For a few hours Friday, the University of Texas System building became militarized. Not by automatic rifles or tanks, but by uniformed U.S. Army personnel, who filled a grand 19th floor room to celebrate the military branch’s largest reorganization in decades.
Flanked by university personnel and state and city representatives, military officials marked the official activation of the Army’s new high-tech center, the Futures Command. Military officials last month chose Austin as the home for the facility.
“Our military readiness, and our national security depend on it,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said about the Futures Command to a crowd that included Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott, Mayor Steve Adler, UT President Greg Fenves and former UT System chancellor and retired Navy Adm. William McRaven. “In a dangerous world strained by escalating cyberthreats and threatened by the rising power of China and Russia, the U.S. military must continue to lead with technology in order to maintain our strategic advantage.”
The Army has big plans for its Futures Command, which will run out of two floors at the UT System building and also occupy space at downtown startup hub Capital Factory and at the UT campus.
Army officials say the center will be in charge of carrying out modernization projects for top military priorities such as weapons and combat vehicles, doing so not at the highly procedural pace usually associated with the military, but at the lightning speed of the tech industry.
What those projects will specifically consist of has yet to be detailed. Army officials have only hinted that early initiatives could involve unmanned air vehicle technology and night-vision goggle renovation, and that the Futures Command’s first tangible output likely will not be seen until a year from now.
But the Army has made one thing clear: It needs the help of Austin’s tech community to carry out its goals. To make that happen, the facility has been set up in a very different way than other command centers — in the center of a major downtown area and as the first hub of all its technology initiatives.
The Futures Command is expected to eventually employ about 500 workers, a chunk of whom will consist of software engineers and other high-tech specialties, and it will work alongside startups and university personnel as it develops new technology.
“We will bring the best talent we can from inside and outside the government,” Gen. John Murray, commanding general of the Futures Command, said Friday. “The single most important key to our success will be our ability to tap into the talent, entrepreneurial spirit and access to key partners that is present today in Austin.”
Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley said Friday that the idea for the Futures Command was sparked by a conversation three years ago between him and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., regarding military vulnerabilities and the need to operate military innovation under one facility.
From there, Army officials built a list of 150 U.S. cities where the Futures Command project could go, and eventually whittled the list down to five finalists before selecting Austin in mid-July.
Two weeks ago, UT regents approved rent-free space for the Futures Command on the 15th and 19th floors of the UT System’s headquarters until Dec. 2019.
The UT System also plans to fund a space for Futures Command at Capital Factory, and the command also will operate at the UT campus.
Milley said that the Futures Command’s annual starting budget would range from $80 million to $100 million.
On Friday, he and other Army officials spoke candidly about the ongoing worries that they said make the Futures Command necessary — that of foreign competition, aging U.S. technology and, ultimately, the ever-present possibility of war.
But they also addressed something that has been in question ever since the Army selected Austin: How will the military’s culture mix with that of the city’s free-spirited tech vibe?
Ryan McCarthy, undersecretary of the Army, said Friday that the Army will need Austin’s tech community to be patient.
“This move is like no other,” McCarthy told a group of reporters Friday before the ceremony. “The (Army’s) behaviors, we will have to adjust. But we look to the community to help adjust with us.”