WASHINGTON: “My fear is we are a T-Rex….at the top of the food chain, right up until the day we’re extinct,” James “Hondo” Geurts once said of the US military. As acquisitions chief at Special Operations Command, Geurts has won acclaim and awards for rapid, affordable innovation, from modified Hellfire missiles to high-tech body armor and laser weapons. No less a legend of acquisition reform than former Defense Secretary Bill Perry held up his work as a model for the rest of the armed forces.
The open question: Can Hondo bottle the lightning from SOCOM and apply it to shipbuilding?
It’s the far end of the spectrum from Special Operations Command, which mostly modifies technology developed elsewhere for a relatively small number of users. SOCOM also enjoys unique authorities and independence from the procurement bureaucracy of the four armed services. (Cyber Command is getting a similar blend of a combatant command’s authority to issue urgent requirements and a service’s authority to buy to them).
Geurts replaces Sean Stackley, who by contrast spent decades in the specialized and expensive world of shipbuilding. A Navy Academy graduate, Stackley worked on a Canadian frigate program, Navy destroyers, and amphibious ships for Marines before going to work for the Senate seapower subcommittee. As assistant Navy Secretary for research, development, and acquisition (RDA), Stackley was highly respected on both the Hill and in the Pentagon. He’s a tightly controlled, precise and deeply committed leader. He stayed on this long until the Trump administration to smooth the transition to a new leadership team.
Geurts is a very different character, starting with being something of a character. Even their style contrasts: Stackley is bespectacled, thin and intense; Geurts is stocky, jovial, and prone to pop-culture references. In presentations, he likes playing rock music by the Black Keys or video of a smartphone ad featuring Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber.
Geurts is also a retired Air Force colonel – hence the callsign “Hondo” – with degrees from George Washington University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as from several Defense Department schools. So underneath the plain-talking ex-jock exterior is a serious military-industrial intellectual. This side of Geurts was on particularly clear display during the Army’s July “Mad Scientist” conference on the future of war:
“Pivot speed is going to be even more critical (because) we’re kind of in this age of surprise, so things can happen much more quickly than we’re used to,” Geurts told the audience at Georgetown University. In the classic “OODA loop” construct – observe, orient, decide, and act – “we used to have a great advantage of being able to observe things other folks couldn’t observe,” he said, but the spread of technologies like drones, commercial imagery satellites, cellphone cameras, and social media is changing that. “Pretty soon everybody will be able to observe everything,” he said. “Then it’s who can understand it and act on it more quickly that becomes the coin of the realm.”
In that competition, Geurts went on, democratic societies might have an advantage over authoritarian ones: Sure, the authoritarians can make up their minds faster – the decide step – but their enforced conformity and closed-door decision-making means they may not get enough different perspectives on the problem – hindering the “orient”/analysis stage. The need to exploit this potential advantage and getting beyond the military’s comfort zone, he said, is part of the reason for the SOFWERX outreach program beyond traditional defense contractors to small business and academia. (Obama’s last defense secretary, Ashton Carter, launched similar initiatives).
At another conference back in 2015, the same one where he made the T-Rex reference, Geurts said (starting at 28:30) that “the thing that keeps me up at night is complacency…. SOCOM’s role, I think, is to help push the edge both in technology and just as importantly how do we transition technology quickly to the field. From that, the services can partner with us, they can do it at scale, but if somebody’s not pushing that, we’ll never get to that first step.”
Now Geurts is moving from to the services. His greatest challenge will be to see how well his approach will scale.
Edited 5:40 pm to clarify description of SOCOM acquisition authorities.