Keller, who retired in 2019, says that if anyone should take the blame for not buying goals sooner and in larger quantities, it’s him. But he also acknowledges that there are other forces at play. “If you hire a contractor to provide a service and goals, and it’s likely that the people working on the base are our base scope people, they could lose their jobs,” he says. “Change is always painful. Even if there is a tremendous amount of support for her.”
One obstacle to robots — common with new technologies — is the rift within the Pentagon bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.
Many of the active and seasoned infantry experts who spoke with POLITICO err for civilian program managers who, although not combat veterans themselves, write the requirements documents that make up enrollment programs. While military officers will spend two or three years in a location and then relocate, these civilian employees stay in one location. On the other hand, this means that civilians can provide useful institutional knowledge and stability. But it also means that they can thwart attempts to fix the status quo by just waiting for the military leaders to leave.
Ultimately, the paths to failure in military acquisition far outnumber the paths to success.
John Cochran, a retired Army colonel who served as the acting director of the Close Combat Task Force for most of 2020, has a forgotten name that follows the successful demonstration of new military technology: “Middle Earth.” The path out of Middle Earth, he says, requires operational demand from ground forces, “maximum strategic interest” from at least one influential leader, proper timing and a fair amount of pure luck.
“That’s how you see what I like to call acquisitions and operational transfers,” he says. “It’s the idea that you take the decision space away from the middle of the bureaucratic process.”
So far, Congress has been losing patience. Lawmakers of both parties had heard about the need for robotic targets and were pressing the military to act. Then the House and Senate Armed Services Committees included language in the public finances 2022 National Defense Authorization Act Demands updates from the Army and Marine Corps on efforts to procure moving targets.
“A lot of times, with this kind of thing, you really need heroes from within the bureaucracy to make it happen,” says an aide to a Republican senator on the Armed Services Committee. “In our oversight role in Congress, we can lobby and urge the department to do things.” It helped get results.
The Marines now have a huge momentum behind bringing robots into every part of the force. The Marine Corps Training and Education Command is renting 13 trailers this year, its largest investment to date, with plans to bring in dozens more in the next two years. It’s starting to tear up some of its old ranges in favor of zero-infrastructure fields, where targets can freely maneuver. Alford, the general in charge of the Marine Corps Training Command, is a longtime gunner who called Targets “the best training tool I’ve ever seen, with no operational interference.” Marathon staff say they expect the goals to become a standard program before the year is out.
However, other hurdles still loom for wider use in the military: Service branches, with different cultures, systems, and priorities, are often not on the same page. So while the Marine Corps prepares to expand its use of robotics, the Army is still engaged in the acquisition process.
The service contracted Pratt & Miller to build what an Army civilian described in an internal 2021 email message as “their own version of a marathon goal.” The note, from an email chain that later included a marathon, was provided to Politico by a company source. The Army target will not be stand-alone, due to the Army’s safety and control concerns, but will be compatible with the Army’s Future System of Integrated Targets, or FASIT, a network framework for training tools embedded in existing fixed ranges. The first of these targets is expected to be dispatched in 2024, according to Pratt & Miller; There are now a few early releases in Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers are now working on bug fixes.
And bugs abound, says Sgt. First Class Christopher Rance, coaching coach at Benning. It’s been found that Army robots are slow to respond to strikes and often get stuck due to maintenance – leading to growing frustration.
“We have a robotic target already available out there, and it’s commercial ready,” says Rance. And we’ve seen the Marines and our Australian counterparts go in that direction. And I don’t understand why the army didn’t jump on that ship either.”
In response to multiple questions and interview requests, the Army provided a brief written statement from Doug Bush, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions, Logistics, and Technology.
Bush wrote: “We need to improve communications between the Army and the industrial base regarding what the Army needs before companies build a capacity to assume ‘the Army doesn’t know it needs it’, ‘bring soldiers to corporate decision’—running early operations to make sure That technology meets their needs.”
Last year’s defense bill included language calling on the military to report on how it would be able to identify automated moving targets by fiscal year 2023 and express its support for the “rapid adoption” of a commercial off-the-shelf capability. As of the end of April, this report had not yet been submitted.
“One of our biggest efforts, in terms of oversight, is trying to identify areas of redundancy between services and then trying to figure out how to improve that, or help services avoid that,” an aide says on the House Armed Services Committee, who is baffled by the Army’s approach.
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