and gave the command the acquisition authorities it needs.

Many of the systems AFC chose as priority modernization efforts, such as the Precision Strike Missile, are expected to reach initial fielding in a few short years. By then, the Army expects there to be even more working prototypes, such as the future vertical lift aircraft and new unmanned vehicles.

Roughly four years after Murray’s tenure began, analysts say Army Futures Command has a mixed record. On the plus side, it’s on track to deliver new capabilities at breakneck speeds for the Defense Department. While major acquisition programs have historically taken up to 14 years to field, some of the command’s programs are expected to take four years.

For example, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery system hit a 70-kilometer range goal in tests over the past two years, and the Army has already accepted two systems. The service also awarded Northrop Grumman a contract last month to produce the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, which will serve as the command-and-control platform for a variety of sensors and shooters.

Also last year, the service fielded the first maneuver battalion of the Short-Range Air Defense system.

Still, the Army has faced setbacks.

Thomas Spoehr, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and a retired Army lieutenant general, pointed to three programs that have suffered from high-profile delays: the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle and the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle.

“I gave the Army a B-minus, which is higher than I thought it was going to be when I started this,” Spoehr said of the command’s performance.

Bowman said it may take a few more years to determine whether the service is succeeding, but he noted several positive developments so far.

“The good news is that we have seen that clear guidance and support from Army leaders,” he said. “Also, one of the great benefits that we’ve seen in the establishment and initial performance of Army Futures Command is kind of clearer lines of accountability, a real sense of urgency and an improved perspective on the role of risk and failure.”

The learning curve

Army officials also say the new path should lead to smoother upgrade processes and more affordable technology.

That’s because the Army is focused on avoiding the stovepiped status quo of the past, where a single contractor would build a system rife with proprietary technologies. All too frequently, that left the military stuck with that same contractor for upgrades. Instead, the Army has shifted its focus toward modular systems with open standards, allowing the service to hold competitions for upgrades instead of returning to the same vendor — often at a premium.

“We designed in [2021] around a modular concept. I have a capability gap. I don’t care when a vendor solution shows up to the table: They’re all going to be evaluated against each other in a competitive fashion, and the best of breed gets plugged in and integrated,” Col. Garth Winterle, project manager for tactical radios under Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical, said of Army networks.

“In a year from now, [there’s] a different capability [that] is either cheaper, better, ‘fill in the blank.’ Most of these things can be reprogrammed and integrated in a modular fashion fairly quickly,” he added.

One analogy officials like to use is how people buy smartphones: Consumers will typically purchase a new one every two years or so, but they won’t purchase a new car on that same timeline. Similarly, if the Army needs to upgrade its communications capabilities, it’s much easier to have a standard port for an upgraded terminal, rather than reconfiguring the entire vehicle.

Of course, Army Futures Command’s path hasn’t been perfectly smooth. The Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle — a planned replacement for the long-serving Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle — is a poster child for the organization’s early growing pains.

When it started the OMFV competition in 2019, the Army asked contractors to submit physical prototypes to potentially advance in the competition. But only one team delivered a sample before the deadline eight months later, marking an embarrassing early stumble.

The Army had two choices: It could proceed with one company into a prototyping effort that could lead to a lucrative production contract, or it could revamp the competition process and timeline.

Army Futures Command chose the latter and committed more fully to its principles of maintaining flexibility throughout development.

The problem with the initial competition, according to service officials, was the Army’s overly restrictive list of requirements for OMFV. For the new competition, the service provided a more flexible list of what the vehicle needs to do, giving contractors freedom to innovate.

And instead of requiring physical prototypes up front, the service is using digital engineering for its design process. In October, officials said the five teams it selected had already submitted digital designs that will be run through virtual simulations. Those simulations will refine the Army’s requirements ahead of a downselect to three contractors, who will then build physical prototypes.

Officials are confident the new path is an improvement, but the program’s initial public misstep left it vulnerable. If budgets continue to decline, analysts and Army leadership have warned the service will likely need to begin slicing from previously untouchable modernization programs.

Even without additional budget cuts, Spoehr said, the program’s delay may prove problematic.

“Its opportunity has come and gone. And so now with the revised schedule, when they start to need the big money, the big money’s not going to be there for OMFV,” he said. “That is my fear.”

Congress wants to keep a closer eye on OMFV, according to the recently released fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation would prohibit the Army from entering into a contract to develop a physical prototype for OMFV until the Army secretary submits a detailed report on how the service determined its requirements.

The problem of measuring progress

So how much did reworking the OMFV competition delay production? It’s impossible to say, and that’s one of the issues with a development pipeline reliant on other transaction authorities — a flexible contract designed for rapid prototyping and experimentation that avoids the stringent reporting requirements and lengthy timetables of traditional federal acquisition regulations.

While Army officials see those features as an obvious boon, they also make it difficult to compare these programs to development under traditional DoD contracts. Even the Government Accountability Office said it has a tougher time tracking and assessing programs developed under OTAs.

Which goes back to the robots shuffling around in the desert.

Army officials are quick to highlight the advances they’ve made since Project Convergence in 2020, but they are hesitant to say how close the service has come to fielding an actual capability.

On the one hand, what may seem like minute advances can involve very difficult challenges. While artificial intelligence is currently able to detect potential threats — i.e., enemy tanks — it has difficulty tracking their movements. That difference may seem small, but following a moving object is far more complex than sensing and identifying an inert object. To get there, the Army needs to feed its machine-learning AI massive amounts of training data and build more intricate algorithms.

“Leadership wants advances in capability, and that’s … completely reasonable. But as you might expect, that requires more complexity and algorithms and software development,” said Eric Stirs, a senior data engineer with the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Integration Center.

A third way: Incremental developments

Perhaps the Army’s network team can offer a middle path, one that emphasizes experimentation while setting hard deadlines for deliverables.

About four years ago the Army conducted a series of reviews that found its network was unprepared for a sophisticated threat. In response, the service embarked on a multiyear path to modernize key pieces of its network with a focus on combining new technologies with legacy systems, hosting soldier touchpoints and experiments, and seeking modular solutions.

The Army’s network team has adopted an incremental approach that sees new technologies delivered to soldiers in two-year blocks, each building on the last. Under this strategy, the service outlined technologies it wants fielded every two years by placing them in so-called capability sets. Those capability sets go through cycles of experimentation, procurement and fielding.

The plan also allows for rapid insertion of technology if it becomes available, as well as mechanisms to move tech to a future capability set if it isn’t mature enough.

Throughout this process, the Army is balancing concurrent efforts of fielding gear associated with Capability Set ‘21, experimenting for Capability Set ‘23 and building design goals for Capability Set ‘25.

While the two-year incremental approach to tech delivery may seem aggressive, officials argue it’s necessary to match the pace of cyberthreats and other developments.

“That process that the team applied to this is necessitated by the fact that our kit only lasts so long based on obsolescence and things like near-peer cyber opportunities,” Col. Shane Taylor, project manager for the tactical network within PEO C3T, said on the sidelines of an industry engagement in Nashville, Tennessee, on Dec. 2. “I think it lends itself to this kind of construct to begin with, or else you end up with systems in the field long beyond their effectiveness.”

Officials say units are eager to participate in this modernization process.

“We constantly get requests from units like: ‘When can I get it next?’ ” said Matthew Maier, project manager for interoperability, integration and services under PEO C3T. “There’s a handful of units that were selected by [Army headquarters] to get [Capability Set] ‘21, and now other units have come to the table and want their priority pushed up so that they can get some stuff.”

The future of Futures Command

What remains to be seen is whether current Army leadership, especially the new service secretary, buys into the construct, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The command’s founding fathers are then-Army Secretary Mark Esper, who went on to serve as defense secretary; then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who later became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; then-Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; and then-Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy.

Much of that initial cohort left when the Trump administration exited. McConville has remained as the Army chief, but there is a new Army secretary, Christine Wormuth.

“She’s not really deeply rooted in the Army,” Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Defense News. “I think that Esper and McCarthy, given their backgrounds, they had street cred. I do think the onus is on [Wormuth] to develop a vision for the Army that’s not just rooted in sort of generalities about defense priorities, [but] that speaks specifically to where ground force technology offers opportunities, where Army innovation really is poised to make breakthroughs.”

Murray retired as the first AFC commander in December, long after his initial retirement plans were to go into effect. There is no named successor, but an acting AFC commander was selected in the meantime.

The leadership shakeup leaves Spoehr “mildly worried” the future of Army modernization could be recast through a different viewpoint.

But perhaps a larger issue is whether the Army will have enough funding to complete its priority programs. Spoehr said the Pentagon’s top-line FY23 budget request is expected to be significantly lower than the last.

Paired with inflation, “there’s a real potential that [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and, by proxy, the Army’s going to get hit with a giant bill in 2023.”

And 2023 is a critical year for Army Futures Command: The Army plans to begin fielding its Extended Range Cannon Artillery system, while prototypes for the future attack reconnaissance aircraft are expected to fly. Plus, the Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor — which will replace the Patriot air defense system’s radar — will be fielded by the end of FY23.

Indeed, McConville has said the Army will get 24 of the 35 signature systems in its modernization portfolio into soldiers’ hands by FY23.

At Project Convergence 21, officials told the media the annual “campaign of learning” would continue for years to come.

“This is not a one-year — and now it’s two years — and-we’re-done kind of thing. Our leadership says they see this will probably be a decade-long endeavor,” said Col. Andre’ Abadie, special adviser to the deputy commanding general at AFC and co-lead for the command’s Project Convergence Operational Planning Team.

Following Wormuth’s visit to Yuma Proving Ground, she said the experiments convinced her of the importance of modernizing the network for the entire Army enterprise. She said Project Convergence will help the Army determine what direction to go with acquisitions.

The Army is currently gearing up for its third Project Convergence. This year, the Army wants to see if its robots can do the same missions at night.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

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 degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.