Robots, Marines and the Ultimate Battle with Bureaucracy

Neller, who retired in 2019, says if anyone should take the blame for not procuring the targets sooner and in larger quantities, it was him. But it also acknowledges other forces in play. “If you hire a contractor to provide a service and targets, and the people that work at the base, potentially, our base range people, they may lose their job,” he says. “Change is always painful. Even if there’s an overwhelming amount of support for it.”

One snag that the robots hit — which is common with new technologies — is the rift within the Pentagon bureaucracy between civilians and soldiers.

Many active and veteran infantry experts who spoke with POLITICO fault the civilian program managers who, while typically not combat veterans themselves, write the requirements documents that shape programs of record. While military commanding officers will spend two or three years at a post and then move on, these civilian staff stay in one location. On the one hand, this means the civilians can provide useful institutional knowledge and stability. But it also means they can thwart attempts to overhaul the status quo just by waiting for the military leaders out.

Ultimately, the paths to failure in military acquisition far outnumber 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.” The pathway out of Middle Earth, he says, requires operational demand from the ground forces, “extreme strategic interest” from at least one influential leader, the right timing and a fair amount of pure luck.

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

By now, Congress was losing patience. Lawmakers in both parties had heard about the need for robotic targets and were pressing the military for action. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees then included language in the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act demanding updates from the Army and Marine Corps on efforts to look for moving targets.

“Oftentimes, with this type of stuff, you really need just champions on the inside of 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 poke and produce the department to do things.” It’s helped get results.

The Marine Corps now has major momentum behind bringing robots to every part of the force. The service is leasing 13 trailers this year, the biggest investment so far, with plans to bring in another dozen in the next two years. It’s starting to rip up some of its old ranges in favor of zero-infrastructure fields, where the targets can maneuver freely. Alford, the general in charge of Marine Corps Training Command, is a longtime advocate who has called the targets “the best damn training tool I’ve ever seen, hands-down.” Marathon staff say they expect the targets to become a program of record before the year is over.

Yet other obstacles still loom for broader use in the military: The service branches, with different cultures, systems and priorities, often aren’t on the same page. So while the Marine Corps is poised to expand its use of the robots, the Army is still embroiled in the acquisition process.

The service has contracted with Pratt & Miller to build what one 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 source at the company. The Army target won’t be autonomous, due to Army concerns about safety and control, but will be compliant with Future Army System of Integrated Targets, or FASIT, a networked framework of training tools built into existing static ranges. The first of these targets is expected to be fielded in 2024, according to Pratt & Miller; a few early versions are now at Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, where soldiers are now working out bugs.

And the bugs are many, says Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Rance, a drill instructor at Benning. He has found the Army robots slow to respond to hits and frequently down for maintenance — fueling a growing frustration.

“We have a robotic target that is already available out there, a commercial off-the-shelf,” Rance says. “And we have seen the Marine Corps and our Australian counterparts go in that direction. And I just don’t see why the Army hasn’t jumped onto 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 Army and the industrial base regarding what the Army needs before companies build a capability under the assumption that ‘the Army doesn’t know it needs it,’” Bush wrote, “bringing soldiers into companies’ decision -making processes earlier to make sure that technology meets their needs.”

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

“One of our biggest pieces of effort, as far as oversight is concerned, is trying to identify the areas for redundancy between the services and then trying to figure out how to improve that, or help the services to avoid that,” says an aide at the House Armed Services Committee, who is baffled by the Army’s approach.

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