Neller, who retired in 2019, says if anyone has to take the blame for not buying targets sooner and in larger quantities, it’s him. But he also recognizes other forces at play. “If you hire a contractor to provide services and purposes, and people who work at the base, potentially people from our base, they can lose their jobs,” he says. “Change is always painful. Even with overwhelming support.”
One snag that the robots have run into – which is typical of new technology – is the split in the Pentagon bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.
Many active and seasoned infantry experts who spoke with POLITICO blame civilian program managers who, although not usually combat veterans themselves, write requirements documents that form accountable programs. While military commanders spend two or three years in office 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 they can thwart attempts to change the status quo by simply waiting out the warlords.
Ultimately, the paths to failure in military procurement far 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, called the uncertainty following the successful demonstration of new military technology “Middle Earth.” The path out of Middle-earth, he says, requires operational demand from the ground forces, “extraordinary strategic interest” from at least one powerful leader, good timing, and a fair amount of pure luck.
“That’s how you see what I call acquisition and operational conversion,” he says. “The idea is that you take decision space out of the middle of the bureaucratic process.”
By now Congress has lost patience. Legislators in both parties heard of the need for target robots and demanded military action. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees then incorporated language into the fiscal code. National Defense Authorization Act 2022 requiring the Army and Marine Corps to update on moving target acquisition efforts.
“Often with things like this, you really only need supporters within the bureaucracy to make it happen,” says a Senate Republican aide on the Armed Services Committee. “By fulfilling our oversight role in Congress, we can nudge the department into action.” It helped get results.
The Marine Corps currently has great momentum to introduce robots to all parts of the force. The service is leasing 13 trailers this year, its largest investment so far, and plans to introduce a dozen more in the next two years. He is starting to abandon some of his old ranges in favor of zero infrastructure fields where targets are free to maneuver. Alford, the general in charge of the Marine Corps Training Command, is a longtime supporter who called targets “the best fucking training tool I’ve ever seen, without a doubt.” Marathon staff say they expect the goals to become a record program before the end of the year.
However, other obstacles still loom for wider use in the military: branches of service, with different cultures, systems and priorities, often do not match. Thus, while the Marine Corps is ready to expand the use of robots, the army is still involved in the acquisition process.
The service contracted with Pratt & Miller to build what one Army citizen described in an internal 2021 email as “their own version of the Marathon target.” The note from the email thread that Marathon was later included in was provided to POLITICO by a source within the company. The Army Target will not be autonomous due to the Army’s concerns about security and control, but will comply with the Future Army’s Integrated Objectives System or FASIT, a networked framework of training tools built into existing static ranges. According to Pratt & Miller, the first of these targets will launch in 2024; several early versions are now located at Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers now practice mistakes.
And there are many mistakes, says the sergeant. 1st Class Christopher Rance, drill instructor at Benning. He found that army robots were slow to respond to a hit and frequently stopped for maintenance, causing increasing frustration.
“We have a robotic target that is already available, commercially ready,” says Rance. “And we have seen the Marine Corps and our Australian counterparts go in that direction. And I just don’t understand why the Army didn’t jump on that ship too.”
In response to numerous questions and requests for an interview, the Army provided a brief written statement from Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.
“We need to improve the communication between the army and the industrial base about what the army needs before companies build capacity, on the assumption that “the army doesn’t know it needs it,” Bush wrote, “involving soldiers in company decisions.” . “start processes early to make sure the technology meets their needs.”
Last year’s defense bill called for the Army to report on how it can field robotic moving targets by fiscal year 2023 and expressed support for a “rapid rollout” of off-the-shelf commercial capabilities. As of the end of April, this report had not been submitted.
“One of our biggest oversight efforts is trying to identify areas of redundancy between services and then trying to figure out how to improve that or help services avoid it,” the assistant says. in the House Armed Services Committee, which is baffled by the Army’s approach.