Next month, the Army will lose one of its best officers. After a 32-year career Colonel Peter Newell is retiring. Beginning his career as an enlisted armor crewman, Colonel Newell also served in a number of divisional assignments as well as with the 75th Ranger regiment and the 82nd Airborne. Like so many of the Army’s officers he is a combat veteran with tours in Panama, Kosovo and Iraq (twice).
I met Colonel Newell in his current assignment as Director of the Rapid Equipping Force (REF). The REF “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.
I have called the REF the Hope Diamond among these crown jewels of new and innovative Army organizations. What is unique about the REF is not its mission but how its leaders, in general, and Colonel Newell, in particular, have gone about fulfilling its responsibilities. The REF is unlike any other acquisition organization with which I am familiar. Colonel Newell deliberately sought to break down traditional acquisition stovepipes. The REF is organized and staffed in a way that integrates the requirements generators, operators, acquisition officials, scientists and technologists, academic institutions, government laboratories and private industry at the table. Because of its structure, the REF is a disinterested third party, representing all stakeholders in the acquisition process. In addition, the REF maintains forward deployed specialists and laboratories both to continually collect information and to more rapidly respond to urgent needs. Colonel Newell created and led an organization that is the quintessential innovation laboratory.
Kudos for Colonel Newell and his accomplishments have been flying across the Internet. From the operators has come thanks for the REF’s responsiveness to their needs and for the lives that were saved as a result of the capabilities it delivered. From academics and scientists there has been an acknowledgement of the REF’s groundbreaking work in promoting innovation, collaboration and experimentation.
Colonel Newell’s most impressive achievement may have been convincing the Army’s leadership to make the REF a permanently funded organization in 2015. There has been a lot of discussion among defense experts both in and out of government regarding the future of the Army. A number of observers have questioned the institution’s ability to innovate, learn and change. However, the decision to institutionalize the REF is reflective of the fact that the Army is making a serious effort to think about its future, experiment with alternative doctrinal, organizational and operational constructs and put in place new ways of doing business. The Chief of Staff, General Odierno, ably assisted by the Training and Doctrine Command, is committed to creating a more flexible, maneuverable, responsive and mentally agile institution.
In his post-Army life, Peter Newell will continue to provide the nation with the benefit of his insights and ideas. He will start by participating in a Naval Post Graduate School sponsored study on the future of rapid innovation in the military and assisting related case studies being written by the MIT Sloan School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He will then move on to a private sector technology incubator. Having missed the opportunity to make Peter Newell a general, the Army should at least take the step of hiring him as a consultant to the Chief of Staff.
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