The top U.S. military officer in the Pacific, Adm. Phil Davidson, warned last week that China could undertake a military attack against Taiwan within the next six years. To convince Beijing that it cannot achieve its political objectives in Taiwan or elsewhere with military force, the Pentagon is sprinting to transform ongoing research and development programs into fielded combat capabilities as quickly as possible.

If the U.S. Army is going to do that successfully, Army Futures Command must overcome persistent challenges that have plagued several of the service’s high-profile acquisition programs in the past. In a discussion this week hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Military and Political Power, leaders of three of AFC’s most important cross-functional teams pointed to significant initial progress in advancing much-needed R&D programs.

But R&D programs won’t be enough. Retired Lt. Gen. Ed Cardon led the task force in 2017 that helped create AFC. As he said during the FDD event: “Research and development programs will not deter and defeat aggression. Fielded combat capabilities do.”

AFC was created in 2018 to do just that: develop modernized combat capabilities and field them to soldiers as quickly as possible. And AFC will demonstrate in the next few years whether it can fulfill the vital mission it was created to accomplish.

A review of history underscores both the causes of the current crisis and the ongoing challenges.

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, successive administrations and congresses failed to provide the Army the timely, sufficient and predictable funding necessary to simultaneously conduct operations, maintain readiness and modernize forces.

Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China was undertaking the most significant military modernization effort in its history.

By February 2017, then-Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel Allyn warned that the Army had “prioritized our near-term readiness to the detriment of equipment modernization and infrastructure upgrades, assuming risk and mortgaging our future readiness.” Eyeing China and Russia, he told Congress the “Army requires modernized equipment to win decisively, but today we are outranged, outgunned and outdated.”

To be clear, not all of the Army’s current capability shortfalls can be blamed on insufficient funding. In recent decades, Army acquisition failures cost billions of dollars. Some examples include the RAH-66 Comanche helicopter, the Future Combat Systems and the Crusader self-propelled howitzer. Among other mistakes, the Army often established requirements too early and without sufficient knowledge of the relevant technology’s maturity and timeline. Like other services, the Army sometimes pursued programs that were excessively complex and technologically unproven.

Exacerbating the Army’s modernization challenge, the next few years will likely see the service forced to make do with top-line budgets that are flat or even declining. That will put a premium on avoiding the acquisition failures of the past and demonstrating serious stewardship of the taxpayer resources Congress provides.

Thankfully, AFC appears to have learned the right lessons. As Brig. Gen. John Rafferty, director of AFC’s Long Range Precision Fires Cross-Functional Team, said during the FDD event, the Army must make “every day and every dollar count.”

That is easier said than done, but AFC appears to be off to a good start. AFC says major acquisition programs that previously took up to 14 years to field are now on track to take only four years. Brig. Gen. Brian Gibson, director of the Air and Missile Defense CFT, says the Army designed, prototyped and tested a short-range air defense capability within 18 months. The first maneuver battalion will be fielded this year.

Mr. Willie Nelson, director of the Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT)/Space CFT, said his team wrote a requirement for a mounted assured PNT system, prototyped it and then equipped initial units with the capability in 18 months.

In roughly that same amount of time, the Long Range Precision Fires CFT has helped develop the Precision Strike Missile. It will be able to strike targets — including maritime and moving ones — at ranges of 500 kilometers and beyond. Rafferty says the PrSM can be fielded by 2023. That will be good news for Adm. Davidson: He told Congress last week that ground-based, long-range precision fires are “critically important.”

So what is AFC’s secret so far? It begins with a clear goal of rapidly fielding new combat capabilities in the next few years.

To accomplish that goal, AFC is successfully using flexible acquisition authorities provided by Congress. The command and its eight CFTs have also adopted a soldier-focused, prototype-driven acquisition approach that incorporates feedback from the field and leverages middle-tier acquisition processes and nontraditional other transaction authorities. Where possible, the CFTs are baselining new capabilities from mature technologies, and then incrementally developing new capabilities.

If AFC continues these practices, it may be able to avoid past failures and convert promising R&D programs into fielded combat capabilities that America’s service members urgently need to deter potential aggression from Beijing.

AFC’s moment of truth has arrived, and the stakes for American security could not be higher.

Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies. Maj. Jared Thompson is a visiting military analyst at the center and a U.S. Air Force acquisitions officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Air Force.

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