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Army Takes On Requirements: ‘Everybody’s Got To Change’

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

Gen. David Perkins, TRADOC commander.

Gen. David Perkins, TRADOC commander.

WASHINGTON: “Everybody’s got to change.” That’s the message from Army Gen. David Perkins, about everything from concepts to training to weapons programs. “A couple of weeks ago, we had a meeting with the Secretary of the Army and the Chief of Staff,” he said. “They said, ‘look, this is not business as usual.”

“Everybody is going to have to change something about what they’re doing, otherwise you’re probably not doing it right. The senior leadership has made that very clear,” Perkins emphasized, speaking yesterday just after a morning talk at the Stimson Center and just before an afternoon of high-level Pentagon meetings. Their agenda, he said: “how do we not get bogged down by the bureaucracy, getting the lowest common denominator, but really trying to innovate and drive change?”

The largest — and often slowest to change — of the armed services now faces a fast-paced and unpredictable world where its bureaucracy just can’t keep up, said Perkins. In particular, he said, “the acquisition-requirements process…is not going to be able to deliver what we need when we need it in the future.”

Indeed, though Perkins didn’t say so, when you consider the Army’s 12-year streak of canceled programs from Comanche to the Crusader to the Ground Combat Vehicle, neither the service nor the process has delivered for decades. Making it deliver requires reforming not just the acquisition side of the Army but also the organization Perkins took over in March, the military priesthood known as the Training and Doctrine Command.

Crusader howitzer

The cancelled Crusader howitzer in testing.

“We’re changing TRADOC dramatically,” Perkins said. The command oversees everything from boot camp to field manuals to the laborious formulation of the official “requirements” that govern every weapons program. TRADOC has an unhappy history of writing requirements that either focus too narrowly on solving one problem while creating others — which is how the Crusader howitzer grew to 55 tons — or aim too high at technology that isn’t ready for real-world use — like the Future Combat System of networked robots, sensors, and air-deployable vehicles. “Requirements is a problem,” Perkins said, “and the bureaucracy that has grown up around that process is a challenge that we have to address.”

That statement puts Perkins on a collision course with TRADOC’s entrenched tribes. “There’s all kinds of parochialism,” Perkins said. “Everybody’s parochial except for you, right?” The most important are the branch “schoolhouses” that govern doctrine, training, and requirements for particular parts of the Army: helicopters at Fort Rucker, logistics at Fort Lee, armor and infantry at Fort Benning, and many more.

“Our requirements are very narrowly defined,” Perkins had told the audience at Stimson earlier. “If you’re down at Fort Rucker, you’re the helicopter guy, you’re all about buying the very best helicopter, [but] up at CASCOM at Fort Lee where all our logisticians are, they’re worrying about how many fuel trucks it will take to run this helicopter. Well, that may not actually be your concern at Fort Rucker. What we’re saying is, it needs to be.”

Those logistical concerns are especially important if the Army is to become more “expeditionary,” able to react rapidly and effectively to crises around the world. Its current dilemma is to take months massing heavy forces or to swiftly send light forces that may be undergunned for the job. “If this is like a 4-alarm blaze and you show up with squirt gun, you’ve responded, ok, you just can’t resolve that problem,” Perkins said.

The Army traditionally gravitates towards “exquisite” equipment that excels at its chosen purpose in its intended environment, but sacrifices logistical practicality and adaptability. The M1 Abrams tank, designed to stop the Russians in Central Europe, can shrug off enemy armor-piercing shells but burns three gallons of jet fuel per mile; it even burns gas standing still. The sophisticated command-and-control network the Army used in Afghanistan and Iraq took years of work and countless miles of fiber optic cable to set up; it also burns gas, in a myriad of diesel generators. Neither was designed for rapid deployment into different environments.

Soldiers test a never-deployed "flying beer keg" Future Combat Systems drone.

Soldiers test a never-deployed “flying beer keg” Future Combat Systems drone.

But that’s exactly what the Army now needs to do. “A year ago, how many people thought we’d have 1,000s of soldiers en route to Africa to deal with Ebola?” Perkins asked. In the new Army Operating Concept — now in its final draft before  publication at the Association of the US Army conference in mid-October — “what we’re saying is, the future is unknown and unknowable.”

The classic AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1980s — which gave rise to weapons like the M1 tank — boiled down to “fight outnumbered and win,” Perkins said. In the new concept,  he said, “we’ve defined the problem in the same number of syllables [i.e. six]: ‘win in a complex world.”

In the good old, bad old days, the Soviets had NATO outnumbered, but at least you were facing “an exquisitely well-known enemy,” Perkins said. The new doctrine must equip the Army — physically and mentally — for threats that are “unknown and unknowable and always changing,” he said. “That means you can’t put your eggs in one basket….Exquisite solutions have exquisite weaknesses.””

The Army’s current process, though, builds exquisite Fabergé eggs like the Future Combat System — and then drops the basket. That needs to change.

“What happens a lot of time in our requirements process is we focus on a thing” — a specific piece of equipment in isolation —  “versus a capability of the formation” — the performance of the unit as a whole, said Perkins, “which is why I’m going to be spending quality time this afternoon hanging around with the Under Secretary of the Army and Vice-Chief of Staff, [focusing] specifically on that piece: how do we get a better view of the total capabilities we’re looking at, versus just a thing?”

One problem, though, I mentioned to Perkins after his public remarks, is that broadening the requirements process by consulting even more stakeholders will hardly help to speed it up. “These things are dual-edged swords,” he acknowledged. “The first thing we’re trying to do is identify the pitfalls…. Eventually I want to start making good decisions, but my priority right now is to prevent bad decisions.”

What do you think?