• Initiative to focus first on cyber, electronic warfare, GPS
  • ‘They are such obvious targets’ for innovation, Fanning says

The U.S. Army is opening a new office to harness promising technologies that can be deployed within five years of identifying a combat need, an initiative its service secretary says is aimed at blunting an erosion in capabilities and countering improvements by Russia and other adversaries.

The Rapid Capabilities Office will concentrate initially on the quick prototyping and fielding of improvements to cyber operations, electronic warfare, survivability and GPS-enabled positioning, navigation and timing, Army Secretary Eric Fanning said in an interview. One question the new office might grapple with is how the Army fights in a contested environment where its GPS capability is jammed, he said.

“They almost just popped up on their own, they are such obvious targets,” Fanning said of the initial priorities for the office, which he unveiled at a conference Wednesday sponsored by Bloomberg Government. “We are seeing how the adversary is figuring out ways to degrade these capabilities.”

Modeled in part on the Air Force office that’s managing development of the B-21 bomber and the recently declassified Pentagon office that brainstorms new uses for existing weapons, the Army office is intended to “get something in the field as quickly as possible” even if it isn’t “the perfect solution,” Fanning said.

Limited Time

The office is one of a handful of initiatives that Fanning will focus on in what may be his few remaining months in office before the next president picks his or her military leaders. Fanning was confirmed as Army secretary in May after his nomination was held hostage for months in a congressional fight over the Obama administration’s efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Rapid Capabilities Office is intended to fill a gap between programs in the standard acquisition chain, which can take more than 10 years to field, and an existing Rapid Equipping Force that’s designed to get a piece of combat equipment into the field within 180 days. For example, Fanning said, the new office might break out a capability that’s under development as part of a major helicopter program and “try to field that faster.”

‘Crawl, Walk, Run’

“The Army will follow a ‘crawl, walk, run’ model that builds funding to match” the new office’s missions over time, with $25 million in seed money for next year, according to an Army white paper.

After the Army has used certain approaches to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for 15 years, Fanning said, “Russia goes into the Ukraine and Russia goes into Syria” and “we realize that they’ve been watching us and learning from us and adapting. So we see some areas where we want to have a more pronounced ‘overmatch.”’

The new office will look at different commands and regions, such as Europe, to find combat needs to be filled, Fanning said at the Bloomberg Government conference.

The initiative is a chance for the Army to show it can deploy successful acquisition programs. A report commissioned in 2011 by then-Army Secretary John McHugh concluded that the service spent at least $32 billion since 1995 developing, testing and evaluating 22 weapons programs later canceled.

“There’s no denying we have a troubled acquisition past,” Fanning said. “We are bringing all elements of the Army together” in the new office to overcome systemic issues that led to many failures, he said.

Asked the chances that the program will survive in a new administration, Fanning said that General Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff who will remain in his post, “clearly understands the importance of filling gaps and getting capabilities --- key capabilities -- out faster.” Milley “has as much ownership” of the office “as I do,” Fanning said.

The office now has a small staff working out of the Pentagon and at other key locations for testing and evaluation of prototypes, including Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, Fort Belvoir in Virginia and Fort Bliss in Texas.

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