AUSTIN, Texas — The Army activated its new four-star command, designed to accelerate modernization geared toward keeping a leg up against its peer adversaries, on an unfinished floor of a high-rise overlooking the growing downtown cityscape of Austin Aug. 24.
But will that office space, when it’s built out over the next year, resemble a Pentagon cubicle farm or take on more of the laid-back style permeating Silicon Valley — and increasingly tech-savvy Austin as well — with over-sized bean bag chairs, beer taps and foosball tables?
And will Austin be the city that can relax the Army’s control-freak, risk-averse ways to make room for rapid innovation?
Standing up Army Futures Command has been touted as disruptive, an attempt to break out of the long-term pattern of failure when it comes to bringing new technology and new weapon systems into the force through drastic organizational changes to the service.
The Army has had epic failures over the years, from wasting billions on its canceled Future Combat Systems program, to botching countless smaller efforts to procure readily available technology while it’s still relevant.
And the service hasn’t had the best relationship with Silicon Valley-types in the past, most recently being sued by Palo Alto-based Palantir, for essentially shutting it out of its competition to build an intelligence analysis system. Palantir won the lawsuit but also brought to light an ugly cultural battle between the Army and the California company.
Prime evidence that the Army is hacking away at the red tape when it comes to modernizing is the speed at which Army Futures Command went from concept — announced in October 2017 — to a full-up command in Austin, led by a confirmed four-star commander last week.
The Army chose Austin after whittling down a list of more than 150 cities to five: Boston, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The service focused on six major criteria to choose Austin that looked much more like it is now willing to embrace Silicon Valley culture, albeit in Texas: proximity to science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers and industries; proximity to private sector innovation; academic STEM and research and development investment; quality of life; cost; and civic support.
Additionally, the Army looked beyond those metrics and envisioned “how each city ecosystem would support our modernization efforts and priorities vertically from concept to capability to solution,” Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy said. “We do not have time to build this ecosystem; it needs to be ready immediately.”
The Army’s Austin makeover
Unlike on a base or at the Pentagon, in Austin the Army wants to fit in with the civilian population and shed its inherent formality.
“They are not going to be wearing uniforms,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the headquarters. “We think that’s important.”
The more regular attire at Capital Factory, an innovative entrepreneurs’ hub in the heart of downtown Austin where the Army plans to embed 100 personnel, are t-shirts and jeans.
During an Aug. 23 tour of the hub, McCarthy and Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, within the first few minutes, were greeted by the second season winner of The Apprentice, Kelly Perdew, who was wearing shorts, a polo shirt and Nike flip-flop sandals, and working at a table on his laptop.
The hub’s CEO Joshua Baer wore camo pants. McConville wore a regular suit instead of his dress blues.
“This is the first time in Army history that we have ever planted a major headquarters right smack in the center of an urban area in the United States,” Milley said. "Why are we doing that? Because we think that the connective tissue between the American people and the American Army needs to be strengthened so that we can leverage all of the innovation.”
The Army is getting roughly 23,000 square feet of office space in a University of Texas building downtown for its headquarters, which includes some storefront space on the first level to provide easy access to those who might want to pitch technology developments or conceptual ideas to the Army.
McCarthy envisions that storefront as a way to show the public the latest in Army innovation such as posting a mannequin in the window wearing state-of-the-art soldier kit from body armor to new night vision capability that more resemble Oakley sunglasses than the goggles used within the force now.
Flatscreen TVs would cover the walls, depicting the Army’s efforts to tackle its top priorities that will give those visiting a flavor of what the service is looking for in future capabilities, he added.
The point of the storefront is to be more accessible to the public, but the Army isn’t going to just wait inside its headquarters to be approached with ideas and inventions.
“We are not expecting you to come find us, we are going to come find you,” the new AFC commander, Gen. Mike Murray, told reporters during an Aug. 24 media briefing at the new headquarters. “We didn’t envision people having to come to this building to find us.”
The Army will get access to roughly 10,000 square feet of office space and laboratories at the Cockrell School of Engineering, just a five minute drive from its new headquarters.
The service will have personnel working among scientists and engineers to develop technology it wants to advance and will have the ability to collaborate on new ideas with students and professors at the school.
Guys like David Zakariaie
David Zakariaie is a 21-year-old entrepreneur, who never went to college, but has developed game-changing technology that the Air Force and Navy have already adopted.
Zakariaie also failed ninth grade science and was thrown out of the science fair when he developed a way to use DNA molecules to build a computer chip instead of the standard silicon. He was told that he either stole the work from an established scientist or made it up entirely.
But a vice admiral from the Office of Naval Research thought he was onto something and helped him land a grant to advance his work.
Since then Zakariaie has founded Senseye that seeks to “fully develop partnership between man and machine,” according to his company’s website. “We are working on building software to enable you to use your brain tomorrow the way you use a mouse and keyboard today and hardware to the next generation of computing based on DNA.”
Applications for such technology span across the Army’s top modernization priorities and across the military as a whole.
So far Zakariaie has developed a way to track a pilot’s irises during flight simulation training to determine when a person has neurologically learned a task.
The technology in simulators has allowed one Air Force pilot training course to be truncated from 15 months to six months. That class graduated earlier this month.
McConville, a seasoned helicopter pilot, flew in a simulator set up in the Capital Factory, where Zakariaie sometimes sets up shop.
Zakariaie showed how, on a screen, one could visually see that the vice chief’s cognitive load was high in the beginning as he was figuring out the simulator and how it evened out during flight to reflect that he knew what he was doing in the cockpit.
Taking the technology in a different direction, Zakariaie has also developed a lie detector test that tracks iris movements related to deception. Set up is as simple as pointing a camera at someone’s face. And the test is more reliable, he noted, because it does not measure things not linked to deception like stress and heart rate and it’s not reliant on human interpretation of readings.
The new AFC Command Sergeant Maj. Michael Crosby agreed to a lie detector test, during a tour of Capital Factory, conducted by McConville and McCarthy and endured such questions as “are you uncomfortable right now” and “are you a Red Sox fan.”
When Crosby lied, “Deception Detected” would flash on a laptop screen connected to the camera. For the record, he was truthfully not uncomfortable, but lied that he was not a Red Sox fan.
Technological advancements like Zakariaie’s are the types of discoveries the Army hopes to make going forward in a city like Austin, McCarthy said, and the Army is already working hard to fit into the ecosystem at the Capital Factory and other hubs to make it happen.
The Army has been welcomed at the Capital Factory for good reason. It is essentially a very large venture capital firm.
“We have an $11 billion science and technology budget,” McCarthy said during a media briefing, and some of that money will go toward investing in small, medium and large companies with technologies that can change the trajectory for the Army.
“These startups are looking for investors and what better investor could you have than the United States Army or the United States government,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn, from Texas, said at the AFC activation ceremony.
Making the Army weird?
Austin is a city that has long embraced its weirdness. The phrase “Keep Austin Weird” actually began to promote small, creative businesses in the city.
The Army is embarking on an attempt to become part of that culture, while still preserving its own rules and rigor, and only time will tell if it will be able to strike the balance.
“'Keep Austin weird' means to me that in this city, it’s okay to take risks, it’s okay to fail in this city, so long as you move quickly and then you innovate and then you iterate and you keep trying until you succeed. It is okay to be different in this city,” Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, said in a speech at the AFC activation ceremony. “It is that risk-taking affirmance that makes Austin the incubator of innovation that it is,” he said.
“You know we support new ideas and new ways of thinking,” Adler added. “That is why you can walk down our streets and sometimes see people with red hair or riding by on a bicycle in a thong.”
The new AFC commander Murray replied, “You have my absolute promise that I will do all I can to help you keep Austin weird, minus the bicycle and thong.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.