Robots, Marines and the ultimate battle with bureaucracy

Neller, who retired in 2019, says if anyone should take the blame for not getting the targets sooner and in greater quantities, it was him. But he also recognizes other forces at play. “If you hire a contractor to provide a service and goals, and the people who work on the base, possibly our base people, they can lose their jobs,” he says. “Change is always painful. Even if there is an overwhelming amount of support for it.”

One snag the robots are hitting — which is common with new technologies — is the gulf within the Pentagon’s bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.

Many active and experienced infantry experts who have spoken to POLITICO blame the civilian program managers who, while not typically combat veterans themselves, write the requirements documents that make up the programs. While military commanding officers remain in one post for two or three years and then move on, this civilian staff remains in one location. On the one hand, this means that citizens can provide useful institutional knowledge and stability. But it also means that they can thwart efforts to reconsider the status quo by waiting for the military leaders.

Ultimately, the paths to failure in military acquisition are much greater than 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, has a name for the limbo that follows the successful demonstration of a new military technology: “Middle Earth”. Getting out of Middle Earth, he says, requires operational demand from the ground forces, “extreme strategic importance” from at least one influential leader, the right timing, and a fair amount of pure luck.

“So you see what I call acquisition and operational conversions,” he says. “It’s the idea that you take the decision-making space out of the middle of the bureaucratic process.”

By now, Congress was losing patience. Lawmakers in both sides had heard about the need for robotic targets and urged the military to act. The House and Senate Armed Forces Committees then incorporated language into the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act demanding updates from the Army and Marine Corps on efforts to obtain moving targets.

“A lot of times with this stuff you just need champions on the inside of the bureaucracy to pull it off,” said a Senate Republican aide to the Armed Services Committee. “In our oversight role in Congress, we can prod and urge the department to do things.” It has helped to get results.

The Marine Corps now has great momentum to bring robots to every part of the force. The service is leasing 13 trailers this year, its largest investment to date, with plans to add a dozen more over the next two years. It’s starting to tear up some of its old ranges in favor of zero infrastructure fields, where the targets can maneuver freely. Alford, the general in charge of the Marine Corps Training Command, has been an advocate for years who has called the targets “the best damn training tool I’ve ever seen, hands down.” Marathon employees say they expect the goals to become a record program before the year is out.

There are other obstacles to wider use in the military: the service branches, with different cultures, systems and priorities, are often not on the same page. So while the Marine Corps is poised to expand the use of the robots, the military is still engaged in the acquisition process.

The agency has signed a contract with Pratt & Miller to build what one military citizen described in an internal email from 2021 as “their own version of the Marathon target”. The note, from an email chain that later included Marathon, was provided to POLITICO by a source at the company. The Army target will not be autonomous, due to military concerns over security and control, but will conform to the Future Army System of Integrated Targets, or FASIT, a networked framework of training tools built into existing static arrays. The first of these targets is expected to be completed in 2024, according to Pratt & Miller; a few early versions are now in Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers now work out bugs.

And the bugs are numerous, says Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Rance, a drill instructor at Benning. He has noticed that the army robots are slow to respond to blows and are often unavailable for maintenance, fueling growing frustration.

“We have a robotic target that’s already available, a commercial turnkey product,” Rance says. “And we’ve seen the Marine Corps and our Australian counterparts move in that direction. And I just don’t understand why the military didn’t jump on that ship too.”

In response to multiple questions and interview requests, the military has provided a brief written statement from Doug Bush, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology.

“We need to improve communication between the military and the industrial base about what the military needs before companies build capacity on the assumption that ‘the military doesn’t know it needs it,'” Bush wrote, “involving soldiers in the decision of businesses – making processes earlier to ensure technology meets their needs.”

Last year’s defense bill included language calling on the military to report on how it might be able to detect robotic moving targets by fiscal year 2023 and express support for “rapid adoption” on the commercial side turnkey capacity. That report had not yet been submitted at the end of April.

“One of our biggest efforts, as far as oversight is concerned, is trying to identify the areas of redundancy between the services and then trying to figure out how to improve that, or whether the services can help prevent that,” says an assistant at the House Armed Services Committee, which is stunned by the military’s approach.

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