Rapid capabilities offices, incremental investments, and a wave of public entrepreneurship may signal some needed cultural change.

Egypt is getting more MRAPs. As Defense Industry Daily reported Wednesday, the US Defense Department is sending a second batch of surplus armored vehicles—to match the 762 already sent—“to equip Egyptian soldiers tackling Islamist militants in the Sinai desert.” That’s an urgent shipment to meet an urgent problem, but similar needs haven’t always been met that way. Indeed, it’s notable that the announcement comes ten years to the month after the MRAP became a program of record for the Pentagon. That was at least a year—if not two—after it should have become one. Whatever the case with the Egyptian Army, one might say that the Pentagon’s track record here is not sterling. Several events over the past two months, however, have me hoping that stronger efforts to more rapidly remake the military are underway.

After this week’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) show in Washington, DC, Atlantic Council member Byron Callan provided investors in the defense industry his take-away: lots of companies are making incremental investments in mostly-existing stuff. There were bold exceptions, such as Bell Helicopter’s tilt-rotor drone (though that is truly meant for naval applications). More common were some potentially genius mashups, such as the Humvee-with-howitzer from AM General and Mandus Group. That hip-pocket 105 mm cannon is meant mostly for foreign customers, but consider as well how well that kind of gear might suit the US Marine Corps. That kind of line-extension, brand-building thinking was evident throughout the convention center.

Any why not? The US military has some firmly established practices for buying stuff on fifteen-year timelines, but that’s not going to work in the short term. Moreover, the US Army’s procurement budget is one-fourth what it was eight years ago. Few forces overseas have much excess cash either. The US military can also get pretty good at handling urgent needs, when political leaders show some administrative courage and waive the right rules. All the same, overmatch with existing stuff is not what it once was, as shown by recent and demonstrated advances by the Russians in drones, electronic warfare, and air defense. There are even those possibly scary T-14 Armata tanks. So, having again run out of money—a decade after blowing through all its money on the never-fielded Future Combat Systems (FCS)—the service is resolved this time to do some serious thinking.

So what to do? Make less FCS, and more MRAP, perhaps. Facing an adversary who’s seemingly good at quickly developing disturbing capabilities in key areas, several services are thinking modestly and in the mid-term. The Army and the Marine Corps are just the latest two to establish offices to bring new capabilities to their troops “rapidly.” Back at the end of August, Army Secretary Eric Fanning brought his team to Bloomberg’s downtown Washington, DC office to announce the latest initiative: his establishment of a Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO). The next month, Marine Commandant Robert Neller ordered his people to follow suit, for the Corps had already been experimenting with plenty of prototype equipment under its Marine 2025 project.

At Bloomberg’s event, host Tony Capaccio actually asked Fanning whether the MRAP program was once a model of what they’re trying to do now. Fanning acknowledged that the MRAP was something the Army might have done, or just could have been able to do more rapidly, through an RCO had one existed fifteen years ago. The service does have some experience with that sort of mid-term advance thinking. As Mark Cancian of the CSIS recently reminded me, the Army actually hedged against the landmine problem in the 1990s, after some adverse experiences in Somalia and Bosnia, by buying a few hundred armored Humvees. Where the service failed was in failing to follow up during the Iraq War with a more robust vehicle once it was clear that the M1114 couldn’t stand up to anti-tank mines and heavy improvised explosives.

But just what does rapidly mean in this case? Actually, as it turns out, not too rapidly. The several RCOs are not quite like the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), nor the Rapid Reaction Technologies Office (RRTO) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The REF has a six-month planning horizon, and is thus constrained to buying basically off the shelf. The new RCO, however, is intended to deliver materiel in one to five years, investing in almost-ready technologies. In both cases, this involves putting money into systems that are not meant to be ginormous Acquisition Category (ACAT) 1 programs. The various offices will coordinate amongst the group: departing Assistant Army Secretary Katrina McFarland noted that the Army’s RCO has people in Will Roper’s RCO at OSD, and plenty of input from Army Intelligence too. Sometimes, to riff off Daniel Kahneman’s ideas, and a well-worn Army phrase, you need to think a little more slowly to go faster.

Organizations like the RCOs are thus intended for dealing on emergent timescales, that middling range of problems the US military tends to handle less well. Hopefully this flock of offices will encourage the regional combatant commands to dust off the Joint Emergent Operations Needs Statement (JEONS) manual, and submit some requests for stuff that they don’t need yet, but that they think they will need soon. It’s not as though the REF–RCO distinction falls along an urgent-versus-emergent divide. The supply side of the equation is part of the issue too, and some immediate needs require technologies that are not immediately available. Even so, more proactive thinking, before reactive and contingent responses, may create further hedges against further nasty surprises.

What’s getting underway? There’s no lack of breadth in the possible projects. The Defense Science Board wants the Navy to put more money into underwater drones. The Marines want to give every infantry squad a quadcopter. In its Proof Challenge, the Army has asked firms like Lululemon to produce a biochemical warfare suit as comfortable as those stretchy pants. None of these are projects with the time horizons of the Virginia-class submarine program, the Joint Strike Fighter, or the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, but any one could have as much impact. Think of the battlefield toxins issue in the way one Army strategist recently described to me. Today’s NATO wargames often feature incoming chemical attacks, followed by assumptions of rapid decontamination. Actually, he said, at that point, you’ll just be immobile, sweaty, twitchy—and dead.

It’s good that someone’s working on that now. I’m similarly pleased that my Atlantic Council colleagues Nora Bensahel and David Barno, in their recent study on The Future of the US Army, made five sharp recommendations for things that the service can do over just the next five years to better meet these challenges. Frankly, as former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig wrote in his widely-admired report Driving in the Dark (CNAS, October 2011), more military spending should focus on the mid-term, because we have so little ability to predict the future. As Conrad Crane recently wrote for War On The Rocks, trying to think about what’s coming in twenty years may be a fool’s errand. It’s at least a knight’s errand. As August Cole does every day, we should try to envision it, but we can’t predict it. And if so, then perhaps we  should we place most of the procurement bureaucracy with organizations like the RCO!

Back at that event in August, Bloomberg’s Capaccio asked two different Army officials how they could know that the Army’s initiative would survive into the next administration. They each had the same answer: it’s too obviously a good idea to be killed. I hope so. Some more Atlantic Council colleagues and I are spending the weekend at the fourth annual Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, once again at the University of Chicago. (Former REF director Pete Newell has been busy across the table from us.) We’ve all been swapping stories of the Frozen Middle of military bureaucracies, whose good-idea death squads make short work of innovative concepts and their progenitors’ careers. I’d rather have much of the military function like its RCOs, but for now, I’ll at least hope that these positive examples can spawn some contagious cultural change.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

Related Experts: James Hasik, Nora Bensahel, David Barno, and August Cole