Agency Profile: The US Army Futures Command

The US Army Futures Command will initially occupy the recently-constructed University of Texas HQ building at 210 W 7th Street in downtown Austin (Photo: CoStar).

If knowledge is power, as the English scientist and politician Sir Francis Bacon is credited with saying, then knowing how and when to use force can be thought of as a kind of superpower. It requires intelligence, information, understanding of the past and reasonable projections into the future—and then getting that force to where it’s needed and there, on the ground, making troops as effective as they can be while doing as much as can be done to keep them safe.

All of that underlies the most significant reform in the US Army in generations: the creation of a new, wide-ranging organization called the Army Futures Command, parallel and in parity with the three existing commands (Forces, Materiel, and Training and Doctrine) that have been in place since the 1970s. Formally operational as of July 1, the AFC will be headed by a lieutenant (four-star) general. In mid-July, the Army announced that the new command would be headquartered in Austin, Texas.

The selection of Austin came after long consideration that began with a list of some 150 candidate cities that was eventually narrowed down to five finalists: Minneapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, and Raleigh, along with Austin. All five are economic centers of national or regional importance and transportation hubs well served by highways, rail facilities, and airports. But more important than all that, all five are leading academic centers, with technology centers, laboratories, and active connections to industry beyond the immediate confines of the campus.

So why Austin over, say, Boston, with universities such as MIT and Harvard? Numerous factors came into play, said Army officials, including cost and quality of living and access to cutting-edge science and technology—but along with that, a commitment on the part of the academic sector to join with the military and with the private sector to fulfill the AFC’s newly defined mission. The University of Texas, with a tradition of “incubator hubs” and research centers that help bring intellectual property developed by faculty members and other researchers to the marketplace, quickly emerged as the leader, though it certainly helped that there are large military bases nearby (especially Fort Hood and Joint Base San Antonio) to serve as proving grounds and arenas for combat simulations.

At least in the near term, the dominant garb of the AFC is likelier to be the white lab coat than camo fatigues, with engineers, scientists, and technologists at the fore. As outlined in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, some of the Command’s research will approach the edges of science, with pioneering work in artificial intelligence, sonic and hypersonic weaponry, and quantum computing. Existing contracts, some with firms already located in Austin, include the development of software to optimize fuel consumption of military vehicles in the field, while one of the stated priorities of the Command overall is the development of a next-generation combat vehicle that is lighter and less likely to break down than existing models, as well as better adapted to fighting in urban conditions. The Army hasn’t been specific about how that vehicle, or class of vehicles, might differ from the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, but students of weapons-systems development point out a built-in conflict: that of keeping the vehicle light enough to maneuver and heavy enough to protect occupants from bomb blasts and direct fire.

Other priorities include the development of long-range precision weapons that can penetrate advanced air defense systems and travel farther than existing missiles and rockets; adding a significant robotics component to on-the-ground forces so that, in future combat, tanks and other vehicles might be deployed in the same way that the Air Force uses drone aircraft; and developing new vertical-lift aircraft. Subtasks include standardizing machine parts so that at least some can be 3D printed in the field—and standardizing software so that single file formats can take the place of the dozens that are now in place.

The AFC stresses rapidity of prototyping, just-in-time delivery of inventory, and other standards long in place in high-tech industries but new to the tradition-bound military. But modernizing the Army, officials say, is of critical importance, with one overarching purpose: to increase the service’s killing power while keeping soldiers safe in the field.