It’s October 2019 and China unveils a hypersonic missile, Dongfeng-17, along with a new stealth combat drone, during a military parade. Two months later, Russia announces its successful deployment of Avangard, a hypersonic glide vehicle it claims can fly 27 times the speed of sound. Thousands of miles away in the Middle East, ongoing drone attacks demonstrate how low-tech weapons can create high-impact concerns.
As U.S. adversaries continue to modernize and adapt at a rapid rate, the U.S. Army is pursuing its own aggressive modernization strategy to prevail in current and future conflicts. One piece of that strategy requires rapidly transitioning technologies from industry and the science and technology community, developing them into combat-capable prototypes and delivering them to operational units on an expedited schedule. To accelerate this task, Army leaders empowered the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO) with the authority to accelerate development and delivery for several of the country’s most critical capabilities, including hypersonics, directed energy and disruptive technologies.
Key to executing this vision is the RCCTO’s relationship with industry. Instead of following a traditional acquisition path, the organization is asking vendors to take a leap of faith and develop first-of-a-kind prototypes in a limited number and on an expedited delivery schedule, often supplemented by internal research and development funds.
The prototypes not only equip the Army with a new line of weapons and inform future programs of record, but also give Army leaders options to incorporate new technologies and approaches in an increasingly complex environment. By investing their resources and intellectual property—often through deep networks of prime contractors and subcontractors throughout the industrial base—companies have an increased stake in the outcome of the rapid prototyping process.
The approach isn’t completely new, but more of a streamlined version. It’s still Army acquisition—with all of the responsibilities and safety concerns that come with providing a weapon to Soldiers. Yet in tailoring the traditional acquisition process to include unique authorities, abbreviated chain of command and rapid navigation or exemption from many of the traditional processes that govern a program of record, the RCCTO created a new relationship with industry that helps to break down barriers and allows innovation at the speed of relevance.
In this article, you’ll read about several of the key individuals at RCCTO who are implementing this new way of business, working with industry partners to execute rapid experimental prototypes and field residual combat capabilities to Soldiers.
The RCCTO project office leads discuss how rapid prototyping is helping the Army move faster and be a better partner for industry as they work together to deliver new weapons and technologies.
Dr. Craig Robin, Directed Energy Project Office
The Directed Energy Project Office is charged with delivering the Army’s first meaningful laser weapon for tactical use: 50 kilowatt (kW)-class lasers integrated on a platoon of Strykers by the 2022 fiscal year. The project office is also prototyping a 300 kW-class Indirect Fire Protection Capability – High Energy Laser for delivery to a platoon and partnering with the Air Force to deliver an Indirect Fire Protection Capability – High Power Microwave prototype, both in the 2024 fiscal year.
Directed energy is a completely new technology for the Army. Most other areas of modernization focus on the improvement of an existing weapon system, but directed energy represents a revolutionary change to the battlefield, while being a complementary capability to existing air defense weapon systems. Since directed energy is an emerging technology, the community is relatively small. This familiarity helps to enhance collaboration and coordination across the services and industry.
I began my career in the Air Force Research Laboratory, moved to industry, and then came back into the government with the Army. I know what it’s like to call a point of contact in the government and not get a response. And I know what it costs to pull together a white paper. Experience on both sides of this business gives me a unique perspective and the ability to effectively manage stakeholders across government and industry.
Lessons learned: The acquisition model we use calls for co-investment from industry in the early stages of prototype development, leading to a decision point for Army senior leaders with three outcomes: make more and enter into a program of record; cancel the effort; or send it back for more development. In executing this, we often perceive a “valley of death” as the insurmountable obstacle in keeping directed energy from transitioning to a program of record. Sometimes this is a self-imposed limitation and we are finding new ways to cross the bridge, to connect the science and technology communities in both government and industry with the program of record community.
At the same time, the RCCTO is organized to leverage this enthusiasm in industry as well as investment from other government agencies and authorities, like other-transaction authority, granted by Congress. We will transition a revolutionary and new weapon system to the warfighter by assembling the right team and providing senior leaders with a credible path to a capability.
Recent wins: All of our efforts are on track; holding steady on schedule and budget. Every day that our team battles through COVID-19 and continues to meet the mission is a win.
What’s next: Now we execute the programs approved by Army senior leadership and deliver directed energy capability to our Soldiers.
Mike Foster, Rapid Acquisition Prototyping Project Office
The Rapid Acquisition Prototyping Project Office accelerates acquisition and technology assessments to move prototypes that fall outside of hypersonics and directed energy through the RCCTO and into the hands of Soldiers. The most recent projects include hybrid power solutions for combat vehicles and advanced radar solutions.
Rapid is in my office name so moving fast is key. Our project timelines typically span two years or less to fielding. That’s from contract award to delivery of a prototype to Soldiers. In developing a prototype, we take some of the risk out for the project manager who will oversee the prototype once it becomes a program of record, and we partner with the project manager throughout the process.
The prototypes we are delivering provide a proof of concept — does it work? For example, we are working to rapidly prototype hybrid electric drives into Army combat vehicles as a key step in scaling up this widely available commercial technology. With this effort we will jump-start advanced hybridization of Army platforms and encourage industry to invest in these products. We’re starting with the Bradley vehicle as a surrogate. In working this effort, we already know that the battery location in the prototype vehicle is not where it will be for future uses. And that’s OK, because instead of spending months on designing where those batteries will go, we’re able to build a prototype and demonstrate that the technology works. Then, as the program of record comes along, they can look at the most effective place to put the batteries on the vehicle. That approach allows us to move out with delivery in under two years. And, in those two years, the batteries will be newer, more powerful and probably smaller for easier integration.
Lessons learned: This concept is new to industry partners who are used to traditional acquisition. So where they are used to hearing, “Design this,” we are saying, “We want it to do this, offer your expertise on how to do it.” We still make sure that it meets safety standards and we still have requirements. For industry, this process can be a shock, but it actually works very well for them. But communication is key. You have to be able to communicate and let them know exactly what the expectations are.
Recent wins: The Rapid Acquisition Prototyping Project Office and the RCCTO recently awarded an other-transaction authority prototype agreement for hybrid electric drives in an Army combat vehicle. The effort from contract award to delivery is expected to take 24 months. The Bradley is being used because of the size of the engine, which is smaller than other tracked vehicles and can then scale up to be applied to other platforms, including future vehicles. There are multiple benefits to hybrid electric drives, including fuel reduction, increased automotive performance, increased survivability (by reducing the thermal and acoustic signature of the vehicle), better acceleration capability and improved lethality. We see a lot of potential to benefit other Army platforms in the future.
What’s next: We will continue working closely with the Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems to integrate the hybrid electric system into two Bradley A2s. Once the prototyping effort is over and the two Bradley hybrid electric vehicles are complete, we will conduct government acceptance testing prior to handing it off to the Program Executive Office for Ground Combat Systems.
Rob Monto, Advanced Concepts & Experimentation Project Office
Within the RCCTO is a dedicated cell called the Advanced Concepts & Experimentation (ACE) Project Office. Its mission is to rapidly develop, test and transition advanced technologies to address high-priority items identified by Army leaders. Serving as a quick reaction cell for rigorous research and analysis, prototyping and assessment, ACE acts as a portal to national experts, academia, industry and startups.
We’re the Swiss Army knife of the organization. ACE is the closest thing to the science and technology part of the RCCTO, covering a wide spectrum of topics. We consider all concepts and ideas and provide information so senior leaders can make better informed decisions on emerging technology. We do that multiple different ways: by hosting innovation days, working with the science and technology community, and engaging with academia. Our mission is to look for innovation and find ways to introduce innovation into the Army.
Lessons learned: Industry sees us as a conduit to getting good ideas in front of Army leadership. And that’s a good thing. But in working with companies—many of which are not traditional defense contractors—we have to be careful to communicate each step of the process because it is not traditional acquisition. What we do is not cookie-cutter, so we are careful to say, “This is how we think it will work.”
Recent wins: We held two innovation day events—one in September 2019 and one in February 2020. The intent of innovation days is to allow companies to rapidly pitch new technologies and ideas that reduce near- and mid-term operational risks against near-peer adversaries. If selected by a board of Army leaders, the companies presenting these ideas could be awarded a contract to develop a prototype and potentially deliver an operational capability to the Army. Out of those events, we had almost 900 submissions and close to 80 were pitched to Army leaders and decision-makers. From those, 21 are in the process of moving forward either in concept refinement or for a possible contract award and two are already on contract to produce a rapid prototype. The technologies we selected are all on a one- to three-year timeframe for delivering prototypes to Soldiers.
What’s next: Executing, executing, executing.
Robert Strider, Army Hypersonics Project Office
Responsible for delivering the prototype Long Range Hypersonic Weapon to an Army battery by the 2023 fiscal year, the Army Hypersonics Project Office is also helping create a new U.S. industrial base for hypersonic weapons by moving production out of government laboratories and into commercial manufacturing.
The Army Hypersonic Project Office is working at a pace to rapidly field a prototype system. To do this, we pulled together a hand-picked group that has the talent in their specific areas and are not constrained with milestone decision processes that would slow this down. At the same time, we are making sure that the system we provide is safe to operate and has been tested to perform as designed.
We are creating a new industrial base by transitioning the technical knowledge from Sandia National Laboratories to industry. Sandia has had the key responsibility of developing the Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB), producing it and testing it for several years. There has been some excellent work to move this knowledge to our industry partners. To date, Sandia has trained some 66 personnel on the unique production methods used for the CHGB, and this will be the foundation to move the production out of the lab and into industry. Even with coronavirus restrictions, the team has managed to find ways to be successful, stay safe and stay on schedule.
Lessons learned: In working with industry, we keep it very transparent and all program reviews are done jointly. We are partnered with the Navy to execute hypersonics through use of a common glide body, missile design similarities and joint test opportunities. We are all truly one team. We don’t pay attention to the color of someone’s badge, but look to the capability and talent they bring and make the most use of it. Being fully transparent with our industry partners has created an open communication atmosphere.
Recent wins: The recent joint flight test with the Navy, Army, Office of the Secretary of Defense and Missile Defense Agency in March was a huge success in demonstrating the capability of the CHGB. It will also provide a wealth of data to anchor our models and simulations. Another win is the use of Soldier-centered design and Soldier touch-point events, where we work with Soldiers who will use the systems and bring them in to a virtual environment to get their input and influence the design of the equipment. Getting Soldier feedback early in the process and adjusting the design with their ideas is key to a successful delivery.
What’s next: We have two major tests with our joint partners in the near future. The first will be an extended range test to obtain more data on the performance of the CHGB. The second will be the first test of the Army’s fielded configuration and will be the first test with the new booster that both the Army and Navy will use. Another monumental event will be providing the launchers and the command and control to the Army’s operational unit later next fiscal year.
Julian Williams, Computing and Electronics Security Dominance
Computing and Electronics Security Dominance maps advanced technologies from innovators to Army warfighting capability gaps to develop rapid prototyping strategies to get emerging technologies to Soldiers.
The RCCTO charter provides our team with unique authorities, including the ability to forego creation of many of the standard DOD 5000 series documents. We are able to engage directly with technology providers in search of innovative state-of-the-art capabilities. We strive to develop rapid prototypes, enabling Soldiers to assess the items before we decide to invest in large quantities or develop formal requirements. This enables us to capture Soldier feedback directly and immediately to shape and influence future requirements. The RCCTO charter gives us the ability to move rapidly while engaging with warfighters and top technologists for input and to deliver capabilities much more quickly than the traditional acquisition process.
Executing a well-defined rapid prototyping process with direct Soldier input, coupled with innovative technologies, allows us to rapidly deliver capability to the warfighter.
Lesson learned: Communication is key. We strive to have frank, honest and transparent discussions so we can formulate a concept and then decide, as a team with industry, on the best path that is technically achievable and worthy of a prototype. We aim for a relatively short (normally 12 months or less) development-to-delivery period. Maintaining frequent, continuous and open communications with all stakeholders is of paramount importance in achieving success.
Recent wins: We are developing close relationships with many of the top performers in the field of cyber and computing and we are learning more each week. The differences are seen in the discussions we are able to have with our industry partners, allowing them to help us shape the prototype developments without formal requirements, but rather, based on the current technology and our collective inputs, to address a capability gap or enhance current systems.
What’s next: We are a relatively new office in the process of defining our cyber outreach and engagement strategy. Our goal is to leverage technology providers within government, academia and industry circles to garner the “best of breed” technologies to meet our challenges. We place special emphasis on engaging with small businesses and nontraditional defense industry providers to deliver new and innovative solutions to Army capability gaps and improve current systems.
Pete Manternach, Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project Office
The secretary of the Army established the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO) unmanned aircraft systems solutions. The RCCTO works in support of the JCO, as the acquisition and resources lead.
In order to keep pace with the rapidly evolving [small, unmanned aircraft system] threat, the services found separate solutions to meet immediate needs. This led to disparate systems with sustainment and training challenges. In January, DOD established the JCO to align these efforts. Since then, our main focus has been on establishing efficiencies and commonality across the services. In June, DOD leaders approved results of an evaluation of counter-small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities currently in the field and proceeded with seven interim systems and associated command and control.
Now, we’re working with industry to advance these interim systems against a larger threat set and bring in new systems to provide a scalable and layered counter-small unmanned aircraft systems defense. Following the selection of interim systems, we are focusing on identifying and consolidating technology developments into a DOD road map. The road map will align science and technology and research and development efforts among the services. From there, we will decentralize execution by identifying the appropriate acquisition organization to develop and transition those into joint capabilities and enduring solutions.
Lessons learned: To find efficiencies, we have to first make sure there is not overlap in investments among the services. By centralizing planning and priorities, and decentralizing execution, our industry partners should be better able to focus internal research and development. In other words, industry will have an aligned strategy instead four separate service strategies. We think this centralized prioritization model will help make more efficient use of DOD development dollars and align efforts towards the evolving [small, unmanned aerial system] threats.
Recent wins: Selecting the counter-small unmanned aircraft systems was a big first step. Those systems, seven counter-small unmanned aircraft systems and three command-and-control systems, will help standardize counter-small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities for the DOD. This gives the DOD a range of joint capabilities that they can immediately procure and use as protection, as we continue to streamline layered, incremental improvements.
What’s next: Continue to identify efficiencies in development, conduct testing and develop procurement pathways with the service acquisition organizations. We will continue to engage industry partners to innovate solutions and align funding to emerging threats. We’ll also work with the services to provide solutions for the DOD, other government agencies and our allied partners.
For more information, go to https://rapidcapabilitiesoffice.army.mil/.
NANCY JONES-BONBREST is a public communications specialist for RCCTO. She has written extensively about Army modernization and acquisition for several years, including multiple training and testing events. She holds a B.S. in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park. A frequent contributor to Army AL&T, her articles, “Every Minute Counts” and “Innovation Days: Concept, Prototype, Deliver,” appeared in the Summer 2020 edition.