As Army Futures Command continues to expand its presence and modernization efforts around its base in Austin, Texas, its best practices could help model innovation for the Department of Defense and the rest of the military.
On Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks toured several Austin sites for the Austin-based innovation unit to learn more about how it's working to harness and acquire technology and train talent.
Futures Command is a public-private initiative that leads modernization projects for the Army. The military chose Austin for its headquarters in 2018.
“The (defense) secretary has been very clear that modernizing is key. As deputy secretary, my job is to help bring new strategies to execution, and that line goes right through process development and capabilities for us, and eventually resourcing and that's what Army Futures Command is all about to the Army,” Hicks said.
She said it helps her to see what part the Army is playing in moving the Department of Defense towards modernization.
Futures Command won’t be the end-all standard for modernization for the Department of Defense, but Hicks said the goal is to take the best ideas from each branch's modernization efforts.
“What we really want to do at the corporate or enterprise-level really is pull up those good ideas and see what’s working,” Hicks said “From there, we can start to think about what are their major policy changes or their authority structure. Everything from promotion to how budgets are determined. We’re just at the beginning of that journey.”
Gen. John Murray, commander of the Army Futures Command, said Tuesday he believes the unit has found its balance, although he said it hasn't been easy, especially as it works to bridge the gap between the Army and its academic and private sector partners.
Murray and his unit are tasked with a range of innovation and modernization needs for the Army. Futures Command is working to develop and acquire the types of technology the Army needs now, and is also tasked with predicting what will be needed 10 years down the road.
“If we try to scale too quickly you can bake in some bad practices. I’m not going to move too fast,” Murray said. “Ultimately we’re trying to solve problems for the soldiers in the field today, and as we start to think about some of the research and development, it’s about developing technology for the future soldier who’s only in fourth grade right now.”
The unit has been quietly but steadily expanding its presence in Central Texas and globally since it opened its command headquarters with an Austin-based staff of roughly 40.
Futures Command has grown to four facilities around the region, including space at University of Texas, at downtown Austin's Capital Factory and at Austin Community College. It now has nearly 600 Austin-based staff and about 1,800 more indirect employees. Globally, it has more than 28,000 people assigned to the unit, working on a range of modernization concepts and technology.
Futures Command works with technology companies locally, as well as with universities, including the University of Texas and Texas A&M, to study and develop technology. This year it also partnered with Austin Community College to establish a soldier-led software unit to help train soldiers and develop technology. It also has a massive testing facility underway at Texas A&M’s RELLIS campus that will be the Army’s main hub for testing future-of-war technology.
Futures Command has been adding partnerships with local companies and academic institutions since it opened. In recent months, it has opened a robotics facility at the University of Texas, opened its software factory and partnered with local companies to develop needed technology for soldiers in the field.
Futures Command works in environments the Army isn’t used to working in, from startup pitches to classroom collaborations. But it’s the type of changes that the Department of Defense and Futures Command are looking to try as they develop technology that will be used in the next generation of defense.
As of last year, Futures Commands had a combined $157 million invested in academic partnership efforts with Texas universities including Texas A&M, the University of Texas, Rice and Baylor. Austin Community College also recently opened Army Futures' latest venture, the Software Factory, which welcomed its inaugural cohort in January, and has since recruited for a second and third cohort.
The institution has started to work with startups and build out technology-based solutions to the Army’s problems, using cohorts that might take 12 to 18 weeks where companies are selected at the end to build out a solution for the Army. The companies are pitched a problem and told to come up with a solution, a technique the unit has found helps speed up what could otherwise be a months-long process and helps the Army field more options at once.
Much of the design process is also soldier-centered, to make sure the technology being developed is actually practical in the field.
Hicks said while the Department of Defense has always relied on strong relationships with academic institutions and private partnerships, as it moves forward with modernization this only becomes more important.
“As we look today it's even more critical. So much of the investment in innovation is happening outside of the government sector so that increases the need for the DoD to make sure it’s part of that innovation ecosystem,” she said.
Whether it's academic or a private company, she said it’s important the Department of Defense is looking to partnerships and other options to stay up to date. It's a method Army Future's Army Applications Unit is working on perfecting, in part by changing how the system works, walking companies through the process, and making sure money is available earlier in the process.
“Those who are willing to invest in ideas to really take ideas and concepts that are critical to our needs and help transform them into solutions. That’s something the Department of Defense has been working on for a decade in the making, but we’re just starting to see the seeds germinate around how we do it.”©2021 Gannett Co., Inc. Visit at statesman.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.