Four Questions With Army Futures Commander Gen. John Murray
AUSA: The Army is undergoing a once-in-a-generation transformation as it modernizes its platforms and systems to meet new advanced threats in the future.
Leading that charge is Gen. John Murray, who established and commands Army Futures Command. Since AFC stood up, the command has embarked on modernization efforts ranging from future aircraft, to long-range precision fires, to the network that data flows through to connect those platforms.
The modernization push is an effort to prepare the Army to be multi-domain capable by 2028, and fully ready for the multi-domain fight by 2035. But many of the modernization programs have long delivery timelines that will outlast leaders at program offices currently – including Murray, who is expected to retire later this year.
In an interview with Breaking Defense, Murray discussed how Army modernization can be successfully sustained over time and how the service needs to continue to adapt to ensure its force keeps pace with rapidly changing technology.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What you’ve been leading has been a big cultural shift for the Army, that I’m sure has had its challenges. So what are those keys to the continued success of Army modernization? How do you keep that persistence going?
When we first stood up, there were a lot of people who wanted us to be very, very different. I think it’s maintaining a balance, because it is a different mission. In some ways, whether I was chartered or not, I think one of my roles is forcing the institution to think a little bit differently about how we do things compared to what we’ve done in the past. But you got to be recognizable enough to the institution and you have to fit into the institution enough to actually get things done. So it’s, it’s really kind of finding that fine balance between pushing and pushing too hard.
We’ve run into a couple of instances [of]probably pushing too hard, but it’s finding ways to almost work in the background to get things done. Fit inside the processes … challenge it where it’s appropriate to challenge it. But in the end, stay focused on producing output for ourselves, whether that’s near term or far term. There were some frustrations [and] there continue to be frustrations along the way. But if you’re focused on getting capability – and that capability is broader than just materiel – into the hands of our soldiers [that] they’re going to need in the future, near or far, I think that’s a pretty good focus to go forward on.
What are some of the biggest hurdles that the Army needs to be mindful of as you move forward with modernization?
We’ve got to build some agility, some flexibility in the systems. We’ve got to be more willing to accept some early risk. You’re not going to see the breakthroughs if every bit of risk is baked out of everything we do from the very beginning. We’ll never be able to keep up with the pace of change.
I think it’s staying focused on near-peer threats and not getting fooled by just developing capability for capabilities sake. I think it’s continuing to build up on the partnerships that we built across the joint force, Project Convergence, you know, getting all the services involved in trying to figure out this thing called JADC2, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with. I think it’s keeping soldiers involved in developmental process. There’s a laundry list of things I think we need to keep continuing to do. And in a lot of ways it’s working collaboratively with the other [Army Commands] so AMC [Army Materiel Command], TRADOC [Training and Doctrine Command] and FORSCOM [Forces Command] because we rely upon them.
Probably the most important one is that healthy relationship between the acquisition community and requirements community. I can write requirements all day long. I can’t deliver a single piece of equipment without that partnership.
What have you seen that convinced you that this modernization effort can be sustained and be successful?
I think it’s the Army’s commitment so far – and so far, so good – to not changing priorities. And so [it’s the] second Chief of Staff, third Secretary of the Army [since Futures Command started], and our priorities have not changed. We’re also looking with Project Convergence specifically this year at what technologies have to be spun out so we’re not waiting until 2028 or 2035 to deliver everything with one big package. So how do we spin out and accelerate technology.
I think the priorities are well-grounded. We’ve done four years, almost, of modeling right now to say that they are well grounded. … I think most independent looks at this have said, yeah, there’s utility in long range fires. The network absolutely underpins everything we’re doing. There’s obviously utility in Air Missile Defense. We got a 40-year-old fighting vehicle that’s underpowered. You look across the board, most reasonable people would say they make sense. And so I think that’s why we’ve been able to maintain the priorities we’ve been able to maintain.
When it comes to fostering those relationships with startups and non-traditional contractors, what successful strategies have you found to be the most efficient and effective making the Army and those companies work better together?
One is speaking their language, which I’m not very good at. But you know, putting aside acronyms, putting aside the language I’ve learned over 35 years, and really talking to them in a language they understand. Part of that is giving them problems to solve, not requirements. Small business entrepreneurs work better with a problem [statement] and let them do what they do best: innovate and come up with new ways of solving our problems.
The ability to understand this space they they live and work in. So, we talk about getting capital to small businesses. [It’s] stepping back and understanding they need capital. They need capital to feed their family and pay their mortgage. And so figuring out ways that we can use existing statutes and, really, processes to speed capital to them so that we’re operating on much shorter timelines and we’re not asking them to take a lot of risk that a big defense industry firm can take.
Lastly, we need them more than they need us. In terms of business model, I think … most small businesses would choose not to do business with the Defense Department just because we’re so hard to work with. And so I think it’s meeting them more than halfway, it’s been what I think has been a successful approach. [Start] with the problem, right? So technology is really cool, but technology that doesn’t solve the problem you got is really still really cool, but it’s not going to get funding.