When Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Crosby first interviewed to be Army Futures Command’s enlisted leader, he had no idea what to expect.
The command was still in its nascent stages with no headquarters building and he could only find a brief description of its vision to modernize the Army.
Instead, Crosby was focused on the battlefield, observing his troops defeat ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria. The prospect of the new job seemed like a 180-degree departure from his post overseeing Operation Inherent Resolve’s Combined Joint Task Force.
He then reflected on the coalition troops he had lost during his tour. Then of the soldiers who never returned home from his other deployments, including back-to-back tours to Iraq from 2005 to 2008.
He decided he wanted to help change how future soldiers would fight, hopefully keeping them safer and more lethal.
“It’s something bigger than myself,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m fired up about this. This is a bold move by the Army.”
Embedded with industry, academia
Inside a high-rise office building in the heart of Texas, the command’s headquarters bustled on a weekday in late June.
Unlike other Army units, the office space felt more like that, an office, rather than a typical military workplace.
The command had a low profile in its upper-floor nest inside the University of Texas System building, overlooking downtown and the domed state capitol.
Sgt. 1st Class William Roth, right, assigned to Army Futures Command’s Soldier Lethality Cross-Functional Team, conducts a live demonstration of new Army equipment at Capital Factory in Austin, Texas, April 11, 2019.
(Photo by Luke J. Allen)
Among the rows of cubicles, soldiers wore no uniforms as they worked alongside federal employees and contractors. Many soldiers went by their first name in the office, often frequented by innovators, entrepreneurs and academic partners.
The lowest-ranked soldier was a sergeant and up the chain were senior executive service civilians and a four-star general.
A few blocks down 7th Street, another group of soldiers and federal employees from the command were embedded in an incubator hub to get even closer to innovators.
The Army Applications Laboratory occupies a corner on the eighth floor of Capital Factory, which dubs itself the center of gravity for startups in Texas. The lab shares space with other defense agencies and officials call it a “concierge service” to help small companies navigate Defense Department acquisition rules and regulations.
“They’re nested and tied in with industry,” Crosby said.
The command also provides research funding to over 300 colleges and universities, he added
Those efforts include an Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh that activated earlier this year.
In May, the University of Texas System also announced it had committed at least million to support its efforts with the command, according to a news release.
More recently, the command agreed to a partnership with Vanderbilt University in Nashville. As part of it, soldiers with 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team would work with engineers to inspire new technology.
Soldiers up the road at Fort Hood may also soon be able to do the same at UT and Texas AM University.
“That is what we’re looking to replicate with other divisions in the Army,” Crosby said. “It will take some time.”
In on the groundfloor
Since October 2017 when the Army announced its intent to create the command to be the focal point of modernization efforts, it wasted no time laying its foundation.
It now manages eight cross-functional teams at military sites across the country, allowing soldiers to team with acquisition and science and technology experts at the beginning of projects.
The teams tackle six priorities: long-range precision fires, next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift, network, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality — all of which have since been allocated billion over the next five years.
The next step was to place its headquarters in an innovative city, where it could tap into industry and academic talent to develop new technologies that give soldiers an edge against near-peer threats.
Gen. John Murray, left, commander of Army Futures Command, and Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Crosby, the command’s senior enlisted leader, participate in a command synchronization session at the University of Texas at Austin, April 26, 2019.
(Photo by Luke J. Allen)
After an exhaustive search of over 150 cities, the Army chose Austin. The move marked the start of the Army’s largest reorganization effort since 1973, when both the Forces Command and Training and Doctrine Command were established.
The location away from a military post was intentional. Rather than surrounded by a security fence, the command is surrounded by corporate America.
“We’re part of the ecosystem of entrepreneurs, startups, academia,” Crosby said. “We’re in that flow of where ideas are presented.”
As it nears full operational capability this summer, Futures Command has already borne fruit since it activated August 2018.
Its collaborative efforts have cut the time it takes project requirements to be approved from five or seven years to just three months or less.
Once prototypes are developed, soldiers are also more involved in testing the equipment before it begins rolling off an assembly line.
By doing this, the Army hopes to learn from past projects that failed to meet soldier expectations.
The Main Battle Tank-70 project in the 1960s, for instance, went well over budget before it was finally canceled. New efforts then led to the M1 Abrams tank.
Until the Army got the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, it spent significant funding on the Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle in the 1960s, which never entered service.
“So we’re trying to avoid that,” Crosby said. “We’re trying to let soldiers touch it. Those soldier touchpoints are a big success story.”
Futures Command is not a traditional military command. Its headquarters personnel, which will eventually number about 100 soldiers and 400 civilians, are encouraged to think differently.
A new type of culture has spread across the command, pushing many soldiers and federal employees out of their comfort zone to learn how to work in a more corporate environment.
“The culture we really look to embrace is to have some elasticity; be able to stretch,” Crosby said. “Don’t get in the box, don’t even use a box — get rid of the box.”
Crosby and other leaders will often elicit ideas from younger personnel, who may think of another approach to remedy a problem.
“I’m not going to somebody who has been in the uniform for 20 to 30 years, because they’re pretty much locked on their ideas,” he said. “They don’t want to change.”
A young staff sergeant once told the sergeant major the command could save thousands if they just removed the printers from the office.
The move, which is still being mulled over, would force people to rely more on technology while also saving money in paper, ink and electricity.
While it may annoy some, Crosby likens the idea to when a GPS device reroutes a driver because of traffic on a road. The driver may be upset at first, not knowing where the device is pointing, but the new route ends up being quicker.
Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, center, deputy commanding general of Army Futures Command and commander of Futures and Concepts Center, talks with Josh Baer, founder of Capital Factory, during a South by Southwest Startup Crawl on March 8, 2019, in Austin, Texas.
(Photo by Anthony Small)
“You have to reprogram what you think,” he said. “I’m not used to this road, why are they taking me here? Then you come to find out, it’s not a bad route.”
For Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Robinson, his role as a human resources specialist is vastly different from his previous job as a mailroom supervisor at 4th Infantry Division.
As the headquarters’ youngest soldier, Robinson, 31, often handles the administrative actions of organizations that continue to realign under the budding command.
Among them are the Army Capabilities Integration Center that transitioned over to be the command’s Futures and Concepts Center. The Research, Development and Engineering Command then realigned to be its Combat Capabilities Development Command.
Research elements at the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command have also realigned to the Army’s new major command.
“The processes and actions are already in place,” Robinson said of his old position, “but here you’re trying to recreate and change pretty much everything.”
Since he started in November 2018, he said he now has a wider view of the Army. Being immersed in a corporate setting, he added, may also help him in a career after the military.
“The job itself and working with different organizations opens up a [broader perspective],” he said, “and helps you not just generalize but operationalize a different train of thought.”
Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Crosby, left, Army Futures Command’s senior enlisted leader, participates in the command’s activation ceremony in Austin, Texas, Aug. 24, 2018, along with Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army; Army Secretary Mark Esper; and its commander, Gen. John Murray.
(Photo by Sgt. Brandon Banzhaf)
While chaotic at times, Julia McDonald, a federal employee who handles technology and futures analysis for the commander’s action group, has grabbed ahold of the whirlwind ride.
“It moves fast around here,” she said of when quick decisions are made and need to be implemented at a moment’s notice. “Fifteen minutes seems like an hour or two.”
Building up a major command is not without its growing pains. Even its commander, Gen. John Murray, has referred to his command as a “startup trying to manage a merger.”
“Everybody is just trying to stand up their staff sections and understand that this is your lane and this is my lane,” McDonald said. “And how do we all work together now that we’re in the same command?”
The current challenges could pay off once the seeds planted today grow into new capabilities that help soldiers.
For Crosby, that’s a personal mission. In his last deployment, nearly 20 coalition members, including U.S. soldiers, died in combat or in accidents and many more were wounded as they fought against ISIS.
“We have to get it right, and I know we will,” he said. “Everybody is depending on us.”
This article originally appeared on United States Army. Follow @USARMY on Twitter.