The Marine Corps is making a new push for experimentation and rapid acquisition funding in its 2018 budget request, with the recently completed Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) under the Ship to Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) effort serving as an example of how the Marines would hope to spend this flexible funding line.
Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, deputy commandant of the Marine Corps for combat development and integration, said at a hearing this week that the service needs to move past the “old way of thinking” about acquiring gear and move towards something more efficient: a pot of money dedicated to buying new technologies a couple at a time, trying them out, learning from it, and then either buying more to field or using the results of that testing to move onto the next experiment.
Walsh noted that science and technology offices, like the Office of Naval Research, have similar pots of money, where the specific details of a project aren’t outlined two years in advance during the budget-writing process; but when the Marines tried in this current budget year to get a similar funding line for the Rapid Capabilities Office in the research and development side of its RDT&E budget, lawmakers cut the funding due to concerns about congressional oversight.
The Marines are trying again for 2018, with Walsh saying during a June 6 Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee hearing that “we put some money in this year, we put about $10 million to do this, and what I’m hoping to do is that we can have the right conversation with the appropriators that they see what we’re doing, we can explain to them the different project areas that we’re working, and that money can stay in the budget. I think we can do a lot more of this … [but] I think there’s some hesitancy to allow us to have funds that may not have discrete money tied to existing programs like we have in the past. I think that’s the old way of thinking, and I think we may have to do that on the large [traditional acquisition] programs, but some of the things we’re talking about, we’re talking about spending $10, $15 million a year for new things much faster in our acquisition process.”
Using the recent Ship-to-Shore ANTX as an example, Walsh described to reporters after the hearing that, after a 10-day experiment at Camp Pendleton that demonstrated about 50 technologies, the service identified three technologies almost immediately that they wanted to buy a few more of to use in future fleet exercises, such as this fall’s Bold Alligator 2017 amphibious exercise.
The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab and other offices involved are still in the user evaluation phase, giving feedback to all participating technology providers while considering which additional items might be worth purchasing for future testing.
Walsh said buying small quantities of some technologies for upcoming exercises should be easy – aside from perhaps asking the companies to go back and marinize or militarize some systems for use in amphibious operations, the development is complete and the systems relatively mature – but funding is the key roadblock. To buy a system for use in the upcoming Bold Alligator exercise means finding research and development dollars from other programs and diverting it mid-fiscal year.
“Where I get the money is, I’m squeezing the money from existing programs, so [amphibious combat vehicle]’s R&D money is coming into this, when the lawyers say we can. What I want to do is program money into it” at the start of the fiscal year, Walsh said.
Speaking after the hearing, Walsh sounded optimistic that some arrangement could be made between the Marine Corps and lawmakers to give both spending flexibility and congressional oversight.
“Let’s say ship-to-shore maneuver, and we said we know we’re deficient in a robotic capability that could be on the surface that could go ashore with a signals intelligence capability that could sense where the enemy may be,” he said of a possible experimentation topic.
“If we said, hey that’s the kind of thing we want – we don’t know who makes it, what the equipment is, but we want money into that. We’re going to put money into that. And then they could say, come up and brief us. … Now if all the sudden we go, hey, guess what, we want to buy a [unmanned aerial vehicle] instead, we’d need to come up and tell them we want to change.”