Army has picked a location for its new Futures Command, but now comes the hard part

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After a months-long nationwide competition, the Army announced last month that it had picked Austin, Texas, as the location of its new Futures Command, the organization that will take charge of the service’s modernization and acquisition process. It’s been billed as the largest Army reorganization since the Vietnam War.

But standing up the new headquarters and redrawing the Army’s organizational chart is the easy part. Officials say those actions are important, but they aren’t nearly enough to pull off the ultimate objective: bringing “unity of effort” to the service’s ponderous acquisition system and getting the entire enterprise to move quickly enough to develop and acquire technologies before they’re obsolete.

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“The harder part and the more important part is to start looking at how we change processes,” said Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, the commander of the task force that’s leading the design and implementation of the new command. “Ensuring that the cultural changes and governance changes you need to make in order to become more effective, more efficient, more agile and faster. That’s the hard work, and we’re in the midst of doing that now. Over the course of the year, you’re going to see us learn. And even in the out years, the whole culture of the organization is going to continue to change to remain relevant to the environment.”

New office small by Army standards

Army Futures Command will be led by a four-star general, and its stature will be on par with the service’s three other major commands. But its Austin headquarters will be tiny, at least by Army standards. Only between 250 and 500 government personnel will be physically stationed there; other elements of AFC will continue to operate from their current locations even as the Army reassigns them to become part of the new organization.

The Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) and the Research, Development, Engineering and Modernization Command (RDECOM) are among the large Army commands that are moving beneath the new AFC umbrella from an administrative standpoint, but most of their employees will stay put.

Most of the personnel the command oversees will be “matrixed” to the new organization from afar, with only a relative handful of  representatives from the Army’s R&D, requirements and acquisition communities working “under one roof.”

“We’re going to develop a number of small teams that have to solve difficult problems,” Wesley said in an interview for Federal News Radio’s On DoD. “And the experts within the United States Army who understand that problem, whether it happens to be A.I., or the development of drone technology, or whatever the case may be, we will recruit the best that the Army has. In concert with that, we will go out and recruit talent from say, the University of Texas or other universities around the nation who have expertise in these areas and pull them into the Army Applications Lab down there in Austin.”

Wesley said the headquarters’ small size — and the fact that it will not operate from within a military base — were highly-intentional decisions. The Army wants to emulate the same environment, the same culture, and the same timetables as the lean startup companies with which it hopes to do more business.

“Although we have very good labs in the United States Army, they’re disparate out across the United States, oftentimes within a secured location behind barriers, fences and security,” he said. “What that means is we’re limiting our access to many, many talented people. And so by embedding ourselves into Austin, we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to engage with young kids with laptops at Starbucks who have ideas that we would have never arrived at.”

New ideas, same old acquisition rules

But once again, getting those new ideas into the formal Army acquisition system and producing products that will be fielded, before they become irrelevant, is the tricky part. That’s because Army Futures Command is trying to do all of the above without asking Congress to change a single line of the U.S. Code that sets out the rules of the defense acquisition system.

“We have always believed that there’s a lot of stuff that the institution has to do first before we go ask for assistance with legislation,” Wesley said.

So over the next year, before the Army makes a full operational capability declaration for AFC, it will be working on its own governance structures.

Wesley said the forthcoming changes will focus on four “value streams” that aim to speed up science and technology, experimentation, the development of concepts, and the development of requirements.

“We’ve looked at each of those and said, ‘OK, how long does it take to develop a requirement and why?’” he said. “We’ll start to identify where the longer long lead times are, then you’ve got to figure out what are some things that we can do to accelerate that. We’re developing a number of courses of action across those four areas and changing [the] governance process by which we make decisions. The  task force is working those courses of action now, and I expect that over the next few months you’re going to start seeing process and governance changes within the command.”