The Army Must Protect Its Institutional Crown Jewels

The U.S. Army is at the start of what is likely to be one of the most wrenching operational, intellectual and organizational transitions in its modern history. The change most people focus on, that from “wartime” to “peacetime,” with an accompanying 100,000 reduction in active duty end strength is the most obvious and least significant one. There is the related struggle to pare down an equipment list swollen with platforms and systems acquired over the past decade. Far more significant is the effort currently underway, centered at TRADOC, to define a new vision for the Army not focused on counterinsurgency and stability operations and to define an appropriate force structure that is lean, adaptable and effective.

But the most significant transition challenge for the Army is organizational, specifically protecting and integrating the organizational crown jewels developed and proven over the past decade. During that time, the Army has invested a lot, particularly some of its most talented people, to create a set of organizations, institutions, practices and activities to improve the way it identified and exploited emerging threats, rapidly developed new operational concepts and acquired critical capabilities. For example, starting in 2005, the Army created a family of 8 Centers of Excellence to support professional development and provide training in key functional areas such as maneuver, fires, signals and aviation. Another organizational innovation is the Asymmetric Warfare Group designed to provide rapid, focused analysis and response to a range of asymmetric challenges. A third is the Network Integration Experiment (NIE) at Fort Bliss/White Sands that brings together those responsible for requirements, technology, acquisition and testing to conduct field exercises on potential new capabilities. Although currently focused on networks and information technology, it is hoped that the NIE will expand to include the full range of emerging Army capabilities.

The Hope Diamond among these crown jewels of new and innovative Army organizations may well be the Rapid Equipping Force (REF). When U.S. forces first entered Iraq and Afghanistan the Army was inundated by urgent, even desperate, requests for solutions to unanticipated threats, novel situations or limitations in existing platforms and capabilities. The traditional acquisition system simply was never intended to respond to such demands in a time frame of days or weeks. According to its mission statement, the REF was created to “harnesses current and emerging technologies to provide rapid solutions to the urgently required capabilities of U.S. Army forces employed globally.” The REF has been involved in most of the major technological/operational challenges that U.S. forces confronted in the field from countering improvised explosive devices, to overcoming hostile environments, force protection, route clearance and dismounted operations. In some areas it has not only provided an initial solution to the problem, typically in 90 days or less, but triggered major longer-term developmental efforts across the Army and the Department of Defense.

What are the secrets to the REF’s success? First, unlike the regular acquisition system which, because it deals with large acquisitions and long timelines, must emphasize efficiency, the REF’s forte is being effective and timely. This means focusing largely on off-the-shelf solutions, perhaps modified, rather than developing new technology. It also helps that REF solutions are typically acquired in limited numbers and are only expected to operate for a relatively finite amount of time. The REF’s goal is to provide an initial partial solution rapidly with the prospect of a better answer, possibly more reliable and efficient, to come. Second, the REF is organized and staffed in a way that integrates a range of domains and crosses traditional stovepipes; the requirements generators, operators, acquisition officials, scientists and technologists, academic institutions, government laboratories and private industry are all at the table. In the REF all these domains work together, often in the same spaces to solve problem. Because of its structure, the REF is a disinterested third party, representing all stakeholders in the acquisition process. Third, the REF maintains forward deployed specialists and laboratories both to continually collect information and to more rapidly respond to urgent needs. Fourth, the REF works for the Vice Chief of Staff and interacts with the most senior decisionmakers in the Army, a very important bureaucratic advantage for a non-standard organization. Finally, the REF had greater flexibility with respect to the use of available resources than the typical program manager or acquisition organization.

Most people only know about one mission: rapid fielding of capabilities in response to emerging problems and urgent needs. It has two other roles less central to the current warfight but that will be increasingly important to the future of the Army. The first of these is to insert selected future technologies and capabilities into the force for operational evaluation. The second is to conduct studies and assessments for senior Army leaders of Army practices and issues concerning operational needs, desired future force capabilities and relevant Army business practices. The REF can anticipate problems and respond before they become urgent requirements or far worse, military catastrophes and public relations nightmares.

The fate of the REF hangs in the balance. The Army’s leaders know they have something special in the REF. Yet, as budgets tighten and peacetime operations become the norm, the temptation to kill REF and save a few bucks will grow. The bureaucratic challenges and simple organizational angst associated with maintaining and utilizing an organization that by its very nature is meant to work around classic organizational stovepipes and upset routine practices may prove too much for the institutional Army to bear. There are already rumors that the Army intends to move the REF out of Washington. This would probably be the beginning of the end since out of sight is out of mind in all large organizations.

The Army must not merely keep REF around but must capitalize on its experience and exploit its unique features. The traditional acquisition system is going to find it increasingly difficult to be timely and effective in a future security environment marked by austere budgets, few new program starts and unpredictable threats. But it is a fools’ errand to try and make that system nimble. The REF is a complement to the traditional acquisition system; it will allow the latter to develop and procure essential platforms and capabilities for the Army, hopefully in less time and for less money than has traditionally been the case, with the REF being present to rapidly identify specific enhancements and capability responses to emerging threats and problems. Funding for the REF needs to be moved into the base budget. Also, the Army should allow the REF to remain in Washington and to continue to work directly for the Vice Chief of Staff and senior leadership of the Army. The Army leadership should not mess with success particularly when preserving the REF presents both an effective and efficient answer to some of the challenges of the emerging acquisition environment.