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Robots, Marines, and the Ultimate Battle Against Bureaucracy

Neller, who retired in 2019, says if anyone should be blamed for not buying the targets sooner and in greater quantities, it’s him. But he also recognizes other forces at play. “If you hire a contractor to provide service and goals, and the people who work on the base, potentially our base people, they can lose their jobs,” says- he. “Change is always painful. Even though there is overwhelming support for it.

One snag the robots have encountered — common with new technology — is the rift within the Pentagon bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.

Many active and veteran infantry experts who spoke to POLITICO blame civilian program managers who, although they don’t usually fight veterans themselves, write the requirements documents that shape military programs. ‘registration. While military commanders will spend two or three years in a position and then leave, these civilian personnel will remain in the same place. On the one hand, this means that civilians can provide useful institutional knowledge and stability. But it also means they can thwart attempts to overhaul the status quo simply by waiting for military leaders to come out.

Ultimately, the paths to failure in military procurement are far more numerous 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 following the successful demonstration of a new military technology: “Middle-earth”. Breaking out of Middle-earth, he says, requires operational demand from ground forces, “extreme strategic interest” from at least one influential leader, timing and a fair amount of sheer luck.

“That’s how you see what I like to call operational acquisitions and conversions,” he says. “It’s the idea that you’re taking the decision-making space away from the middle of the bureaucratic process.”

By then, Congress was losing patience. Lawmakers from both parties had heard of the need for robotic targets and were urging the military to act. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees later included language in the budget National Defense Authorization Act of 2022 demanding updates from the Army and Marine Corps on efforts to procure moving targets.

“A lot of times with this stuff, you really only need champions inside the bureaucracy to make it happen,” says an aide to a Senate Republican on the Armed Services Committee. “In our oversight role in Congress, we can push and push the department to do things.” It helped to get results.

The Marine Corps now has a major push to bring robots to every part of the force. The service is leasing 13 trailers this year, the biggest investment yet, and plans to bring in another dozen over the next two years. It is beginning to tear up some of its old ranges in favor of fields without infrastructure, where targets can maneuver freely. Alford, the general in charge of Marine Corps Training Command, is a longtime advocate who called the targets “the best training tool I’ve ever seen, hands down.” Marathon staff say they expect the goals to become a record-breaking program before the end of the year.

Yet other hurdles still loom for broader use in the military: Service branches, with different cultures, systems, and priorities, are often not on the same page. So while the Marine Corps is poised to expand its use of robots, the military is still involved in the acquisition process.

The service contracted Pratt & Miller to build what an Army civilian described in a 2021 internal email as “their own version of the Marathon target.” The note, from an email chain that later included Marathon, was provided to POLITICO by a company source. The Army Target will not be self-contained, due to Army security and control concerns, but will be compliant with the future Army Integrated Target System, or FASIT, a networked framework of tools training integrated into existing static beaches. The first of these goals should be achieved in 2024, according to Pratt & Miller; a few early versions are now at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers are currently working on bugs.

And the bugs are plentiful, says Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Rance, drill instructor at Benning. He found that army robots were slow to respond to blows and often down for maintenance, fueling growing frustration.

“We have a robotic target that is already available, a ready-to-use commercial target,” says Rance. “And we have seen the Marine Corps and our Australian counterparts moving in that direction. And I just don’t see why the military didn’t jump on that ship as well.

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

“We need to improve communications between the military and the industrial base about what the military needs before companies build a capability on the assumption that ‘the military doesn’t know they need it’,” he said. writes Bush, “bringing the soldiers into the decision of the companies”. -doing processes earlier to ensure the technology meets their needs.”

Last year’s defense bill included language calling on the military to report on how it might be able to field robotic moving targets by fiscal year 2023 and expressing support for the “rapid adoption” of commercial off-the-shelf capability. By the end of April, this report had not been submitted.

“One of our biggest efforts, when it comes to monitoring, is to identify areas of redundancy between services and then try to figure out how to improve that or help services avoid that,” says an assistant. to the House Armed Services Committee, which is baffled by the army’s approach.