Over the past several years, the U.S. Army has gotten something of a bad rap for being unable to innovate and think creatively. In part, this was the result of some significant acquisition missteps. To those who equate innovation with technology, the Army came to look both a bit old fashioned and somewhat maladroit. This misperception is also a reaction to the Army’s appreciation of conflict as fundamentally a clash of wills, the outcome of which is determined largely by events and conditions on land.
In truth, the Army has demonstrated a remarkable penchant for innovation both during the past decade of conflict and even in the postwar drawdown. The Army was remarkably quick to respond to unfolding events in Afghanistan and Iraq, reorganizing itself, creating new institutions, acquiring new equipment and capabilities. Consider the creation and deployment of the Stryker brigades, the acquisition of tens of thousands of mine resistant vehicles like the MRAP and MATV, the explosion in counter improvised explosive device technologies, particularly vehicle and man-portable jammers and the exploitation of an array of manned and unmanned surveillance capabilities.
One of the best examples of the Army’s continuing commitment to innovation was the decision to retain a small but unique organization known as the Rapid Equipping Force (REF). Created in 2002 by then Vice Chief of Staff, General Richard Cody, the mission of the REF was to respond rapidly to the flood of urgent requirements for new capabilities that were flowing back from the field. General Cody realized that the standard acquisition system was too slow to meet the needs of the warfighters. He attached the REF to the Army Staff, Operations and Plans, thereby ensuring that everyone understood that the organization had the support of the service’s highest echelons.
The Rapid Equipping Force sought to provide rapid solutions to the urgently required capabilities of U.S. Army forces employed globally, but primarily in Southwest Asia. It was 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 the REF 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.
A major factor contributing to the REF’s success was a set of unique authorities that allowed it to respond rapidly to urgent requirements. The REF director was authorized to approve requirements and to take action based on perceived Army needs. This short circuited the often ponderous requirements generation process. Second, the REF had access to a mix of funding from across the Army’s budget, including but not restricted to overseas contingency funds. This meant it didn’t have to fight with other organizations for resources or raid other programs for funds. Finally, the REF had limited acquisition authority. The Army embedded a Project Manager in the REF to ensure appropriate oversight and legal/policy compliance. It has the authorities to operate as a one-stop shop for meeting urgent requirements.
Perhaps the most important factor contributing to success was the unique culture and attitude created within the Rapid Equipping Force. The REF became the quintessential innovation generator, willing to experiment, take risks, exploit other people’s ideas and go with an 80 percent solution if that was the best that could be achieved. The REF was also a collaborative organization; it intentionally broke down the stovepipes and silos that prevented the free flow of information and ideas not only within the Army, but also across the military and even into the commercial industrial base.
As the wars drew to a close the question was raised within Army circles: what to do with the REF? The easy answer was to shut it down, thereby saving some money and a handful of uniformed and civilian positions. After all, wasn’t the mission of the Rapid Equipping Force only relevant as long as U.S. forces were involved in major combat operations?
But the Army demonstrated its commitment to innovation and change when it decided to retain the REF. The Army recognized the continuing need for an organization with the authorities and mindset not only to respond to ongoing operational needs in an uncertain world, but to encourage bold thinking and risk taking behavior throughout the organization. The REF was moved to the Training and Doctrine Command where it can focus on future requirements and challenges as well as those confronting forward deployed forces currently. PEO Soldier now provides the milestone decision authority for the REF.
The Army leadership deserves recognition and praise for the decision to retain the Rapid Equipping Force. Congress too deserves some credit, particularly the two appropriations committees. The initial FY 2015 budget zeroed out procurement and research and development funds for the REF, severely limiting its effectiveness. When the situation was explained to the staffs, the funds were restored.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work has been tasked to make the department more innovative. A good place for him to start would be by going down to Fort Belvoir and spending some time with the leadership of the REF to learn how it established a culture of innovation and risk taking.
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