WASHINGTON — During a contemporary military forum, “Materiel Modernization for the Army of 2040,” at the Association of the U.S. Army Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Mar. 28, a panel of experts discuss future acquisition priorities.
With the Army of 2030 quickly approaching, Army acquisitions is taking the next step and looking to the Army of 2040 with an emphasis on the digital transformation of the battlefield and required development processes.
“We have to be able to react at a speed that paces the threat, and that includes the acquisition world,” said Douglas Bush, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for acquisitions, logistics and technology. “The Army now … has policies in place that allow us to go more quickly when we need to. We have to do requirements quickly in parallel with upcoming agile acquisition strategies, in parallel with figuring out the funding. Those three things, the under-set requirements, the acquisition approach and funding, aligning those in time, not in sequence, is the hallmark of just the way we’re doing things today.
The panel consisted of Bush, Dr. Alexis Ross, president of Apex Defense Strategies; Jennifer Swanson, data, engineering, and software lead of the assistant secretary of the U.S. Army for acquisition, logistics and technology; retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense with the Heritage Foundation; and John Defourneaux, chief technology officer at Axient.
“I’m hopeful that the agile acquisition framework and the authorities that are in place will remain there, like the software pathways that the Army’s taking full advantage of right now,” Ross said. “I think systemic advancements are always hard, and you cannot make progress without continuous momentum. So, I’m extremely encouraged and pleased that the Army leadership remains committed to the recent acquisition reform initiatives as well as improving the way it buys systems going forward.”
Because of these reform initiatives, the Army is able to focus a little more on a digital transformation within the Army.
A digital transformation is important in order for the Army to compete with a near peer adversary, Swanson said.
“We need to quickly deliver capabilities into Soldiers hands,” she said. “Then, we need to be able to evolve those capabilities based on real-time, changing needs, and digital transformation is our venue to do that!”
The idea behind a quick evolution of capabilities is an open digital architecture with three main sub-categories; software, DevSecOps or development, security, and operations pipeline and data.
Software drives almost all of the Army’s systems. These systems need to be upgraded and using agile software development, which is the information technology industry’s best practice, needs to be adopted quickly, Swanson said.
Agile software development is the practice of delivering updates to software incrementally instead all at once. This allows updates to come on a weekly, monthly or quarterly bases. Whereas, DevSecOps combines development, security, operations and infrastructure as code for security and enabling faster software delivery.
The second part of an open architecture is the DevSecOps pipeline. The Army then can put the agile code in this DevSecOps pipeline and start automating things that are done manually right now, Swanson said.
“Between those two elements, it enables us to pump out high-quality code very quickly,” she said. “When we’re putting [contract requests] out for software-based capabilities, we are starting to evaluate not just the solution but also the ability of the company to be agile because that is critical. So, as requirements change, how is the company able to keep up with those changes and modify the code on the fly?”
“The last piece of it is digital engineering,” Swanson said. “Where we want to be is digital engineering end to end. I’m working to build that strategy in terms of how we get there, what are the things we need to do first, second, third and the incremental strategy that’s needed to show some progress along the way.”
In the end, the Army is serious about its digital transformation but needs help from the IT industry, she said.
Some of the other technologies that the Army is looking for are advanced manufacturing, applying modern digital approaches and capabilities, like artificial intelligence or AI, to design and production systems, robotics, and directed energy systems.
“The good news, on directed energy systems, is that the science and tech is finally to the point where we are getting things that are usable on the battlefield,” Bush said.
However, the next step is to figure out how to produce the directed energy systems and the ground robotics where they are affordable on a mass production scale, he said.
With all of these upgrades and need for future technology also comes a need for money and the problems that may come from it.
“The Army has kind of gotten out of the habit of thinking about how do you fund big programs,” Spoehr said. “The last big acquisitions were in the 80s, where they were actively procuring Abrams, Bradley and some other programs. Those were multibillion-dollar per year acquisitions. The Army has had the luxury in the last decade or two of just modifying what they had. These new build acquisition costs are going to be tremendous, and they're going to cause a lot of pressure within the Army. If the Army continues to receive flat budgets, I'm pessimistic about how that all works.”
Yet, Spoehr said that he has noticed how the acquisition community is being more upfront with how successfully different programs are faring.
“[Bush] was speaking and he, upfront, mentioned that there were four Army programs that were not experiencing tremendous success,” he said. “I thought that was wonderful. I think we have to continue that kind of open dialogue.”
At the end of the day, the Army will rely on the private sector to help reach the end goal of the Army of 2040.
“[The Army] by itself, there’s not enough money, or enough people there to achieve everything we need to achieve,” Bush said. “As always, we rely on and depend on the amazingly innovative American private sector to be where most of our innovations come from. That is an enduring American advantage. But I can say with confidence that the Army knows it needs that from the private sector to get where we need to get.”