They came in a trickle, and then in a flood: operational needs statements from troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking for new equipment to adapt to the changing fight.

The Army stepped up to the plate, delivering a slew of quick reaction capabilities that improved lethality and survivability. From the Joint Network Node -- Network and the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle to a multitude of systems for force protection and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the new gear ran the gamut of the Army's weapon system portfolio--but mostly avoided the life cycle management process.

Instead, experts in the operations, acquisition, research and doctrine communities took state-of-the-art commercial and military technology, quickly adapted and prototyped it for the Army's needs, determined it was good enough, procured it fast and sent it to the fight. Commanders in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) got the capabilities they needed, and their feedback helped improve the systems, several of which the Army later incorporated into programs of record and fielded across the force.

Fast forward to today, as the Army battles to maintain technological superiority against sophisticated competitors such as Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Acting in cyberspace and on the ground in places like Ukraine, these and other potential adversaries have demonstrated vulnerabilities in U.S. systems that put our troops at risk. The Army recognizes that these threats are evolving faster than our challenging acquisition processes, complex bureaucracies and large organizations can support.

To reduce that risk, the Army is now modernizing the improvisational quick reaction model that worked for Iraq and Afghanistan and making the model a permanent and institutionalized part of our acquisition system that considers life cycle trades. Beyond closing current capability gaps, this initiative also will stimulate aggressive, proactive capability development and leverage disruptive technologies that force our adversaries to respond to us--not the other way around.

That is the purpose of the new Army Rapid Capabilities Office, which recently launched under the direction of Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Performing the Duties of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology the Hon. Katrina McFarland. A critical piece of acquisition reform efforts, the Rapid Capabilities Office gives the Army an organization specifically dedicated to expediting the acquisition of select capabilities that will meet emerging operational needs and achieve future strategic objectives.

LOOKING TO THE HORIZON

The Army Rapid Capabilities Office arrives in a volatile, unpredictable global security environment. As senior DOD and Army leaders have stressed, the U.S. military's long-held technological edge is eroding as our adversaries look to exploit our weaknesses and counter our overmatch. DOD's Third Offset Strategy seeks to retake and retain that technological advantage so that our nation maintains and enhances its ability to project force and deter enemy activity around the world. In a budget-constrained environment, the third offset emphasizes smart and innovative investments in capabilities that sustain and advance America's military dominance for the 21st century.

Against this backdrop, the Rapid Capabilities Office has a critical role to play in ensuring that the Army is ready today and prepared for tomorrow. Acting as both planner and accelerator, the organization will aim to address current and future Army needs across the tactical, operational and strategic spectrums. Although flexible in its capability, the Rapid Capabilities Office will focus primarily on the highest-priority Army requirements with the intent to deliver an operational effect within one to five years. It will help Soldiers in the field today while building an advantage for those who will follow in their footsteps.


To that end, the organization will provide expertise not solely focused on materiel; it seeks to provide holistic solutions that inform the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities and policy impacts of implementing new capabilities within the operational Army. Rapid Capabilities Office solutions will be user-driven, leverage military and commercial innovation, and deliver capabilities that aren't perfect but are game-changing nonetheless. Additionally, the organization will act as an agent of change within the total force acquisition system by challenging traditional approaches and implementing streamlined methods, processes and techniques.

THE RAPID MODEL

The Army is not the first service to stand up a dedicated rapid prototyping and fielding office for strategic gain. The idea comes from the U.S. Air Force, which created its own Rapid Capabilities Office in 2003 when it became clear that existing acquisition processes could not speed critical technologies to production to counter asymmetric threats. The new office was to be lean, secretive and empowered, with a direct line to the service secretary and chief of staff.

In establishing its rapid capabilities organization and operating principles, the Air Force didn't have to start from scratch. Several major defense contractors, most famously Lockheed Martin Corp. and its secretive rapid capabilities branch, provided a precedent for shedding traditional bureaucracy and getting state-of-the-art systems out the door fast. Keys to the vendors' success included a short, narrow chain of command; a small, motivated engineering and test team; autonomy and central decision-making authority; and acceptance of an "80 percent" solution to outfox the enemy rather than answer every detail of a requirement.

The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office succeeded in developing and fielding rapid prototypes, including an integrated air defense system for the National Capital Region that combined tower-mounted radars, aircraft identification and visual warning systems. Making use of commercial technology and agile testing, the project was completed in less than two years and operational in time for the 2005 U.S. presidential inauguration. As the organization matured, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office also began to manage larger, highly classified projects such as the Long Range Strike Bomber program without abandoning the mentality that made it effective.

ARMY RAPID CAPABILITIES OFFICE TAKES SHAPE

The Air Force experience has proved valuable to the Army in shaping its Army Rapid Capabilities Office over the past several months. For example, like its Air Force counterpart, the Army Rapid Capabilities Office reports to a board of directors led by the secretary of the Army and including the chief of staff and the Army acquisition executive. The board directs the Army Rapid Capabilities Office to explore materiel solutions based on identified threats, capability gaps and technology opportunities, triggering proto-typing efforts.

All decision-making authority related to the organization's projects will flow from the board of directors to the Rapid Capabilities Office, including addressing requirements refinement, acquisition tailoring, contracting execution, testing and potential limited fielding decisions. This streamlined structure is essential for the organization to meet its rapid acquisition mandate and maintain a competitive edge.

The Army is also following the Air Force example by incorporating early and prominent warfighter involvement into the prototyping process, to ensure that materiel solutions are not only vetted by operators but also delivered to units as a holistic capability with the right support and tactics, techniques and procedures in place. In addition to having an operational community presence on its staff and providing matrix support, the Army Rapid Capabilities Office will work with receiving units or their representatives to confirm prototypes' utility to Soldiers and to expedite the test and evaluation process.

However, the Army Rapid Capabilities Office departs from the Air Force model in several ways to meet the Army's distinct needs. Though technically an acquisition organization, the Rapid Capabilities Office is a total Army effort that will leverage capabilities and expertise from across the service, especially the Army staff, program executive offices (PEOs), the training and doctrine community, intelligence community and science and technology community. The Army Rapid Capabilities Office's initial technology focus will be on the areas of cyber, electronic warfare, survivability, and positioning, navigation and timing (PNT). These capabilities--in high demand to meet current and future threats--are also cross-cutting, meaning that they affect and integrate with systems across different program portfolios. The classification levels of rapid capability projects will vary based on need, but keeping details out of adversaries' hands will be paramount.

Operating in stealth should not be mistaken for operating in a vacuum. While the office's institutional prominence and authorities are new, the concept of rapid acquisition is not. In addition to mirroring the Air Force organization, the Army Rapid Capabilities Office is incorporating lessons learned through other rapid acquisition efforts. These include the quick reaction capabilities and the prototypes-turned-programs form OIF and OEF; exercises like the Network Integration Evaluation; and specialized entities such as the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, the U.S. Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

THE 'SWEET SPOT'

Another thing that makes the Army Rapid Capabilities Office unique is its focus on projects with a one- to five-year horizon for completion. This mission is complementary to programs of record that aim deeper into the future, as well as to the REF, which has a 180-day turnaround time. While a REF project delivers a specific piece of kit to meet the urgent operational needs of a specific forward-deployed unit, the Army Rapid Capabilities Office will provide more units with broader capability solutions, such as a family of PNT or electronic warfare technologies that deliver a combined operational effect.

Aiming for the one- to five-year "sweet spot" allows the Army Rapid Capabilities Office to concentrate on leap-ahead prototypes that will have immediate or near-term operational relevance for our forces operating in contested environments, as well as projects with potential to meet future strategic objectives and fill gaps. As disruptive technologies emerge in the commercial and military sectors, the organization will provide a streamlined path for the Army to adapt, acquire and field critical capabilities.

At the same time, the organization will enable the Army to match and outpace future adversaries by promoting innovation, experimentation and risk-taking earlier in the technology life cycle.

While each project will have a different time frame for investigation and completion, the process can be tailored to allow the Army to respond to current contingencies. Ordinarily, enduring capabilities resulting from the Army Rapid Capabilities Office's efforts will transition to a PEO for continued production, modification, sustainment and support.

These limits on scope illustrate that the Army Rapid Capabilities Office is not a substitute for the acquisition practice. Its goal is not to procure systems to outfit the entire Army, but rather to use targeted investments to execute strategic prototyping, concept evaluation and limited equipping--especially in areas where technology progresses rapidly.

This approach is consistent with congressional emphasis and DOD Better Buying Power efforts on prototyping as a means of acquisition reform. In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, which became law in November 2015, lawmakers described a middle tier of acquisition to support rapid prototyping and fielding projects. The law laid out new pathways for such projects that remove various process, funding and regulatory hurdles to streamline capability delivery. As one component of the Army's larger acquisition reform efforts, the Rapid Capabilities Office, like its Air Force counterpart and a similar office recently created by the Navy, can take advantage of this foundation to further expedite solutions to the field.

CONCLUSION

Just as it is impossible to predict exactly what the Army's next conflict will be, we can't always foresee the necessary battlefield technologies until the moment of need, as Soldiers discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan. By creating a dedicated organization to proactively expedite critical combat capabilities, we will send fewer shorthanded troops to today's and tomorrow's fights. If we work hard and get it right, the Rapid Capabilities Office will enable the Army to address evolving threats and build our nation's technological advantage through rapid procurement of innovative technologies that change the equation for our Soldiers.

For more information, contact Maj. (P) Marcos Cervantes at marcos.a.cervantes.mil@mail.mil.

This article was originally published in the October -- December 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.