AUSTIN, Texas – The commanding general of the U.S. Army Futures Command sat down with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Dec. 17 for a discussion on 2020, and AFC’s past, present and future. The topics ranged from a soon-to-launch software factory, the latest round of international cyberattacks, as well as Operation Warp Speed and the impact of COVID-19 and teleworking on command operations.
Gen. John M. Murray was joined by retired Judge Craig Enoch in a virtual, live-streamed discussion, which marked the chamber’s final event of the year. Enoch, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, is the chamber’s board chair and a practicing attorney in Austin who was part of the community initiative helping land AFC in Austin in 2018.
“Austin is known for our burgeoning tech industry and the talents that supports it,” Enoch said. “That’s why the Army is here.”
AFC stood-up July 1, 2018, then achieved full operational capability on July 31, 2019 with a mission to lead the Army’s transformational modernization. Austin bested several cities, in part due to the Texas capital’s nascent tech industry, as compared to the nation’s other technology corridors, and its proximity to the University of Texas at Austin and other academic partners. Additionally, the Capital Factory, a startup-accelerator known as the center of gravity for entrepreneurs in Texas, was a key factor in Austin’s selection.
In an effort to maintain military superiority, Army Futures Command is connecting with innovators in Austin and other vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystems. The goal is to spur development inside research universities and throughout the private sector to bring game-changing technology quickly to soldiers in the field.
Army Software Factory
“We liked the potential that Austin has as a tech hub,” Murray said. “In fact, in January, we’re standing up the Army Software Factory in partnership with Austin Community College. We also have agreements in place with some of the leading technology companies in Austin.”
As a result, in the near future, Army soldiers will become high-tech “MacGyvers”–able to quickly improvise when adversaries compromise their cyber-based battle systems and communications networks. They’ll become coders and masters of tech, but they’ll also retain old-school ways provided through traditional Army training when technology fails them or is knocked offline by adversaries.
The software factory’s pilot program will place soldiers to support the beginning stages of combat technology development and keep them involved to solve real problems for real soldiers in a real time.
“We are very conscious of how we build protections into new Army technologies–but we’re also very conscious about continuing to train like we’ve always trained in the Army,” Murray said. “Take navigation, for instance. I used to keep a Rand McNally road atlas in my car. I still do–however, today I just plug-in my GPS. I trust it but I could still pull out a map if I needed to.”
That same line of thinking pertains to today’s Army, starting with boot camp recruits, he said. Soldiers will use technology when helpful–and available–but can still complete their missions without it.
“We know we’re going to be challenged on future battlefields,” Murray said. “We know we’re going to have the spectrum taken away from us–or at least for periods of time. And we know we’re vulnerable in terms of the machines we rely upon. That’s why we’re always going to have good, old-fashioned manual backups.”
The “spectrum” in this case refers to the “electromagnetic spectrum,” a series of frequencies ranging from radio waves to microwaves, visible light, X-rays and gamma rays. Of course, different parts of the spectrum serve different military purposes.
Not all of the challenges are speculative, future challenges, some are happening in real time, now.
Recent International Cyberattacks
“Cyber warfare and the hacking of U.S. networks by foreign aggressors is all over the news this week,” Enoch said. “Quashing those attacks early-on seems to play into what Army Futures Command is doing–developing the latest and greatest technological advances. How do you work with our technology community yet recognize the absolute need for keeping what you’re doing secret? How does that process work?”
“I have less concerns in sharing basic science,” Murray said, “but when you get into applied science and technology and into development, then we’ve got to figure out, as a country, how to better protect intellectual property that is first-class in the world starting at our universities.”
No technology can be made truly impenetrable or not subjected to subversion.
“I don’t think you can build a piece of technology that can’t be taken control of,” Murray said. “That’s part of everything we think about as we design things. However, I do think the Army is going to become more dependent on technologies like artificial intelligence, for example.”
The lines of effort press forward to ensuring the eventual tools empower soldiers on the battlefield to make better decisions.
“But our real focus is enabling humans to begin to allow machines to do what they do best and humans to do what humans do best,” Murray said. “A lot of that is the context and decision-making that goes along with the decisions we ask our young commanders to make on the battlefield.”
COVID-19 and Operation Warp Speed
AFC has played a key role in Operation Warp Speed, the public–private partnership initiated by the U.S. government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacture and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
“Our leading scientists have been on the advisory board of in Operation Warp Speed since the March timeframe in terms of accelerated vaccine development,” Murray said.
Those efforts included small but vital support such deployment of 3D-printing operations to produce cotton swabs for coronavirus testing.
The Army Medical Research & Development Command (USAMRDC), an AFC subordinate command, is running three lines of effort: treatment by Army physicians and medical staff, production of personal protective equipment (PPE) and PPE distribution.
“Our contribution has probably been understated, and that’s OK because the big part was getting this done,” Murray said. “And then of course you’ve got Gen. Gus Perna who’s just knocking it out of the park in terms of getting the vaccine distributed.”
Perna is Operation Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, confirmed by the U.S. Senate to oversee the logistics related to the federal government’s medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of the Army research into COVID-19 treatments has taken place at Fort Detrick, Md., under the leadership of Brig. Gen. Michael J. Talley, USAMRDC’s commanding general. In addition to Army medical research, USAMRDC also runs about 75 percent of the Department of Defense’s medical research.
The USAMRDC manages and executes research in five basic areas: military infectious diseases, combat casualty care, military operational medicine, chemical biological defense, and clinical and rehabilitative medicine
Murray said the Army is also developing its own COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s not nearly as far along as the some of the other vaccines out there, but we are preparing for human trials soon,” he said. “The interesting thing about the Army’s vaccine is that we think it can be easily modified to adapt to future mutations of the virus–much like traditional flu vaccines that mutate year-to-year.”
On Remote Working
Enoch discussed how the current pandemic environment has changed the way Americans do business and asked about its impact at Army Futures Command.
“I think we’ve learned some lessons up-front that we sometimes forget as we get further and further into this pandemic,” Murray said. “One of those lessons was, that you’ve got to think forward in time, like putting measures in place that might not be needed for two or three weeks. That’s just how this virus works.”
He said shifting significant portions of personnel to remote work has not impacted the command’s operations, but attributed the continued success on recently authorized technologies to ensure continued interconnectivity.
“I think we are just as effective now as we were on Jan. 1,” Murray said.
“We never had communications tools like these before,” Murray said. “This new access has helped us in terms of the ability to do remote work. One of the lessons is that you can get a lot done with remote work.”
“I do think there’s room for expanding remote work,” Murray said. “It does take a different style of leadership, and you actually have to spend more time talking with people than you do when you’re all together in one space.”
For the full discussion,