The Army is moving swiftly to modernize the equipment, systems, technologies and facilities it will have available for a future force – but not without prioritizing the ability to effectively sustain any new tools it opts to embrace.
“On average, 70 cents on the dollar of a life cycle of a program is spent on sustainment,” said Karen Saunders, senior official performing the duties of assistant secretary of the Office of the United States Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, also known as ASA(ALT).
“We must continue to emphasize the importance of designing through sustainment in order to reduce the demands for logistics support and maximize the availability of systems in their long life cycle,” Saunders said.
Saunders joined colleagues from U.S. Army Futures Command and U.S. Army Materiel Command, as well as defense industry and think tank representatives, on Oct. 13 to discuss the importance of fostering holistic and artfully integrated acquisition procedures as part of an Association of the United States Army (AUSA) 2021 panel titled ““Full Life-Cycle Acquisition, Sustainable Army Modernization to Win Great Power Competition.”
During the panel, Saunders described Army modernization as “truly a team sport; it takes the entire team to work together to succeed, through communication, collaboration, integration and synchronization.”
“We work together as a full materiel enterprise, from technology research to prototyping and experimentation, to requirements generation and refinement, materiel development and production, to ultimately sustainment and divestiture,” Saunders said. “Our roles are distinct but very complementary.”
In recent years, new policies, authorities and business processes implemented by the Army, “have substantially transformed how the Army modernizes and develops new weapons systems,” Saunders said.
Today’s Army acquisition processes value flexibility, critical thinking, common sense, speed and relevancy, while also aligning with the Defense Department’s adaptive acquisition framework, which advocates for simplified policies, tailored approaches, empowered program managers, data-driven analysis, active risk management and an emphasis on sustainment.
At the core of these efforts are the more than 42,000 professionals at ASA(ALT) dedicated to developing, acquiring and delivering materiel solutions tailored to Soldiers. The office presently manages more than 500 acquisition programs, including programs designated as being in the middle tier of acquisition, which focuses on speed and is helping to accelerate advances in the Army’s 31+4 signature modernization efforts.
In this middle tier, “authority for requirements and acquisition oversights are pushed down to the lowest executable level, and funding is provided for smaller increments of capability,” Saunders said.
“As a result, programs rapidly develop field prototypes, demonstrate new capabilities or rapidly field production quantities of systems with proven technology that require a minimum development within five years.”
ASA(ALT) currently has 19 programs in the middle tier of acquisition, 16 of which are in the rapid prototyping phase. The office is also working on six new software acquisition programs, half of which are in the planning phase and half of which have progressed to the execution phase.
New contracting flexibilities have also enabled more timely research, prototyping and production efforts and allowed the Army to draw more heavily from commercial industry standards and best practices, including tailoring products to the end user.
Drivers of success in the Army’s renewed acquisition framework extend beyond the production phase carried out by ASA(ALT), however. The process also involves the intelligent development of concepts, which begins with Army Futures Command, and the management and sustainment of final products, which lies with Army Materiel Command. Throughout the acquisition process, insights and input from the private sector – particularly during research and development stages – are indispensable.
Gen. John M. Murray, commanding general of Army Futures Command, underscored that without the thriving partnership between ASA(ALT), Army Materiel Command, Army Futures Command, industry and Congress, many of the Army’s modernization initiatives and lines of effort would never graduate from an idea to something tangible; “without that partnership, they would forever be efforts and not programs,” he asserted.
“The output of our efforts is what this is all about,” Murray continued. “It is getting better capability into the hands of our Soldiers for now and into the future.”
Murray also echoed the importance of an interconnected approach to full life-cycle acquisition that takes into account the need for precise concepts and requirements, rigorous prototype testing and rapid delivery of new solutions to Soldiers with the need for cost-effective sustainment of equipment.
“It’s a community effort, it is a team sport, it is cross-functional,” he said. “It needs to be from the very very inception of a program.”
Army Futures Command’s role in acquisition involves envisioning and being able to describe a future operational environment, as well as coming up with new concepts and a list of necessary structures for operating in that environment. In addition, the command supports requirements generation, experimentation, Soldier-centered design and other activities conducive to the development and delivery of materiel solutions.
Lisha Adams, executive deputy to the commanding general of Army Materiel Command, agreed on the team-oriented nature of the Army’s acquisition approach.
“We’re all synchronized and integrated and aligned to the Secretary of the Army’s and Chief of Staff of the Army’s priorities of people, readiness and modernization,” she said, adding that “the sustainment warfighting function needs to be a combat multiplier on the battlefield, and the strategic support area is where we generate and sustain combat power.”
Adams noted that the incorporation of Installation Management Command, Financial Management Command and Army Medical Logistics Command into Army Materiel Command, among other recent changes, has enabled the command to be “better organized to support at the tactical and strategic level.”
Army Materiel Command’s various activities ensure that “sustainment is addressed early in the requirements process and throughout the production and fielding of that system” and enable Army units to “quickly receive the modernized equipment and turn in and divest of the legacy equipment,” Adams said.
Adams elaborated that “strategic modernization includes the modernization of our organic industrial base and our facilities and installations.”
“Our business systems must also be refreshed to enable that assured resupply, speed and convergence to support the decision dominance and overmatch during competition, crisis and conflict,” she said.
“To ensure we’re ready to manufacture, retool and maintain all the technology and equipment, we’re developing a 15-year organic industrial base modernization strategic plan,” Adams added, noting the plan would include efforts across all 23 arsenals, depots and ammunition plants.
“Army Materiel Command is appropriately balancing tactical and strategic in both readiness and modernization, as these capabilities will continue to ensure freedom of action, prolonged endurance and extended operational reach anywhere in the world.”
Members of the panel indicated that the coordinated acquisition approach being carried out by Army Futures Command, ASA(ALT) and Army Materiel Command has thus far produced outstanding results. “We are getting capability into the hands of our Soldiers as quickly as possible and receiving feedback so that we are able to make the best possible decision with as much information as possible, as opposed to locking ourselves into strategies early on in the life cycle, and then having impact on our cost, schedule and performance,” Saunders said.
The change in approach has additionally increased the Army’s level of collaboration with industry partners early on in – and throughout – the acquisition process and acquisition conversations.
Accordingly, the panel included insights from two private-sector leaders experienced in working with the Army – retired Lt. Gen. J.D. Johnson, vice president of business development at GM Defense, and Mackenzie Eaglen, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Johnson emphasized that “persistent communications and collaboration” among the Army, industry, Defense Department and Congress are “a foundation for success” when it comes to Army modernization, and that “understanding is enhanced by the Army’s use of Soldier touchpoints.”
Johnson also upheld the importance of strong Army–industry partnerships when considering military applications of cutting-edge commercial technologies, including those related to electrification, autonomy and connectivity: “The Army and other services can leverage those technologies to significantly improve military mobility, reduce cognitive load and assist in connecting a distributed force on a modern battlefield.”
The ability of the commercial sector to digitally design new capabilities and test them via computer simulation “before you ever bend metal” has also been a boon to Army–industry partnerships, said Johnson, who went on to suggest that additional military investments in private industry research and development could be beneficial.
Eaglen added that the Defense Department has shifted away from a focus on invention to a focus on innovation over the years, and that “innovation usually means working with things that are already available, just using them differently.”
The implication of this for the acquisition space is that “there is a role for legacy platforms as playgrounds for innovation,” Eaglen said.
Eaglen observed that the Army is “bringing on leap-ahead technologies onto these older systems” as it makes sense but also evaluating where divesting in order to integrate brand-new technologies and equipment is the best option.
Panelists also discussed the importance of updating military housing and facilities in addition to weaponry and other field-level resources, as well as ongoing STEM initiatives and prize competitions geared toward eliciting additional interest from students, engineers and scientists in working with the military and contributing to national defense outcomes.
Murray added that Army Futures Command’s Army Applications Laboratory is providing private-sector businesses, including small start-ups, with new avenues for engagement with the Army, and that the command has learned, in some cases, that finding the right solution requires simplifying the ask and focusing in on the problem – “boiling down a problem to what really is a problem.”
Panelists additionally highlighted the incorporation of Modular Open Systems Architecture as an asset in sustaining Army systems, allowing for the ability to incrementally update software and other systems.
“The platforms we have have been here for 40 years, and the platforms we’re bringing on will be here for 40 years, and we need to start thinking more about modernization in terms of software capability, as opposed to hardware additions and capability,” Murray stressed.
The Army’s shifts in thinking and practice around how to identify and adopt optimal solutions through the acquisition process have had notable results. Panelists cited the Army’s ability to procure and distribute COVID-19 vaccines at impressive speed as a recent examples of acquisition progress.
“We’re working with industry to push the boundaries,” Saunders said.