By Jacqueline M. HamesJune 3, 2019
The gap between an idea for new equipment and an actual capability can become a chasm--budgetary restrictions, technological setbacks and bureaucratic processes occasionally leave a promising technological advancement languishing in the metaphorical "valley of death," never to reach the Soldiers it was meant to help.
With the operational landscape constantly changing, keeping up with and exceeding the technologies of near-peer adversaries is one of the main goals of the Army's modernization efforts. Delivering critical capabilities to Soldiers in the field quickly is essential to the success of modernization and the new Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) is here to ensure that success through its updated mission.
The focus of the organization was electronic warfare, cyber, survivability, and positioning, navigation and timing when it was originally stood up as the Army Rapid Capabilities Office in the summer of 2016, explained Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, director of Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition, who also serves as director of the RCCTO. The mission was updated in December 2018, after Secretary of the Army Mark Esper signed a new charter, renaming the organization and adjusting its mission. Now, the RCCTO is responsible for developing rapid experimental prototypes and fielding residual combat capabilities--a change that is reflected in the organization's new name. "Adapting to changing conditions and threats, the current focus is on the areas of hypersonics, directed energy and space, while continuing to execute existing missions," Thurgood said.
CROSSING THE VALLEY
In the defense acquisition community, the valley of death is often defined as the gap between a science and technology effort and a formal acquisition program--efforts and demonstrations that end up in this space have lost momentum for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it is lack of funding; other times, it may be insufficient transition planning or risk aversion.
Bridging the gap from the science and technology community to a program of record means having technological custody of an idea from its birth through delivering a prototype given to Soldiers, and continuing through the transition to a program of record with a consistent team across all domains, Thurgood said.
"The RCCTO must be able to matrix teams that are aggregated for a defined outcome and de-aggregated when the mission is complete, very much like a commercial industry partner would execute," he added. In other words, the RCCTO brings together people as needed from partner organizations as a temporary team to push a capability through the prototype design and delivery to Soldiers--and as it moves into a program of record, the matrix team of experts disperses or moves with it.
Those partner organizations stem from the priority programs determined by the RCCTO's Board of Directors. For example, the RCCTO is currently leveraging personnel from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and PEO Missiles and Space as it develops a prototype long-range hypersonic weapon.
As the Board of Directors, led by the Secretary of the Army--and including the Chief of Staff of the Army, Under Secretary of the Army, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, the Army Acquisition Executive, and the commanding general of Army Futures Command--assigns additional materiel missions and priorities, the RCCTO will team with different organizations.
"Under the Board of Directors, the RCCTO executes modernization priorities. Our current top priority is hypersonic weapons, which are capable of flying at five times the speed of sound or faster, and are key to the service's top modernization priority: long-range precisions fires," Thurgood said. "Delivering hypersonics, directed energy and space prototypes to our Soldiers is essential to our nation's ability to stay ahead of our near-peer adversaries."
Several distinctive authorities are laid out in RCCTO's updated charter, one of which is an in-house senior contracting official, who enables the office to execute its own contracts for board-assigned projects, Thurgood said. "On June 12, we'll introduce some of these unique contracting authorities and upcoming opportunities when we host our first RCCTO Industry Open House in Huntsville, Alabama. The event will update industry on the RCCTO's planned timeline, structure and opportunities in developing hypersonics, directed energy and other technologies," he said.
As the director, Thurgood's goal is to deliver capabilities to Soldiers--period. The RCCTO's immediate focus is on delivering a long-range hypersonic weapon prototype to an Army battery by 2023, he said--a timeline that beats initial fielding estimates by two years.
The land-based hypersonic weapon made its first appearance in the science and technology domain of 2011, as part of the Pentagon's Conventional Prompt Global Strike program, but it has since transitioned into the prototyping phase. The Army is completing the design work on the long-range hypersonic weapon prototype and, starting next year, plans to conduct tests focusing on range, environmental extremes and contested environments.
"Fielding an offensive hypersonic capability is a major Army modernization priority to enable the National Defense Strategy. We are not doing this alone and continue to work closely with the other services and the Army Long-Range Precision Fires Cross Functional Team, the Fires Center of Excellence and others across the Army enterprise to accelerate this critical capability," Thurgood said.
Army laboratories have demonstrated that the long-range hypersonic weapon capability and the underlying fundamental technology can work. The experimental prototyping program now being used to bring the operational and combat-capable prototype to Soldiers will lead to a "program of record in the more traditional sense," Thurgood said. The team that will help make that seamless transition into the program of record is already embedded in the prototyping effort. "We're planning jointly now with the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space, which is the transition organization. Our part is the experimental prototype, where we are building a new common-hypersonic glide body using an existing Army, refurbished trailer and truck, a new launcher design, and an existing Army command and control system," he said.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Department of the Army, the Department of the Air Force, Department of the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency issued a memorandum of agreement in June 2018 that governs the development of the common hypersonic glide body, which will be used by the Army, Air Force and Navy. According to the memorandum, the OSD is leading the design effort, which transfers to the Navy in FY20, and the Army is tasked to lead the glide body production and transition that production out of the government into the industrial base.
The new weapon will provide Soldiers with ultrafast, maneuverable, long-range missiles that can be launched from ground platforms and enable the Army to operate in the Anti Access/Area Denial environment through penetrating and disrupting enemy air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and anti-satellite weapons, Thurgood explained.
FIGHTING WITH LASERS
While directed energy capabilities have been a part of the Army's science and technology community for some time, they are fairly new to formal acquisition. Now, the RCCTO, in partnership with the Army Futures Command (AFC), is tasked with bringing directed energy out of the science and technology realm and into prototyping. The RCCTO and AFC developed a strategy for these new capabilities that was approved by Army leadership in May, Thurgood said.
These capabilities offer "precision, controllability, predictability and repeatability to meet threats from our near-peer adversaries. They are planned as a key component in the Army's multi-domain operations, providing force protection against adversary rockets, mortars and manned [and] unmanned aircraft," he said.
Right now, the Army is focused on developing high-energy laser systems to fulfill the immediate needs of the Soldier. A high-energy laser is an energy beam traveling at the speed of light that has immediate beginning effects on the target. "The entire kill chain for a laser engagement is much shorter than conventional kinetic engagements," Thurgood said. "From sensor tracking to laser engagement, directed energy weapons create the opportunity for increased Soldier survivability on the battlefield."
The Army's current directed energy demonstrations are on the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicle and Stryker platforms. The RCCTO is creating a path forward for the integration as prototypes that will have residual combat capability for Soldier's to use in combat.
In trying to bridge the valley of death, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, Dr. Bruce. D. Jette, has recognized that senior leadership should proceed deliberately and with forethought when deciding which programs to fund and transition to programs of record. Now, the RCCTO's updated mission and vision makes that programmatic choice easier--not only for senior leadership, but also future program managers--through spearheading development of critical capabilities and technologies, while facilitating the complex transition into a program of record.