An Army Command Like No Other Seeks to Master the Future of War

From a Washington Post column by Max Boot headlined “An Army command like no other seeks to master the future of war”:

Every Memorial Day, we honor the valor and sacrifice of American troops. But many of them lost their lives unnecessarily because the military was poorly prepared for the wars it had to wage. From the First Battle of Bull Run (1861) to Kasserine Pass (1943) to Task Force Smith in South Korea (1950) to the insurgency in Iraq (2003), U.S. armed forces have often lost the early battles of their wars. In the years to come, such failures could have even more catastrophic consequences than in the past. The job of the Army Futures Command (AFC) is to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It is an Army unit like no other. I’ve been to a lot of Army bases that have a familiar look: As you get close, you see pawnshops, honky-tonks and tattoo parlors. You enter via a guard post and then the base sprawls out for miles with barracks, chow halls, PXs, office buildings, training ranges and the like.

To get to the Army Futures Command, by contrast, you walk into a skyscraper in downtown Austin and take an elevator up to a floor that resembles any other business office. Most of the workers wear civilian clothes, not Army uniforms, and you don’t see anyone saluting anyone else. The command’s raison d’être is to take advantage of changing technologies pioneered by the private sector — and maintaining traditional Army spit-and-polish would be an unnecessary barrier to working with the many high-tech companies that have major offices in Austin.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the inspiration for the command’s creation in 2018. Three years earlier, in 2015, McCain, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked some tough questions of Gen. Mark A. Milley when he was nominated as Army chief of staff. (Milley subsequently became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) The Army was reeling at that point from the cancellation of expensive, high-profile weapons development programs such as the Future Combat Systems project, which was supposed to produce the next generation of armored vehicles.

Milley recalled McCain telling him, “You really have some significant challenges here, and I want you to think about how you’re going to reform the Army.” Thus was born the concept of moving all of the Army’s modernization functions “under one roof” — and locating that organization far from any traditional military post. (As he prepares to retire after more than 40 years in uniform, Milley told me that the AFC is “one of the things we accomplished that I’m most proud of.”)

The need for such a command has only been underscored by the war in Ukraine, which, though resembling in some respects the trench warfare of World War I, has also seen adaptation occur at warp speed in everything from drones to electronic warfare to air defenses. One example: The U.S. High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which was a virtual wonder weapon for the Ukrainians last summer, has seen its effectiveness severely diminished by Russian jamming of its GPS signals. The Ukrainians now have to develop countermeasures to the Russians’ countermeasures.

“I can’t think of a time in history since right before World War II where the amount of disruptive technology has had this much of an impact on warfare,” Gen. James E. Rainey, AFC’s commander, told me. “It’s crazy how fast things are changing.”

It’s the job of Rainey, and the more than 20,000 personnel under his command, to develop the technologies and concepts that will enable the Army to stay up to speed with developments in areas such as robotics, quantum computing, hypersonics, directed energy and artificial intelligence.

“I’ve had some challenging jobs, like being a battalion commander in combat,” Rainey told me. “But of all the jobs I’ve had, the amount of learning this job requires exceeds anything I’ve ever done.” He told me that before taking over last fall, he had some knowledge of subjects ranging from artificial intelligence to Army acquisitions, but since then, he’s had to “take that to the PhD level.”

He does that by hiring lots of actual PhDs and also by listening to lots of outside advisers. I visited AFC headquarters in early May with a group of military analysts. Rainey also regularly convenes meetings with technology experts in a break from the insularity that too often characterizes the military.

Enabling the Army to speed up the pace of technological adaptation has required significant organizational innovation. One of AFC’s units, the Army Applications Laboratory, which funds prototype projects from technology start-ups, is run by Casey Perley, a youthful civilian with a PhD in molecular genetics and microbiology. Her office looks straight out of Silicon Valley and is located at Austin’s Capital Factory, a co-working space for high-tech entrepreneurs.

Another AFC unit, the Army Software Factory, is located at an Austin community college. Its commander, Col. Vito Errico, a West Point graduate with a Yale MBA, oversees a group of 200 civilian and military coders who develop software solutions for the Army. Its coders regularly deploy with Army units around the world to solve their problems on the spot. “We don’t care about your rank or background,” Errico told me, “just your coding ability.” One of his team members — a staff sergeant who is a talented programmer — said he was so tired of pulling guard duty in his previous assignment that he was planning to leave the Army. But given the chance to pursue his passion for coding, he signed a new six-year contract.

AFC’s goal is to prepare the Army for the battlefield of 2040 — the target date set by the command — with projects such as the Robotic Platoon. Rainey told me that he wasn’t planning to field Terminators or RoboCops. His goal is to make a human platoon more lethal and survivable in a future fight where pervasive sensors (many of them on drones) will make it nearly impossible to avoid detection. The solution the AFC is pursuing is to integrate crewed and uncrewed vehicles into a single unit, so that, as Rainey said, “we never make first contact with the enemy with our most precious weapons system, the soldier.”

“I have no expectation we will get it right,” he told me. “The goal is not to get it really wrong. We want to get a 70 percent solution, recognize what we got wrong and adapt faster than the opponent can.”

The challenges of future warfare will be not only technological but also ethical: The development of artificial intelligence will enable countries to field autonomous weapons that can kill without human control. That’s where Rainey draws the line. “I believe the U.S. military will remain a values-based military, meaning we will abide by the laws of armed conflict,” he told me. Therefore, he said, the Army shouldn’t “be letting automated AI decide to take the life of a human being.” Of course, autocracies such as China are likely to have fewer compunctions about unleashing killer robots that can make decisions faster than humans.

For all of AFC’s brave talk of innovation, it remains part of one of the world’s biggest bureaucracies — the Defense Department. It can develop weapons, but it can’t acquire them in bulk; that’s the job of the Pentagon’s lumbering acquisitions bureaucracy. So it remains to be seen how successful this five-year-old command will be in speeding up the Army’s innovation metabolism. But you have to give the Army credit for at least trying to be better prepared for war in the future than it has been in the past.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”

Speak Your Mind