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The Army’s Ryan McCarthy Pulls the Plug on Bad Acquisitions

“We’re not informed enough,” undersecretary says

Ryan McCarthy, the Army’s undersecretary since August, says his motto is “fail early, fail cheap.” (Courtesy Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy/Facebook)
Ryan McCarthy, the Army’s undersecretary since August, says his motto is “fail early, fail cheap.” (Courtesy Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy/Facebook)

There’s something different about the Army these days. In a word, it is humility.

The service does not have a flagship new weapon in the works, only minor modifications to existing systems. Its recent efforts to develop costly hardware have flopped. Its acquisition budget, relative to the Air Force and Navy, is expected to decline in the next decade. U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan now number in the thousands, not the scores of thousands.

To be sure, with just over 1 million soldiers in the active and reservist Army, nearly a quarter of whom are deployed at any given time in some 140 locations worldwide, the Army cannot be called inactive.

However, particularly when it comes to its organizations for procuring weapons, the Army is now looking mostly inward. The service is focused on making sure it undoes the bad habits that made earlier programs cost too much and take too long.

Mark Esper, the recently confirmed Army secretary, and Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff, are ultimately responsible for how this process unfolds. But the top civilian leading the reappraisal and reorganization on a daily basis is a former Army Ranger named Ryan McCarthy, the service’s undersecretary since August, who served as acting secretary for most of that time.

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“We recognize that, as an institution, we are organized against the Industrial Age, and we are now in the Information Age, and we have to move faster,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1996, and then served in the Army, including in Afghanistan, for five years.

After leaving the service, he worked for a year as an aide on the old House International Relations Committee before becoming a special assistant in the Defense secretary’s office. Then he moved over to Lockheed Martin, the top U.S. defense contractor, before President Donald Trump tapped him for the Army post.

The Army is reeling from more than a decade of spectacular failures in developing new weapons. The service had to kill the Crusader howitzer program, the Comanche helicopter initiative, the Future Combat Systems suite of weapons and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical communications system — after spending nearly $40 billion on them with little to show for it.

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McCarthy appears to have a firm grasp on what went wrong. He knows, for one thing, that the Army needs to recruit more brain power in order to effectively oversee complex initiatives. He is setting up programs to allow Army personnel to do internships with contractors in order to learn the private sector’s ways. And he wants to lure more talent in the other direction — from the corporate world to the Army — especially systems engineers.

He also recognizes that the Army has been prone to invest its hopes and dollars in unproven concepts.

“If you chase an immature technology that you haven’t tested, then you just bought a $1 billion PowerPoint slide,” he said.

He wants more prototypes and experimentation so that problems can be detected earlier. He’s lacing the acquisition bureaucracy with battle-hardened officers who can tell bureaucrats how their ideas might fare on a real battlefield.

His motto, he says, is: “Fail early, fail cheap.”

In that respect, McCarthy is taking cues from lawmakers like Arizona Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We would rather have a small failure that teaches us something early in the acquisition process than deal with a multibillion-dollar program that becomes, quote, ‘too big to fail,’” McCain said at a Dec. 7 hearing on military acquisitions.

Trading futures

One of McCarthy’s first tasks upon taking office was to formally recommend the termination of more than $1 billion in planned spending on less-than-urgent science and technology projects in order to spend more money on the most pressing capabilities: long-range missiles, missile defenses, individual soldier gear, combat vehicles, helicopters and networks.

A focus of McCarthy’s job now is consolidating scattered parts of the Army’s weapons-development bureaucracy under a new organization that is likely to be called “Futures Command.”

McCarthy said he is working alongside Gen. James McConville, the Army’s vice chief of staff, to oversee the shakeup.

Under the plan, Futures Command would launch in June 2018 and be fully capable within a year. The location has yet to be announced, but McCarthy wants it in a locale near academia and industry.

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The command’s job will be to focus on defining requirements as precisely and realistically as possible from the start and then to experiment to see what works before committing big bucks, McCarthy said.

McCarthy also said he recognizes that organizational changes alone may not yield results if the military’s culture does not change. The Defense Department bureaucracy tends to reward people who provide inaccurately rosy promises and not those who deliver accurately dire warnings.

Unless leaders actively encourage the telling of bad news — preferably early on in a system’s development — important alarms will not be heard.

“Early and candid” is how he likes his information, he said.

Budget pressures

But McCarthy believes his “hardest challenge” will be overcoming resistance from the Army organizations that will be diminished in the coming restructuring, because it affects “people’s bureaucratic rice bowls.”

The Air Force and Navy will consume a bigger share of the Pentagon budget in the years ahead as atomic delivery systems will be replaced — bombers, land-based missiles, nuclear-missile submarines and a growing number of F-35 fighter jets.

Unless the overall Pentagon budget grows significantly, that means less for the Army.

The Army has internal budget pressure, too. It’s trying to grow its ranks by thousands of soldiers, restore degraded equipment and increase training. Given the price of those efforts, many new and improved weapons may have to wait even if the Army is ready to buy them.

But it’s not ready. More robust analysis is needed to determine the best weaponry for the future, McCarthy said.

“We’re not informed enough to make the call on the next generation of combat vehicle or helicopter,” he said.

In a sense, McCarthy and the Army are making a virtue of their fiscal straits. They are using the decade ahead to study the best approaches before plunging headlong into top-dollar programs. They’ve already tried it the second way, and it didn’t work out.

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