The Army’s next weapon system may be designed by someone wearing earbuds and a hoodie — not a beret and uniform.
This summer, the Pentagon activated Army Futures Command (AFC), which will prototype new weapons and equipment. AFC personnel are setting up shop in a Silicon Valley-style innovation hub in Austin, Texas, where they’ll work closely with industry members and entrepreneurs.
It’s about time the Pentagon expanded such private-sector talent. If our military wants to develop the types of modern weapons that will save lives and achieve quicker victories, it ought to expand its work with the private sector as a trusted partner — and collaborate with it more effectively.
After focusing on terrorism for the past two decades, the Pentagon recently named countering Russian and Chinese military power its number-one priority. This designation was wise — and long overdue. In recent years, Russia and China have studied American weaknesses and invested in the types of weapons that could exploit them. Just recall the massive breach of Office of Personnel Management data for top-secret clearances, an attack that will still be felt decades to come.
Meanwhile, our own modernization efforts have fallen behind schedule. In fact, according to a recent Rand report, “U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight.” If it had to protect the Baltic states from Russian aggression, the report continues, NATO forces would be “badly outgunned.”
For its part, China has been studying U.S. tactics and modernizing its military. Between 2000 and 2014, China’s defense spending increased 480 percent. Any U.S. aircraft carrier sent to defend Taiwan could be met with a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile capable of traveling 2,500 miles.
Private contractors stand ready to help the U.S. military counter such threats. Harris Corp., for example, developed a device that prevents signal jamming and protects the Department of Defense’s communications networks during a nuclear attack. Defense giant Raytheon, in an effort to align its priorities with the Army’s new threat-based approach, is creating simulations that integrate kinetic threats — like bullets and missiles — with non-kinetic threats — like cyber warfare — to equip military members for modern battlefield.
But private contractors can only meet the Army’s modernization needs if military leaders clearly articulate those needs. Army officials should encourage increased collaboration between the military and weapons manufacturers without being too prescriptive. Rather than saying “we need x, y and z,” for example, the Army could say “we need to accomplish x, y and z” — and give the private sector the creative space to come up with innovative solutions.
Currently, the Army listens to private contractor pitches and devotes one-on-one time to different private companies during an opportunity “Industry Day.” But communication with these contractors is cut off shortly after that. Finding a way to keep these lines of communication open until the Army issues its official request for proposal may result in better, less expensive weapons systems and fewer delays and complications.
More Army-industry cooperation would also accelerate the research and development process. A sensor technology under development at one company might solve a problem faced by another contractor designing a new tactical vehicle. Army Futures Command is poised to be a key player in linking technologies and contractors that could shave months or years off the delivery schedule for some systems.
The Army should also stay up to date on private company protocols. In June, thousands of Google employees signed a petition asking the company to pull out of a Pentagon contract. Executives not only nixed the contract but also developed a set of “AI Principles” that will make collaboration with the armed services more difficult. Analyzing why this partnership didn’t work out can help the military avert such breakdowns in the future.
The Army can achieve its modernization objectives much faster by sharing information with trusted private industry partners. Such collaboration is the surest way to develop new and better technologies.
Michael James Barton is the founder of Hyatt Solutions LLC and speaks around the country on energy and energy security matters. He previously served as deputy director of Middle East policy at the Pentagon.