The U.S. Army recently announced that it would locate the headquarters of its new Futures Command in Austin, Texas. Austin won out over Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Raleigh based on its score on six major criteria: proximity to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workers and industries; proximity to private sector innovation; academic STEM and research and development investment; quality of life; cost; and civic support.
One of the features that sold the Army’s leadership on Austin was its “ecosystem” which supports innovation, networking and collaboration on a daily basis. In order to immerse itself in the innovative culture that is Austin, Futures Command is reported to initially house part of its staff on the University of Texas campus while a second contingent will follow the Air Force and the DIUX by taking space at Austin’s well-know innovation hub, the Capital Factory.
Although the 100 uniformed officers and 400 Army civilians that will make up the headquarters complex will be able to breathe the rarified air of innovation that apparently envelops Austin, most of its components will not have it so good. The Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center will remain at the Picatinny Arsenal in northern New Jersey. While the Army’s Capability Integration Center will move from Training and Doctrine Command to Futures Command it will continue to be housed with the latter at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Parts of Army Test and Evaluation Command will be subordinated to Futures Command but remain in Aberdeen, Maryland. The eight cross functional teams created to jump start the Army’s high priority modernization efforts are located even farther from the big city lights in places like Fort Sill, OK, Huntsville, AL, Fort Riley, KS, Fort Benning, GA and Detroit, MI.
The choice of Austin for Futures Command appears to reflect, at least in part, the belief that innovation in the sciences and technology is a scarce commodity which, like precious gems, is found in relatively few locations that possess the right combination of environmental factors.
Ever since then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter made his first pilgrimage to Silicon Valley in search of a magic elixir to infuse defense modernization efforts, there has been a tendency for Pentagon officials to associate innovation with the achievements of companies in the fields of computing and information technology (IT). Since then Pentagon offices tasked to promote rapid modernization by exploiting the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the IT sector have followed the electrons first to Silicon Valley and then branching out to cities such as Boston and Austin.
But in reality, the capacity for innovation isn’t rare at all. It runs through America like a mighty river. Nor is the creative spirit restricted to those companies associated with the IT revolution. Traditional industrial companies, particularly aerospace and defense firms, continue to demonstrate an ability to develop and produce leap-ahead systems and platforms.
There is the Lockheed Martin Advanced Development Programs, affectionately known as the Skunkworks, in Palmdale, California. It has designed state-of-the-art aircraft for more than 70 years including the P-80 Shooting Star, U-2, SR-71, F-117, F-22 and today’s F-35.
Boeing’s Phantom Works is a virtual innovation hub that touches almost all of the company’s operating units and locations around the country and overseas. The Phantom Works has pioneered national efforts in hypersonics, unmanned aerial vehicles, robotics, next generation networks and space systems.
Raytheon, a world leader in radars, electronic warfare, cyber and precision weapons also operate a special research and development center, Raytheon BBN Technologies. This center is working in such areas as quantum computing, communications and sensing, multi-sensor processing and speech recognition technologies.
Sierra Nevada Corporation and United Technologies Corporation’s (UTC) Aerospace Systems have repeatedly demonstrated an ability to rapidly design and field advanced capabilities, the former in jammers to defeat improvised explosive devices and the latter in sophisticated sensor pods for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
The capacity of U.S. aerospace and defense companies to innovate is nothing short of remarkable. This is even more the case given the difficulties imposed on them by government regulations and the strictures of the defense acquisition system.
Just as the Pentagon must not limit its search for innovation to Silicon Valley, Austin or Boston, it should not ignore the capabilities of the U.S. subsidiaries of international defense companies to provide transformative capabilities. BAE Systems Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of the British company BAE PLC, is a leader in fields as diverse as airborne electronic warfare, cyber security and advanced armored vehicles.
Similarly, Leonardo DRS, whose parent is an Italian aerospace and defense company, is at the forefront of the U.S. Army’s drive to modernize with its adaptation of the Israeli Trophy Active Protection System to the Abrams tank, and its successful integration of a mobile, short-range air defense system on a Stryker vehicle.
The Pentagon’s search for innovative solutions to challenging problems in military modernization should not be restricted to the confines of this country’s borders. Close U.S. allies and partner countries are fertile sources of advanced technologies, often in areas where U.S. firms have failed to keep up. Some, such as Israel’s world-class defense firms, have developed unique military systems with the help of U.S. funding. Exploiting these foreign sources of innovation will allow the Department of Defense to focus scarce resources and leadership talent on those areas where the U.S. R&D community excels.
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