Thursday, September 06, 2018

Army Futures Command - fighting the last war?

In what may seem a bit of sour grapes, since my own hometown lost in a close race to Austin for the site of the Army Futures Command, I'd like to think through what's right, and more importantly, what's potentially wrong, with the Army Futures Command.  And I'd like to suggest that many of the factors that will cause the Army Futures Command to struggle are also issues that every large company also faces. The question Defense News asks is:  Can Austin make the Army weird?  That's an interesting but slightly incorrect question.  What matters is if Austin can make the Army innovative.

The Army Futures Command has from its very start attempted to be different.  It is meant to be more nimble and agile than "big Army", meant to cut through red tape and create new combat systems, weapons, and platforms at a faster pace.  I suspect it is meant to open the Army up to new ideas and help it embrace open innovation as well.  If the Army Futures Command does these things, then we all benefit.  We will have a faster, leaner, more well-prepared Army able to compete in future conflicts.  My sense is that the prevailing military industrial complex, risk aversion, bureaucracy and budgeting and funding cycles and processes will hold more sway than setting up in a civilian building in Austin.

First the Kudos

I'm glad the Army is recognizing the importance of emerging technology and placing its newest command in a high tech environment like Austin.  The future of warfare is technological, but also communication and data driven.  We are already at (virtual) war with several foreign entities in cyberspace, and those attacks will only continue to grow.  It's also good that the Army is seeking to distance itself from Washington DC and the governmental thinking that dominates there. It's a good sign that the Army believes it needs to be more agile and develop new ideas and systems more quickly. Finally, it's a good sign that the Army recognizes the overhead and bureaucracy associated with designing, building and deploying new systems.

The question marks

I believe (with no evidence whatsoever) that proximity to Fort Hood in Texas was a key factor in the decision.  Fort Hood is the place where the Army goes to drive large vehicles and tanks.  While we in Raleigh had Fort Bragg close by, Bragg is a special forces base, and special forces don't use large systems.  Fort Hood is based on the idea of large systems - tanks especially.  This line of thinking would mean that the Futures Command will focus on large platforms (tanks, rocket launchers, artillery, people movers, etc).  Which is fine to an extent, but I doubt that's the future of warfare.  The future of warfare has to do with command and control, taking out an enemy's ability to communicate and to manage data and information.  One small EMP device in a large city will cause more havoc than a tank battalion.  So it feels like we are simply repackaging a way to make big platforms and tanks in perhaps a new way.  If this is "futures" then we aren't looking far enough into the future, or we are at risk of preparing for and fighting the last war.

Second question is:  can you change the design, budgeting and procurement processes?  One of the most important vehicles in the Iraq war was the M-RAP, which saved thousands of lives and casualties.  The M-RAP was rejected several times by the Department of Defense and the defense contracting industry, not for reasons having to do with troop safety but for reasons having to do with budgeting cycles and platform prioritization.  Read Robert Gate's book to learn more about the resistance to new platforms, especially those conceived out of cycle or sequence.  Congress, the Department of Defense and military contractors have very entrenched notions about what systems matter and how they are procured and funded, and will fight to defend these.  The military may come up with great ideas about new vehicles but be unable to find means to fund them or place them into production.  Moving to Austin isn't going to change these issues.

How do these issues relate to corporate innovation?

So, what the Army Futures command wants to mimic to some degree is the famous Lockheed "skunkworks".  The typical skunkworks is usually set up to isolate an innovation unit attempting to build disruptive new products and services from the bureaucracy and culture of the existing infrastructure.  Jobs did this when he built the first Macintosh.  The problem is that locating in Austin doesn't isolate the Army from many of its cultural, budgeting and commercialization challenges.

The similarities arise when we think about what the "charter" of the group is. Army "Futures" should be, well, about the future.  But if they will focus on large fighting vehicles but neglect command and control, digital and cyber warfare, etc, it doesn't feel like the future.  It feels like horizon one or at best horizon two work.  Second, by focusing on large vehicles and platforms, are we once again building systems to win the last war, when we should be building solutions to fight the next war. Corporations fall victim to the same line of thinking when they double down on their best current products, while not realizing that the market and consumers are rapidly changing.

Another challenge that the Futures Command shares with corporate innovation is that it is always easy to create an organization in the 'front end' to create ideas but often exceptionally hard to create the programs to convert ideas into reality.  The development pipeline for any defense platform is long, complicated, political to an extreme and subject to funding whims of a Congress and President whose mandate changes often.  If you improve the front end process without addressing the execution issues you'll simply frustrate far more people more quickly.  If you'd like to know more about that from a military perspective, read the book about the best designer of fighter planes, John Boyd.  Similarly large corporations struggle with executing on good ideas.  It's often easier to generate ideas than it is to develop them as new products and services.

Corporate innovation and the Army Futures Command both struggle with:
  • clear strategic direction
  • looking far enough into a future that is rapidly changing
  • innovation structures and governance
  • access to the right resources
  • the ability to execute ideas, not just imagine them
  • political pressure and favoritism especially for pet projects and existing systems
  • funding and budgeting, especially for large scale projects that span multiple years
Perhaps the Army has overcome these and other issues within or around the Army Futures Command.  I genuinely hope so.  However, having worked within the defense industry and in the innovation industry, I can see many challenges that may hold back the Army Futures Command from achieving their goals.  Most of these issues are the same ones that corporations face, but the issues the Army faces are often exacerbated by politics, funding cycles, an entire industry reliant on existing platforms and weapons, a tendency to learn too much from the last war and not consider the factors of the next war, and the cyclical nature of politics.  I doubt the Army Futures Command can be isolated from all of these pressures, which suggests to me that they will do a great job at Horizon One innovation, and falter at Horizon Two and Three.  Time will tell.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:29 AM


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