WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army five years ago established a new four-star command, shifting billions of dollars to fund it and basing it in a tech-centric city.
The goal of Army Futures Command was clear: It needed to disrupt the service’s lengthy record of failure when it came to producing a new modernization program.
Now, the command is starting to see some of its efforts come to fruition; the Army has begun delivering new combat vehicles to soldiers and will soon field longer-range missiles. The service has also selected a contractor to build its long-range assault aircraft.
Over the last year, the command has faced uncertainty. The Army struggled to replace the first commander; from the end of 2021 until October 2022, an acting one filled in. At the same time, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth worked to iron out roles and responsibilities for the new command, which some said stripped the organization of necessary authority.
In the fall of 2022, the service named a new chief, Gen. James Rainey, who has made it a priority to ensure an enduring purpose for the command.
As the Army gets closer to its 2030 goal for fielding those weapons, service leaders say the command is here to stay — but will expand its focus.
“I do not see a diminishing role,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Randy George told Defense News. “I actually see an increasing role for Army Futures Command.”
He said he has tasked Army Futures Command’s chief with overseeing “continual transformation,” which will become the organization’s mission.
Wormuth said the role will give Army Futures Command a “broader scope,” making it not just an “important player in the acquisition enterprise” but also the service’s leader when it comes to continuous experimentation of new and emerging capabilities as well as future concept work.
“AFC continues to be involved and be a key player in modernization,” she said. “I also think they will continue to play an important role in experimentation.” And the command will lead the effort to design a force structure that can take on the new capabilities in development, readying it for adversaries in 2040 and beyond.
Army Futures Command in its earliest days zeroed in on improving requirements. Training and Doctrine Command had owned the requirements development process, but top service officials moved it to Army Futures Command, tasking the new organization with ensuring that process was organized, disciplined and consistent.
A new primary focus for Army Futures Command will be weighing how the force can continually transform. For Rainey, that goes beyond simply developing and fielding new equipment; transformation is how the Army will use those new capabilities within formations, and how those formations will look.
The reimagined version of Army Futures Command is expected to work as part of a team with other key commands in charge of training, doctrine, materiel, forces and acquisition.
“Our mission is to transform the Army to ensure future readiness,” Rainey said, noting the command will be designing the force of 2040 and beyond.
Army Futures Command will work with Training and Doctrine Command, Army Materiel Command and Army Forces Command to design formations equipped with modern capabilities, Rainey added. He said one of his most important teammates is the Army’s acquisition branch.
Stacie Pettyjohn, a defense analyst at the Center for a New American Security think tank, said Rainey must work across the service, given “he doesn’t have the authority or ability to enact some of the changes that he would like to see on his own.”
Indeed, Wormuth said, last year she identified “ambiguity” in the direction given to both the command and the service’s acquisition office about roles and responsibilities. She issued a memo voiding previous modernization directives and shifting much of Army Futures Command’s control over funding back to the acquisition branch. She also moved to centralize investment authority in Army headquarters.
Tom Spoehr, a retired Army three-star general and defense expert, said that since then the tension between the Army acquisition office and Army Futures Command “for all intents and purposes appears to have disappeared.”
To bolster the command’s work with the service’s acquisition branch, Rainey established a forward headquarters at the Pentagon where his civilian deputy, Willie Nelson, spends about half of his time.
Rainey also wants the Army to more rapidly bring commercial technology into the force.
“The technological disruption of warfare right now is as great as it has been at least since World War II and maybe in the history of warfare,” he said. “It’s so disruptive, that pace and scale; the change is unprecedented.”
The evolution of cross-functional teams
When the service founded Army Futures Command, it also created cross-functional teams to focus on its modernization priorities. It formed six teams for long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicles; future vertical lift aircraft; the network; air and missile defense; and soldier lethality.
There are also two other CFTs that are providing capabilities across all other modernization portfolios: one for positioning, navigation and timing; and the other for the Synthetic Training Environment.
“Cross-functional teams are one of the indisputable things that AFC got right, one of the absolute heroes, heroes of the transformation battle,” Rainey said.
CFTs identify a problem, decide how to address it, bring in experts, resource the effort and take it to senior decision-makers, he explained. “The merger of warfighting expertise, [Training and Doctrine Command] expertise, acquisition expertise — those [are] things that put us in a pretty good place in modernization.”
But, Rainey added, cross-functional teams “weren’t designed to have, like, a 50th anniversary. … It’s obvious that there should be an evolution in those CFTs.”
Wormuth and George agreed. “Some CFTs, once you solve a problem, you have to pull, you should take resources away from that and then you should start to grow in other areas,” George told Defense News.
“The CFTs remain important,” Wormuth said, but “we are going to be sort of evolving CFTs.”
Already, Army Futures Command has established one new team, which addresses contested logistics — a sign the service has acknowledged it will become more difficult to get troops and equipment to the battlefield. As the Army prepares for a potential fight with China, it’s expecting logistics to be arduous.
Rainey said he is considering “three main options” in the evolution of cross-functional teams. One option is to shutter a team.
The Soldier Lethality CFT, for example, “is close [to its goals]. They stood up to solve some hard problems.” The Army has a little more work to do with the Integrated Visual Augmentation System and is fielding the Next-Generation Squad Weapon, which both fall under that team, Rainey added.
Alternatively, the Army could transform a team into another area, Rainey said, such as growing the Assured-Positioning, Navigation and Timing CFT into something that addresses space or deep sensing.
A third option is to inject some teams with new problem sets to solve. Rainey said that, perhaps, in the Long Range Precision Fires CFT, some new problem sets could be in the realm of other fires capability. These could include some of the close-in, conventional fires being used in Ukraine like cannon artillery, mortars, ground-based rockets and loitering munitions.
The Network CFT is one that is never going away, he said. “That’s the holy grail.”
The Army’s Project Convergence experiment began in summer 2020 at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, as a way for the services to evaluate the progress of its modernization efforts. The following November, the event became a joint effort as other armed services attempted to connect sensors and shooters for a combined capability to detect, track and defeat threats on the battlefield.
Army Futures Command will continue to “play an important role in experimentation through Project Convergence,” Wormuth said. “They lead the way to make Project Convergence more sophisticated, have more participants; it’s grown increasingly joint over the years, and now we have allies who are participating.”
The latest iteration, held in fall 2022, increased the experimentation scope and scale, and it added the land forces of the United Kingdom and Australia in an effort to improve data sharing.
The U.S. Army aims to conduct its next capstone experiment in the spring of 2024 using Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton and Fort Irwin in California.
Capabilities that might prove successful in Project Convergence have been and will continue to undergo testing in more challenging, real-world environments at exercises in Europe and the Indo-Pacific region, Lt. Gen. Ross Coffman, Army Futures Command’s deputy chief, told Defense News. Coffman previously directed the Next Generation Combat Vehicle CFT.
Wormuth said the Army is shifting to “treat it more as an ongoing series of experiments as opposed to just the Project Convergence in the fall.”
A role in conceptualizing
The Army last year issued its new doctrine, Multi-Domain Operations, but Army Futures Command is already at work drafting the next warfighting concept.
Rainey told Defense News in an interview this summer he was preparing to release a warfighting concept for operations in 2040. And just weeks before the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, Rainey delivered an initial draft to both Wormuth and George. Both confirmed to Defense News they had the draft in hand.
Wormuth said the draft likely won’t deviate far from the multidomain doctrine, but would contain a “heavy emphasis” on autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and the implications of those capabilities in battle.
“We should anticipate that those kinds of capabilities would be much more prevalent than they are right now,” she added.
Rainey said the new concept will reflect changes to warfare created by changes to the future operating environment. He noted the concept will eventually feed into requirements development for programs of record. The Army will have to begin budgeting for those things within the next five years.
“Indisputably, over the last five years, we’re in a good place,” Rainey said. “We haven’t changed our priorities for modernizing the Army.”
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.