Robots, marines and the last battle against bureaucracy

Neller, who retired in 2019, says if anyone should take the blame for not getting targets sooner and in greater numbers, it was him. But he also acknowledges other forces at play. “If he hires a contractor to provide a service and objectives, and the people who work on the base, potentially our base-ranking people, they can lose their jobs,” he says. “Change is always painful. Even if there is an overwhelming amount of support for it.”

One of the drawbacks the robots encountered, which is common with new technologies, is the gap within the Pentagon bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.

Many active-duty infantry experts and veterans who spoke with POLITICO blame civilian program managers who, though typically not combat veterans, write the requirements documents that shape registration programs. While military commanders spend two or three years in one position and then leave, these civilian personnel remain in one place. On the one hand, this means that civilians can provide useful institutional knowledge and stability. But it also means that they can thwart attempts to reform the status quo simply by waiting on military leaders.

Ultimately, the paths to failure in military acquisition outnumber the paths to success.

John Cochran, a retired Army colonel who served as acting director of the Close Combat Lethality Task Force for most of 2020, has a name for the limbo that follows the successful demonstration of a new military technology: ” Middle Earth”. The way out of Middle-earth, he says, requires operational demand from ground forces, “extreme strategic interest” from at least one influential leader, the right timing, and a good deal of sheer luck.

“That’s how you look at what I like to call operational acquisitions and conversions,” he says. “It’s the idea that you’re taking decision space out of the middle of the bureaucratic process.”

By now, Congress was running out of patience. Lawmakers from both parties had heard of the need for robotic targets and were pressing the military to act. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees later included language in the fiscal report National Defense Authorization Act of 2022 demanding updates from the Army and Marine Corps on efforts to acquire moving targets.

“Often with this kind of thing, you really just need champions within the bureaucracy to make it happen,” says an aide to a Senate Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “In our oversight role in Congress, we can push and shove the department to get things done.” He has helped get results.

The Marines now have a big push to bring robots into every part of the force. Marine Corps Training and Education Command is leasing 13 trailers this year, the largest investment yet, with plans to bring in another dozen in the next two years. It’s beginning to dismantle some of its old ranges in favor of zero-infrastructure camps, where targets can freely maneuver. Alford, the general in charge of Marine Corps Training Command, is a longtime advocate who has called targets “the best damn training tool I’ve ever seen, hands down.” Marathon staff say he hopes the goals will turn into a record program before the year is out.

However, other obstacles still loom to wider use in the military: Branches of service, with different cultures, systems, and priorities, are often not on the same page. So while the Marine Corps is poised to expand the use of the robots, the Army is still involved in the acquisition process.

The service has hired Pratt & Miller to build what an Army civilian described in a 2021 internal email as “its own version of the Marathon target.” The memo, from an email chain that later included Marathon, was provided to POLITICO by a company source. The Army target will not be autonomous, due to Army concerns about security and control, but will comply with the Future Army Integrated Targeting System, or FASIT, a networked framework of training tools integrated into existing static ranges. . The first of these targets is expected to be unveiled in 2024, according to Pratt & Miller; some early versions are now at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers are now working out bugs.

And the mistakes are many, says the sergeant. 1st Class Christopher Rance, a drilling instructor at Benning. He found that Army robots are slow to respond to shocks and are often down for maintenance, fueling growing frustration.

“We have a robotic lens that is already available, a commercial off the shelf,” says Rance. “And we’ve seen the Marine Corps and our Australian counterparts go in that direction. And I just don’t see why the Army hasn’t jumped on that ship as well.”

In response to multiple questions and interview requests, the Army provided a brief written statement from Doug Bush, Under Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

“We need to improve communications between the Army and the industrial base regarding what the Army needs before companies develop a capability under the assumption that ‘the Army doesn’t know they need it,’” Bush wrote, “bringing Soldiers to the decision of the companies – carry out processes beforehand to ensure that the technology meets their needs”.

Last year’s defense bill included language asking the Army to report on how it might deploy robotic mobile targets by fiscal year 2023 and voicing support for “rapid adoption” of commercial out-of-the-box capability. As of the end of April, that report had not been filed.

“One of our biggest efforts, as far as monitoring goes, is trying to identify areas of redundancy between services and then trying to figure out how to improve that, or help services avoid that,” says one attendee. on the House Armed Services Committee, which is baffled by the Army’s approach.

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