The Army is launching a new office to more quickly field capabilities and improve its slow-moving acquisition system, the Army secretary said on Wednesday.
Eric Fanning announced the formation of the Rapid Capabilities Office, which will focus on rapid prototyping of soldiers' highest priorities to get new capabilities, not platforms, to the field within one to five years. The office will begin by looking at fields like electronic warfare, cyber and survivability.
"It will be a direct pipeline that commanders can access quickly to meet a real demand," Fanning said at a Bloomberg Government breakfast event.
As an example of what the office will and will not do, Fanning said the Rapid Capabilities Office won't be building a new helicopter. Instead, it's job will be to devise a fix if some capability on a current helicopter is no longer sufficient.
The office will have a "short chain of command" governed by a board that can make all decisions from prototyping to testing to contracts. The board will include Fanning, Katrina McFarland, the acting assistant secretary of the Army, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and, when needed, Frank Kendall, the defense undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics.
The board could meet for the first time within the next month, according to Douglas Wiltsie, the executive director of system of systems engineering and integration directorate.
Fanning said the Rapid Capabilities Office is different from the Rapid Equipping Force, which seeks to deliver a piece of equipment in 180 days.
A separate cell within the office will serve as an "ombudsman" to industry, Fanning said, seeking to build relationships with traditional partners as well as smaller, innovative firms through industry days.
No one makes the argument that the Pentagon's sluggish acquisition system should stay as is. Fanning said everyone is on board with the plan to spend less money to get capabilities into the field quicker.
"Nobody disputes this. It's a little like saying we need oxygen to breathe," Fanning said.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made this a priority of his tenure, setting up innovation hubs in Boston and Silicon Valley to bolster the Defense Department's relationship with technology start-ups.
Reforming the acquisition process has also been a key effort by the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, Rep. Mac Thornberry and Sen. John McCain. Both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act try to make the system more efficient.
Because of the buy-in from top officials at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, Fanning said now is the time to actually make changes.
"It seemed the moment in time to do something about this," he said.
Thornberry seemed all-in on the new office in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
"The Army's emphasis on getting new technologies into the hands of our troops faster is commendable," he said. "The push to fund more experimentation and prototyping of weapons is not only an important step in simplifying and reforming the acquisition process, it is essential to our security, helping us keep pace with our adversaries and maintaining the United States' technological superiority on the battlefield," he said.
Yet it's unclear if the next president or new members of Congress will continue to view this is a priority. But McFarland said soldiers recognize the need for this so strongly that she's confident the office will continue through the next administration.
"The beauty of this is that it's nonpartisan. Everybody wants it. There's nothing like having groundswell and desire to make it happen," she said. "I think that alone will carry it through."