I remember the first time I understood how different the future of warfare would be. I was at the National Training Center in 2014, where I worked in Operations Group as a brigade staff trainer, listening to (now retired) GEN David Perkins outline the new Army Operating Concept. The Army, GEN Perkins argued, had to shift its focus from preparing for a known battle against a known threat on a known battlefield. The new threat and Operating Environment (OE) would be “unknown, unknowable, and constantly changing.”
Air-Land Battle Doctrine drove specific choices in how the Army organized, equipped, and trained. Capabilities requirements – massing precision firepower against a numerically superior conventional force – yielded obvious equipping choices: Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Paladin, MLRS, & Patriot, all systems designed to deliver maneuver, mass, and precision. But how do you plan against an unknown enemy and an unknowable OE? Defeating the Soviet horde at Fulda now seemed so easy. Unknown and unknowable is impossible to plan for, at least in a materiel sense.
It was almost instantly clear to me that the solution would be not a product, but rather a process. The Army Acquisition System needed to become agile in a way that allowed it to determine a capability gap, identify the
And that’s where the insights end. How in the heck does the Army do that? Four years later, two important developments may provide an answer: activation of the Army Futures Command, and acquisition reform initiatives have dramatically expanded Other Transactions Authority (OTA) and created a middle-tier acquisition pathway.
Most of the buzz around AFC is about “what” they might buy, and, I have to admit, the possibilities are pretty fun to talk about. Still, if you fully embrace an unknowable future OE that is constantly changing, then no matter how much cool stuff we buy, we have no assurance that it will result in a decisive asymmetrical advantage. But what if AFC’s real value is not in the products they procure, but in the process by which they procure them?
Such a process would necessarily focus on some fundamental principles. First, major defense program systems (combat vehicles, helicopters, etc.) must be designed using an open systems approach that avoids vendor lock. Second, the Army must actively and continuously scout, test, and validate military applications of emerging, disruptive technologies. Finally, the Army must create ways to accelerate manufacturing so that new technologies can be fielded at a scale and pace to be useful.
AFC’s data points are few, but early evidence indicates they are on the right track. AFC’s first major solicitation for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft is postured as
AFC is still very much a startup, and they have a long way to go before even they know what it is. They are going to use new methods to buy a lot of stuff from companies they’ve never transacted with before. Let’s hope that, along the way, AFC remains focused on an endstate that is less about products, and more about the process to acquire and field products faster than our adversaries.