Austin prides itself on being “weird” and, in the words of its mayor, is a city where “you can walk down our streets and sometimes see people with red hair or riding by on their bicycle in a thong.”
The unlikely marriage between the U.S. military and one of the nation’s most offbeat, liberal enclaves officially kicked off Friday with the opening the Army Futures Command in the heart of downtown Austin. Pentagon officials suggested the Texas capital’s open-minded, freewheeling spirit of innovation and quirky culture as reasons why it won out over Boston, Minneapolis and other cities considered for the post.
The command, which represents the Army’s most significant overhaul in nearly five decades, will be responsible for preparing for future conflicts, developing cutting-edge weapons and tools for soldiers, and working directly with business, academia and technology leaders to craft war-fighting strategies for the 21st century.
The Futures Command marks the first time the Army has located such a facility in the middle of a major downtown metropolitan area. Unlike other Army outposts housed on the closed confines of a military base, the Futures Command set up shop in a University of Texas building in the center of the city’s bustling downtown corridor and overlooking the Texas state Capitol.
“This move is like no other. You’ve never had a command posted in the middle of a city,” Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters late last week.
Nationally, the city is perhaps best known for its “Keep Austin Weird” slogan and as being the birthplace and host of the massive South By Southwest (SXSW) music and cultural festival. It also has developed a reputation as the most progressive city in the otherwise deep-red state of Texas.
“‘Keep Austin weird’ means to me that in this city it’s OK to take risks. It’s OK to fail in this city so long as you do it quickly and then you innovate and you iterate and you keep trying until you succeed,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Friday at the official opening ceremony of the Futures Command.
“It is OK to be different in this city,” he said. “We support new ideas and new ways of thinking. That’s why you can walk down our streets and sometimes see people with red hair or riding by on their bicycle in a thong. But it is that risk-taking. … That makes Austin the incubator of innovation it is.”
Military leaders aren’t running away from Austin’s reputation. In fact, they are embracing it.
For the Army, the Futures Command represents an ambitious effort to house all of the branch’s future conflict efforts under one roof. Officials said they specifically wanted to find a city that already has become a bastion of innovation and that the military wants to tap into that spirit and put it to work for America’s service members.
“It will develop the Army’s future war-fighting concepts. It will generate innovative solutions. … We knew that to do this right we needed to immerse ourselves in an environment where innovation occurs,” Army Secretary Mark Esper said during last week’s ceremony.
The Pentagon chose Austin over Boston; Philadelphia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Minneapolis; and other cities. The Defense Department conducted a nationwide search that officials likened to Amazon’s hunt for a second headquarters.
About 500 people will work in the facility, officials said, though that number could rise in the coming years. The Futures Command also is expected to draw even more small businesses and entrepreneurs to Austin as they aim to land lucrative Pentagon contracts.
The command’s mission will be spread across a variety of theaters. Lawmakers said the command will be tasked with envisioning what the next generation of threats will look like and developing plans to deal with them quickly and effectively.
They connected the development of the Futures Command directly to the safety and security of the American people.
“The military must continue to lead with evolving technologies in order to maintain our strategic advantage. This is our only option,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “There is no Plan B. We have no choice but to constantly modernize our military. It’s a national imperative, and we can’t afford to take that responsibility lightly.”
Army leaders said their specific work in Austin will include work on driverless vehicles, robots, night-vision gear that is far less bulky than older models, updated forms of missile defense and more modern weapons that could replace traditional battlefield firearms. The command also will become the central development and acquisition headquarters for the Army, allowing it to more quickly identify the technologies it needs and develop them.
State leaders say Texas, which already has a rich history and deep connection with the military, is a natural location for the post.
“Austin, Texas, and the University of Texas have become the epicenter of innovation and transformative technology. This headquarters takes the next step in the shared mission that we have all been working toward,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. “We all grasp the gravity that it’s simply not enough for America to adapt to these challenges. Instead, the United States must lead the world in innovation and technology advancements just as we have for decades.”
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