The Power of Prototypes
By Lt. Col. Marcos A. Cervantes
Army AL&T magazine (September 18, 2017) -- Last August, senior Army leaders unveiled a new secret weapon. But it wasn’t a missile or a radar or a tank. It was the Army Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), a new organization designed to cut through the bureaucracy and rapidly deploy technologies to combatant commanders in order to address high-priority strategic threats.
The office’s mandate, said Gen. Mark A. Milley, the Army chief of staff, was “to ensure that we’re pursing the right capabilities for our Army today and tomorrow, and to do it very quickly, and to cut through the red tape with a direct line to the secretary [of the Army] and myself—with no hurdles to jump and no bureaucracy to get lost in.”
A year later, the RCO has followed through by deploying the Army’s newest rapid prototype, which brings new defensive and offensive electronic warfare capabilities to the tactical level. Soldiers in the forests of Europe and the deserts of southwest Texas have evaluated the first phase of the RCO’s electronic warfare efforts, which combine multiple existing systems from the Army’s inventory with emerging technologies to enable ground maneuver in contested electromagnetic environments. As the RCO’s first project, the electronic warfare capability is also setting a precedent for incremental and rapid integration of prototypes for operational assessment and deployment.
Bridge to the Future Force
While the RCO continues to evolve, it’s making the progress that Milley and other senior leaders envisioned. Formed as a direct pipeline for senior leaders to address combatant commanders’ strategic-level gaps against near-peer threats, the RCO serves as a bridge to enduring Army programs by fielding a “good enough” solution that meets a critical need now, and continuously adding new technology as the state of the art progresses.
The RCO’s one- to five-year timeframe for equipment delivery fits between the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, which has the task of delivering commercial-off-the-shelf items to deployed company-level units in less than two years—and usually in 180 days or less—and traditional programs of record, which often take many years to field and are intended to provide enduring equipment for the entire force. The RCO is also focused on providing combatant commanders decisive capabilities in contested environments, with the initial focus areas of cyber, electronic warfare, robotics, counter-unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT).
The power behind the RCO is the direct involvement of the secretary of the Army, the chief of staff of the Army and the Army acquisition executive, who together make up a board of directors that makes decisions on RCO projects. The RCO also incorporates direct feedback from combatant commanders and collaboration across the acquisition and operational communities into its operating model.
The advantage of using integrated prototypes that cross portfolios is that it enables the Army to respond quickly as new threats emerge, tailoring its tactics for each project. The RCO can also fail quickly, not being locked into traditional constraints found with programs of record. Instead, a prototype serves as a working model. Over time, that model is shaped into something that could become an official long-term program of record, or it could be scrapped if the capability doesn’t pan out or the threat changes.
Beyond responding to current gaps, the RCO is partnered with the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), DOD’s Strategic Capabilities Office, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and others. By participating in their efforts, and making small investments in a portfolio of promising technologies such as artificial intelligence and swarming drones, the RCO can help the Army prevent future capability gaps and even achieve overmatch. Being part of this rapid innovation ecosystem allows the Army to insert technology from proven sources into the Army formations that need them most.
Even before the formal August 2016 office announcement, the RCO was taking shape. Behind the scenes, the Army filled key leadership roles by pairing a civilian acquisition expert with a uniformed operational expert. Douglas K. Wiltsie, the director of the System of Systems Engineering and Integration Directorate within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology and a former program executive officer, became the RCO director. Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, the director of operations in the HQDA G-3/5/7, became the RCO director of operations. Wiltsie brought significant acquisition and technical expertise based on his tenure in the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Enterprise Information Systems and the PEO for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors (IEW&S). Piatt contributed decades of operational experience based on numerous commands and deployments—including a recent tour as the deputy commanding general for U.S. Army Europe (ground zero for the need to deter near-peer threats).
With leadership in place, work began immediately. Senior leaders and Army staff prioritized operational needs statements (ONS) from the field, and the board of directors directed the RCO to address an ONS from U.S. Army Europe seeking electronic warfare capabilities. The RCO partnered with the Program Manager for Electronic Warfare and Cyber (PM EW&C) within PEO IEW&S—and the Army’s broader electronic warfare, signals intelligence and cyber community—to sketch out a prototype concept and a corresponding timeline to rapidly integrate, assess and deploy the technology. The goal of the project was to provide units on the front lines in Europe something that didn’t exist in the Army inventory, but that they would need in any future conflict: an integrated electronic warfare capability for electronic detection, support and attack in contested environments. The capability would enable Soldiers to detect, identify and engage hostile emitters in the electromagnetic spectrum without being hobbled by enemy interference.
Moving prototypes to the field
After traveling to Europe to meet with the units requesting the technology, and ensuring the RCO’s proposal would meet their needs, it was time to get to work. Working side by side with PM EW&C, electronic warfare officers, Army headquarters staff, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command and others, the RCO condensed the acquisition process and brought its players closer together in order to get immediate results. The RCO maintained continuous dialogue with the field while advancing the electronic warfare systems through laboratory development and integration.
In the spring and summer of 2017, the systems participated in Network Integration Evaluation 17.2 at Fort Bliss, Texas, and in operational assessments in Europe that included Exercise Saber Junction and Exercise Saber Guardian. Soldiers provided constructive feedback on numerous aspects of the prototype—from the weight of the dismounted components that can find and attack enemy signals of interest, to the user interface of the mission command system that displays a common operating picture for the electromagnetic spectrum. Their feedback was not limited to the system itself: it also focused on critical implementation factors such as tactics, training and manning (e.g., whether additional electronic warfare officers are needed at various echelons). These tryouts led to improvements in advance of final assessments that are ongoing this fall, with the goal of limited deployment to Europe beginning early in 2018.
While this first phase of electronic warfare capability is not expected to be a perfect, enduring solution fielded to the entire Army, it will close a high-risk gap against a rapidly modernizing adversary until official programs of record arrive with more mature technology. It also is informing the programs of record, as PM EW&C can adjust plans and reduce risk based on Soldier feedback from the RCO interim solution.
Full Speed Ahead
At the same time as the RCO is deploying this electronic warfare capability to select units, it will also move forward to address other gaps and operational needs.
In its first year, the RCO also started a PNT project that aims to enable ground maneuver in GPS-denied environments so that Soldiers can operate safely and successfully despite enemy jamming attempts. Working with the PNT community, the RCO identified opportunities where viable technologies exist and accelerated their prototyping and integration. Initially these prototypes will be placed in priority combat vehicles while serving as a proof of concept for additional combat and combat support vehicles. An initial operational assessment of the capability is planned for the spring of 2018.
The RCO is also helping to shepherd and shape other Army urgent prototyping projects. Led by the Fires Center of Excellence at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Army delivered two prototype vehicles to Europe in March 2017. Known as the Counter-UAS (C-UAS) Mobile Integrated Capability, or CMIC, the system consists of Strykers integrated with advanced electronic capabilities to allow tactical units to detect, identify and defeat UAS through multiple different effects. This summer, through partners that included HQDA G-3/5/7, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center and the U.S. Army Communications-Electronic Research, Development and Engineering Center, a prototype system made its debut in Exercise Saber Strike. Known as the Remote Reconnaissance Vehicle Version 2 (R2V2), the unmanned ground and aerial capability can travel to areas where Soldiers can’t in order to collect information that provides real-time situational awareness of the electromagnetic spectrum. The RCO is supporting CMIC and R2V2 as part of ongoing electronic warfare efforts.
The RCO also continues to move forward as the Army looks to fill other crucial gaps that apply across various regions and threats. These areas include cyber, artificial intelligence, long-range precision fires and high-energy lasers. The RCO is already partnering with SOCOM and the Strategic Capabilities Office to advance swarm and anti-swarm capabilities through “ThunderDrone,” a two-month rapid prototyping event focused on drones, tactical swarms and their effects, culminating in a September 2017 demonstration of select systems.
At the same time the RCO is delivering prototypes, its Emerging Technologies Office (ETO) is forging ahead in outreach to everyone from traditional defense contractors to consortiums, small businesses, universities and others to identify the most promising technology. The ETO is looking at flexible and rapid industry engagement mechanisms and has established an open-door policy, both in person and through a secure web portal, to identify current gaps and match them with technology trends. The ETO has also partnered with the intelligence community and is poised to transition several disruptive technologies.
One year into its existence, the RCO is proving, through the power of prototypes, to be a change agent for addressing strategic-level urgent and evolving threats while informing the Army’s long-term modernization approach. In doing what it set out to do during its initial year, the RCO established a precedent in prototyping at a pace that is relevant to meet immediate demands and close strategic gaps.
Operating on a small scale, taking technology risks that larger programs can’t and finding interim solutions that help inform long-term programs, the RCO is playing a critical role in ensuring the Army is ready to meet real-time demands today through the power of prototyping and is prepared for unknown demands tomorrow.
COL MARCOS A. CERVANTES served as the deputy director for acquisition for RCO from August 2016 through August 2017, when he was selected as acquisition advisor to the Undersecretary of the Army. As one of the ROC’s first and founding employees, he helped build the RCO mission, culture, operations and accomplishments during its first year. Cervantes holds a B.S. in business administration from The Citadel and an MBA in systems acquisition management from the Naval Postgraduate School. He is Level III certified in program management, and is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
This article was originally published in the October – December 2017 issue of Army AL&T magazine.