US army goes the unconventional route to get technology to soldiers' hands fast

Army fire support specialist trainees in a simulator at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, on Feb 6, 2018.
Army fire support specialist trainees in a simulator at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, on Feb 6, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Soldiers train on a howlitzer during a live-fire exercise at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Soldiers train on a howlitzer during a live-fire exercise at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Private Emily Castillo, a fire support specialist trainee, uses a close air support module in a simulator.
Private Emily Castillo, a fire support specialist trainee, uses a close air support module in a simulator.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Soldiers learning how to call for indirect fire and close air support on a simulator, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Soldiers learning how to call for indirect fire and close air support on a simulator, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The platoon of Army Special Operations soldiers was on a routine night patrol in eastern Afghanistan when one of them suddenly opened fire on what looked to the others to be a bush.

The bush, it turned out, had been obscuring a militant fighter. He was detectable only to the one platoon member wearing prototype night vision goggles that could detect heat signatures - a happenstance that Army officials say probably saved many lives.

That incident took place in 2015.

Three years later, soldiers in the field still do not have the new night vision goggles, and that is just one example of a process that can take a decade to get new weapons from the lab to the hands of troops.

Worried about that lag, the Army is creating a new and decidedly unconventional department to address it: the Futures Command.

"Washington and Marshall are looking over me like ghosts," said Mr Ryan McCarthy, a former Ranger who is now the Army undersecretary, in a reference to George Washington and George Marshall, two of the most famous proponents of a US Army that keeps ahead of all adversaries.

"Things can take too long; historically services will experiment things to death and never buy anything, or don't experiment and then buy a billion-dollar PowerPoint. We have to move away from that," said Mr McCarthy.

On March 26, top Army leaders will travel to Huntsville, Alabama, to announce details of their plan for the Futures Command, which will focus solely on developing new weapons and getting them "downrange" faster.

The doors of the command are expected to open by the end of July, and it is supposed to be fully operational a year after that.

The Futures Command, Army leaders say, is part of a movement to get the Army, focused for nearly two decades on fighting Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Iraq, back in shape to fight a potential great-power land war.

At the Pentagon, the talk inside the military's biggest service is all about modernisation and readiness, the favourite children of the Army chief of staff, General Mark Milley.

Besides speeding up the lengthy procurement process, Army leaders want to get rid of layers of bureaucracy that can eat away at the military's competitive edge, by allowing adversaries to catch up with US advances while they are caught up in red tape.

And they want to enlist the talents of Americans who may not necessarily see themselves as bound for the military, by locating the Futures Command not at a traditional military base like Fort Hood, Texas, or Fort Sill, Oklahoma, but in a city with easy access to big universities and cutting-edge technological research.


Soldiers train on a howlitzer during a live-fire exercise at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Seattle, San Francisco and Boston are among the cities Army planners say they are looking at for the Futures Command. Mr Mark Esper, secretary of the Army, said that whoever is chosen to lead the command will be "not a traditional person who spent all their time in combat units, but someone who understands the acquisition process, and who understands the corporate Army".

Ten cities should be selected within the next two months as finalists for hosting the command.

The Army is making many of the changes in an effort to figure out how to fight multiple types of wars at the same time.

More than 16 years of counter-insurgency warfare has taught military leaders one thing: The burden of fighting militants in multiple places is unlikely to go away any time soon.

Even today, almost eight years after president Barack Obama announced the end of combat in Iraq and three years after he announced the end of combat in Afghanistan, US troops are deployed in both countries, not to mention Syria, Niger, Somalia, Libya and Mali.

But at the same time, the Army has been charged with getting ready for a possible war on the Korean Peninsula.

President Donald Trump may have agreed to unprecedented one-on-one talks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, but the Pentagon is still trying to make sure US forces are ready for what would probably be a completely different kind of war.


Private Emily Castillo, a fire support specialist trainee, uses a close air support module in a simulator. PHOTO: NYTIMES

General Milley has repeatedly expressed concern that the Army has lost what he calls its "muscle memory" of how to fight big land wars. Beyond that, Army leaders - many of them students of history - say that for almost 200 years, the Army has often got the first battle of major wars wrong.

In particular, General Milley has cited the ill-fated Battle of Kasserine Pass during World War II, when unprepared US troops were outfoxed and pummelled by German forces. And he has mentioned Task Force Smith, the small, poorly equipped unit mauled by North Korean troops in 1950 during the Korean War.

The quickest way to guard against a repeat of these debacles, Army planners say, is to emphasise readiness and to streamline the process for getting new technology to soldiers.

At Fort Sill, where 16 per cent of Army recruits go through basic training and soldiers learn long-range artillery manoeuvres, Futures Command leaders will consult directly with troops about how to update artillery pieces to improve speed and range.

On a cold afternoon on the artillery field last month (February), soldiers were training to fire the Paladin, a decades-old tracked vehicle that moves along with Army units and can fire at a distance. A few hundred yards away, a handful of soldiers were using another artillery piece, the howitzer, for artillery practice.

These are the pieces that Futures Command will seek to update, Army leaders said, with an aim of making them more effective from a distance - putting American soldiers out of the target range of adversaries.


Soldiers learning how to call for indirect fire and close air support on a simulator, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The same concept is at work with new night vision goggle cameras that can be mounted on weapons and feed an image to the goggles. In essence, explained Sergeant Eric Janson, an Army weapons squad leader, "whatever your rifle is pointed at, you can see in a heads-up display" in your goggles. That means a soldier could, for instance, position a rifle above his head, squat and take cover, and still shoot a target.

The goggles cost US$23,000 (S$30,309) each. Army leaders say they hope to reduce the price over time, as they buy in bulk. But it will not come down much; the old ones were still US$15,000 each.

They say they hope to have them in soldiers' hands, finally, sometime this year.