Sustaining the Future Army through Demand Reduction: An Interview with General John M. “Mike” Murray

By William C. Latham Jr.December 16, 2021

U.S. Army Gen. John M. Murray, commanding general, Army Futures Command, along with his command staff, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Charles K. Aris, deputy commanding general, 36th Infantry Division, met with U.S. Army Col. Carrie Perez, commander, 36th Sustainment Brigade, Texas Army National Guard, at South forward operating base at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, Grayling, Michigan, during Northern Strike 21, August 4, 2021.
U.S. Army Gen. John M. Murray, commanding general, Army Futures Command, along with his command staff, and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Charles K. Aris, deputy commanding general, 36th Infantry Division, met with U.S. Army Col. Carrie Perez, commander, 36th Sustainment Brigade, Texas Army National Guard, at South forward operating base at Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center, Grayling, Michigan, during Northern Strike 21, August 4, 2021. (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Charles Robertson) VIEW ORIGINAL

As the first commander of Army Futures Command (AFC), Gen. John M. “Mike” Murray leads a team working to enable and synchronize the entire Army modernization enterprise to effectively deliver the competitive technological advantage needed to defend the nation. Having previously served as the commanding general, 3rd Infantry Division, and Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8. Murray has successfully integrated efforts critical to funding, fielding, equipping, and sustaining current and future military force requirements. Army Sustainment sat down with him to discuss how the concept of demand reduction nests within a future vision of the Army.

The Army has been discussing demand reduction for more than two decades. How do you define demand reduction?

So, first of all, two sets of words come to mind: force protection and combat multiplier. When we look at the development of combat platforms, I want to design the most effective system or weapon I can get into Soldiers’ hands. And yes, we’re going to get to sustainability, reliability, reduction of demand—those are all part of an eventual requirements document. I always want the most reliable, sustainable, effective, and efficient combat platform weapon I can put in Soldiers’ hands. But where are the trade-offs in terms of force protection? If I can reduce the number of Soldiers on the road carrying fuel or reduce the Soldiers on the road carrying water or rations, for instance, it becomes force protection.

We assume that future battlefields will be exceptionally lethal. The other thing that we’ve been assuming for a long time is that units will have to operate in much smaller units and much more dispersed. So, how do you conduct sustainment operations when you have smaller units more widely dispersed, and you have that high lethality from the forward edge of the battle area back to the rear? If we’re going to operate like that, we’ve got to figure out how to reduce demand. Because of the days of running log packs every 24 hours to these highly dispersed units—maybe some great logistician will figure out how to do that—but I think those days are pretty much gone. We’re going to have to reduce demand to be effective in that future operational environment.

Given the probability that increased capability will require more sustainment, where do you see the sweet spot between those two competing needs?

We will probably build some elements of demand reduction in terms of fossil fuels into the next-generation combat vehicle. If you look at it compared to Bradley, we will try to reduce and almost certainly will reduce demand for fossil fuels. If you look at the extended-range cannon artillery, it’s the same chassis as that of the Paladin Integrated Management program. Suppose you look at the precision strike missile, it’s the same chassis, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and Multiple Launch Rocket System chassis, but we have designed it to fit two munitions inside the same pod that the Army Tactical Missile (ATACM) goes in right now. So we’re actually reducing the amount of ammunition convoys on the road, so we reduce demand for ammunition just because they can carry more organically.

On the other hand, the integrated visual augmentation system, or enhanced night vision goggles binocular, both Soldier-worn and Soldier-carried, will increase the amount of battery power required by Soldiers.

So, some of the Science and Technology (S&T) and Research and Development (R&D) work we’re doing begins to address that—we’re not there yet. I don’t think it’s an all-or-nothing. In some areas, we are looking at reduction. In some, we’re looking at increases. I don’t think it’s all or nothing or its additive or subtractive. I think it’s case by case.

Are you concerned about the expanding gap between future energy demands and our ability to meet them?

Yes. In the past, it was not a major topic of discussion. Does it need to be as we go into the future? I would argue that we need to start paying more attention to it than we currently do. Not demand reduction for the sake of demand reduction. But if we're going to have viable sustainment operations on that future battlefield, operating more widely dispersed and in smaller and smaller units, reducing the demand placed on the logistics system is absolutely key and critical to being successful on that battlefield.

Do you favor hybrid platforms or electric vehicles at the tactical level, or are you looking for a mix?

With the current state of technology, I am absolutely in the hybrid camp. I don’t see the ability to pull up to a charging station in the middle of nowhere and recharge a major combat weapon and I don’t see us hauling around charging stations. I don’t think you reduce the risk to Soldiers at that point. I think [hybrid technology’s] ability to generate enough onboard power to power the fuel cells to operate electrically is the only near-term solution for our tactical systems. I think there’s a great opportunity for all-electric in our non-tactical vehicles, the vehicles we have running around our installations. Then we can build up the charging infrastructure as the country moves forward. Look at the electrification effort going on in the country; we ought to follow that research in terms of charging and batteries. We’ve got to provide a different level of protection for onboard batteries in tactical and civilian vehicles, given the threats they are exposed to. We’ve got to allow the civilian market to lead the R&D and S&T, making things more efficient. I think they’ll move much faster than we can and make much bigger investments in that research. Then, we ought to be prepared to quickly follow and do the modification necessary for military use. But for the near term, I am firmly in the hybrid camp for tactical vehicles.

Given your emphasis on Project Convergence, how do you ensure that the future force can function as a compatible, mutually supporting team rather than a dysfunctional, grab-bag of high-tech solutions that can't operate together?

You just described the reason that we are doing Project Convergence in the first place. Last year's Project Convergence pulled together five cross-functional teams, and the realization is just what you're talking about. When you look at this, the whole has to be greater than the sum of the individual parts. So how do you pull this stuff together to work together to achieve that greater outcome? And that's what we did last year in terms of sensor to shooter.

Then the realization was that it's much bigger than the Army. So what you're talking about has to be beyond the Army because the Army will always fight as part of the joint force. So with Project Convergence 21, we stood up a 3-star board of directors to figure out how the services begin to do key universal joint task list tasks—situational awareness, air missile defense, and joint fires—so that you don't have a grab-bag of individual technologies. That's Project Convergence 21, forcing them together to figure out how to work together, those three key mission areas.

Then for Project Convergence 22, we're bringing in allies and partners. One of our asymmetric advantages is that we always bring allies and partners with us, an advantage our near peer adversaries don't necessarily enjoy. In the meantime, we stood up the Joint Systems Integration Lab at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, so that we can do this on a near-continuous basis in a laboratory setting. The goal of Project Convergence is to avoid exactly what you asked in your question.

If we can get Prognostic and Predictive Maintenance (PPMx) to work, how does that change the way we're going to fight?

I think that we are under-investing in PPMx right now. I mean, I’ve had people tell me, the commercial airliner you get on is communicating to wherever it is going—let’s say it’s going to Austin, Texas—communicating to Austin before it gets there. The repair parts it needs are on the ground when it gets there so they can turn. The commercial market from an airline standpoint is motivated by profit. So the faster they can turn that airplane, the more use they get out of it, the more profit they make. And there is predictive maintenance on new automobiles. Things like the warning lights—the system begins to identify that it’s going to break before it actually breaks, unlike some of the older cars that I still own.

I’ve got way too many rotations at the National Training Center and even the Joint Readiness Training Center where you think you’re going to cross the line of departure (LD) with a certain amount of combat power and it turns out, you know, 15 minutes before you’re due to cross the LD you get your combat slant and you’ve got a lot less than you thought you were going to have. PPMx gives us the ability, I don’t want to call it scheduled maintenance, but to do the maintenance, the preventive maintenance that we need to do on our own schedule as opposed to the machine’s schedule. I think it also should enable us to save some money, avoiding unnecessary services. We do services by a schedule, but it’s by calendar, it’s not by the need. I think there is some money savings there. So, operational availability I think, will go up. I think cost savings will go up or costs will go down.

I also think it gives you the ability, in terms of the force protection piece, to smartly schedule delivery of the materials for the repairs, routine maintenance, or service, for lack of a better term, so instead of running three or four convoys or log packs, you can begin to consolidate, reduce the number of vehicles you have on the road, the frequency of those vehicles on the road, and ultimately the most important thing, the number of Soldiers on the road.

I'm not sure the battlefield described in the multi-domain operations concept can function with the iron mountains we had in Desert Storm.

You’re right, they won’t survive. We’re working extended range capabilities because we were out-ranged by both peers and near peers and they’re not slowing down their modernization efforts. The ranges are going to continue to increase. And importantly, what most people don’t think about is the fact that we can now shoot a cannon, a self-propelled howitzer 70 kilometers, or we can replace ATACMs, which is roughly 300 kilometers, with Prism, which will go north of 500 kilometers. The fact that we’re shooting and working with hypersonic missiles that will go 2,000 nautical miles plus is really, really cool. If you can’t sense and maintain custody of targets, that’s all it is. It’s really, really cool. It’s not an operational capability.

The only reason I say that is because we’re working all that. So are our adversaries. On that future battlefield one of the things that I am predicting is that every Soldier is a sensor, everything on that future battlefield will be a sensor. So, it doesn’t matter where you are—rear, deep, or close—in terms of the geography of the battlefield. It will be nonlinear. You won’t have the ability to hide any place. So this omnipresent sensing capability is going to be there. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a bag farm, a supply-support activity (SSA), a brigade combat team headquarters or whatever it is, you’re going to have to be small enough you can move relatively often compared to what we look at today.

You play an important role in developing the necessary capabilities to fight and win the next conflict—something we haven't always done well, for example, the (1950s-era) Pentomic division. Given your responsibilities, what keeps you up at night?

I sleep like a baby (laughs), but you hit it on the Pentomic division. That’s good because when most people think of AFC, they think of the 31 plus 4. So it’s also, you know, the (organizational) structures we are going to have to modify, or do away with, or create. That’s in close conjunction with the Combined Arms Center and Training and Doctrine Command. It’s also how we’re going to have to think about fighting differently. Part of fighting differently is sustaining differently.

I’m serious, nothing really keeps me up at night….one though is that we do deeper looks at the modernization effort, particularly in China. They are investing a lot of money, and they move very quickly. One of the things that enables them to move very, very quickly is the theft of intellectual property from our industrial base from us and from our universities. That does concern me greatly because they’re not having to spend the S&T and R&D dollars that we invest in developmental programs. They just take the intellectual property. The amount of money they’re investing in artificial intelligence is astronomical. The amount of data collection they have going on around the world is mind-boggling, and they’re collecting that data for a reason. So that, that does concern me.

Then I am concerned about our own ability to move at speed. Technology development is about a three-year cycle. If you look at our history, all the way back to the big five and probably before, but definitely the big five, we run about a 12- to 15-year cycle. So the way, I describe it to civilians that are not familiar with our process is, I’ve got three daughters and they’re all grown and gone from the house. They’ve all got kids of their own, but if they had asked me for cell phones in 2010 and last year at Christmas I gave them three flip phones, they probably would not have been very happy. That’s exactly what we do to our Soldiers—we frequently deliver 10- to 12-year-old technology when we deliver a platform. So we’ve been fairly successful here with the 31 and the plus 4, reducing that in most cases by at least half, and in some cases more, to a 3- to 5-year cycle, at least in terms of the initial capability.

We’ve got to figure out a way to capitalize on the technology and the rate of refresh of technology and new technologies emerging every 2-3 years. So, how do you begin to look at building systems to account for that? Most people call that open systems architecture—the ability to upgrade through software, not necessarily hardware. But it all comes down to this ability to move at speed.

We also are very good at incremental upgrades. We’ve got to quit focusing on delivering the 100% solution and worry about delivering something that is safe, effective, and efficient from a demand perspective, and it may only be the 80% solution. We’re going to begin upgrading it almost as soon as we deliver it. Hopefully, primarily through software, not hardware upgrades. I think there’s some things we’re going to have to look at differently in terms of how we develop material, because we’re going to have to move at pace.

Lastly, if you’re going to move at pace, you’re going to shoot for less than 100% solution, you have to be willing to accept some risk. We tend to be a very risk-averse culture when you look at things like material development, and rightly so—it’s taxpayer dollars. We don’t want a lot of mistakes with taxpayer dollars. It’s going to happen if you move fast. You have to be willing to accept some level of risk—sometimes you’re going to get it wrong.

Another thing we don’t do very well at all is when it’s wrong, admit you’re wrong and move on before you have a program in development that ends with a B, a dollar figure that ends with a B. So, learn early, decide early, cut risks early, and deliver capability faster.

How does commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) capability figure into that equation for you? In the early 90s, every command post had a Hewlett Packard desk jet printer, and that was the gold standard. Nothing the Army bought, certainly not our 88-pound tactical fax machine, could hold a candle to it.

Yeah. So, Harvard graphics and Word Perfect, if I remember right. COTS plays a big role. The network is a great example of that. The network modernization strategy is, we’re going to modernize the network every two years. We’re in the process of fielding capabilities set 21 right now. It still has a Warfighter Information Network-Tactical backbone; you just can’t throw everything away and start over. Then capabilities set 23 will build upon capabilities set 21—in some cases, new technology for additional capabilities and in some cases replacing old technology with new technology. We will do the same thing in 25, 27, 29, 31, and people said, well, when does all this end? I don’t think it ever ends—just given Moore’s Law and, you know, the ever-increasing rate of technological innovation. COTS plays a big role in that. The primary strategy is to bring industry together every two years against a common problem set and let’s see what they can do. You know, we talked about the replacement for the medium and heavy truck fleet. We are starting off with a COTS approach. What’s on the commercial market? You mentioned the printer, the dot matrix printer I’m sure it was back then. I know, I remember dot matrix printers. If you look at the commercial trucking industry, drive-by-wire, anti-lock brakes, anti-idling systems, the safety configuration in terms of the back-up camera, the blind spot indicators. So we’re not taking it….we could probably build all that in a lab, but why would we? Why would we not at least take advantage of the commercial innovation that’s going on?

What are you reading right now? And what would you recommend for those of us who are worried about sustaining the future?

I don’t have a specific book for sustainers. We talk about things like PPMx, which relies on machine learning and artificial intelligence. We talk about leader follower technology, which relies on some of the same. I think one of the fundamental problems we have in the Army is we have a lot of people that can spell artificial intelligence, who can spell machine learning, and want to talk like they understand what that means, which often results in some guidance being given that is probably less than optimal. I think the Army needs a huge self-education so we can talk intelligibly about some of the technology we talk about.

It’s why I’m reading Dave Johnson’s Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers, which looks at the innovation of the U.S. Army between 1917 and 1945. You go back to the interwar period. The French had tanks. The French had airplanes. The French had radios. The Brits had tanks, airplanes, and radios. The Russians had tanks, airplanes, and radios. The Poles had them. We had them. The German army figured out how to put those technologies together in a way nobody else had figured out.

So it’s not autonomy, robotics, and artificial intelligence—it’s how we put those three together to create an operational, tactical, and strategic advantage, which the Wehrmacht did very well for at least the first couple years of WWII, until everybody else caught up. I think some fundamental understanding of the technologies that are here today—not at scale—in the Army and where they’re going to go and start thinking about how we combine those differently to achieve all kinds of things. From a logistics standpoint, how do you combine autonomy, robotics, and artificial intelligence to accomplish some of the things we’ve talked about for the last hour to sustain a widely dispersed force, operating in smaller and smaller units on a very lethal battlefield?

Autonomy, robotics, and artificial intelligence are coming to the next battlefield, and in some cases, it’s already there. We don’t want to get there second. We have got to figure out how to take advantage of these technologies from all kinds of different angles if we’re going to be successful.

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William C. Latham, Jr., currently serves as the Chief of the G-3/5/7 Doctrine Division at the Combined Arms Support Command, Fort Lee, VA. He has written extensively on military affairs and is the author of Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea.

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This article was published in the Oct-Dec 2021 issue of Army Sustainment.

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