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Army Futures Command plans $130M complex on Texas A&M campus

Texas A&;M University System Chancellor John Sharp poses for a photo at the Texas A&M University System RELLIS Campus in Bryan on July 30. The university is providing the Austin-based Army Futures Command with lab space until it can build a $130 million complex for testing new military technology. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

At a former military base 7 miles west of the Texas A&M University campus, a sprawling maze of buildings and roads run alongside long-abandoned runways.

Cows graze in a nearby pasture, and every so often, a driverless car zips across a runway.

While it’s not much to look at yet, the pending approval of $80 million from the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents — expected to happen on Thursday — will allow the university to build a space for the Austin-based Army Futures Command.

The funding is part of a $130 million plan that will make the university’s RELLIS campus the Army’s main hub for testing and evaluating its future-of-war technologies.

“Three years ago, this was a bunch of pasture with gravel roads out here and some ratty hangers and barracks,” A&M Chancellor John Sharp told the American-Statesman. “I was embarrassed for people to drive out here.”

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Texas A&M transformed the 2,000-acre site, known as the RELLIS campus, into a space for its system schools and Blinn College. There’s also office space for several state agencies, laboratories and private companies. (RELLIS is an acronym for the seven Aggie Core values of respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity and selfless service.)

Texas A&M wooed Futures Command last year when Sharp invited Gen. John Murray to see the university and its RELLIS campus. Sharp said the Army was impressed by the university’s Corps of Cadets and its “Disaster City” — a 52-acre mock community equipped with collapsible structures and other wreckage designed to train emergency respondents. There are also communication system simulators and wind tunnels at the university in which the Army has expressed interest.

“We’re thrilled with the partnerships that we’re building,” Murray, commander of Army Futures Command, told the American-Statesman. “The state of Texas as a whole and Austin and UT and A&M… have really embraced us, and we look forward to working with them.”

The A&M vote will mark the second round of funding for the Futures Command presence at the university. The Texas Legislature appropriated $50 million for Texas A&M’s Engineering Experiment Station to establish a proving ground site — an outdoor testing area — for new military technologies. That will include instrumentation placed throughout the campus to test thermal cameras, establish 5G and more.

Texas state Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, helped bring forward the state budget rider for A&M and said the investment will benefit the entire state.

“I wanted to make sure too that the state was doing their part,” said Cyrier, whose district includes much of the area between Austin and College Station. “I know that the towns that I represent, the counties, we will see the fruits of that investment.”

Murray said he expects six to eight Army researchers to eventually be based out of RELLIS, but until the development center is up and running, military personnel will make occasional trips to Bryan and College Station to use existing lab space.

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And the size of the campus wowed the Army, Murray said. Earlier this year, the RELLIS campus hosted an autonomous tank demonstration with Army Futures Command.

Hypersonics and directed energy research will also be key to the Futures Command presence in Bryan-College Station, Murray said. The university will soon build a tunnel at RELLIS for hypersonics research. A hypersonic speed exceeds the speed of sound.

“Almost every university has things that they’re uniquely good at, and the RELLIS campus is very unique than most college campuses,” Murray said. “Having that available space and this concept of this soldier development center or combat development center is what really piqued my interest.”

One-year anniversary

In July, the Army Futures Command celebrated one year of being headquartered in Austin, where military personnel work out of the University of Texas System building and downtown tech hub Capital Factory.

“There’s absolutely no shortage of people who want to move down here to be part of Army Futures Command, and part of that is the attraction to Texas and Austin,” Murray said.

The general announced in July that the Futures Command is fully operational with 24,000 civilians and soldiers located in 25 states and 15 countries.

Like at UT and Capital Factory, the Army will work alongside civilians at A&M. Kathy Banks, Texas A&M’s dean of engineering and the vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories, said the university expects to hire up to 25 research engineers in the next year to work with the Army.

“Certainly, we are very supportive of Gen. Murray’s decision to make sure that we engage soldiers at every point in the design process,” Banks said. “To think about testing these designs before they move into full development and manufacturing — that’s very unique.”

A&M is one of three strategic partnerships that Futures Command has with universities. The University of Texas at Austin will focus on robotics and assured navigation system timing, and Carnegie Mellon will be home to an Army Research Lab for studying artificial intelligence.

National discourse

While some tech giants have made headlines over employees protesting military contracts, concerns from companies in Austin and Texas seem to be minimal.

In February, Microsoft workers demanded that the company cancel a contract that would supply its augmented-reality HoloLens headset to the U.S. Army. CEO Satya Nadella defended the decision.

Murray said he encourages such debates in Austin but hasn’t faced criticism from companies or their employees.

“We have policies that guide the ethical policies of artificial intelligence, and I tell people all the time that it’s just a matter of time — it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when — AI comes to a battlefield of the future,” he said.

And the Futures Command likely won’t face pushback while working out of A&M, Sharp said.

“This campus — maybe more than any outside of the military academies — our graduates, our folks are very military friendly, and they welcome it,” Sharp said.

Tech companies are already contacting A&M about being a part of the research, Sharp said.

On a sunny day in July, Sharp sat in the passenger seat of an A&M System SUV and pointed out buildings on the sweeping RELLIS campus.

Sharp pointed to a cluster of trees. This is where the Army Futures Command building would be built.

“Yeah, I’d say they’ve got themselves isolated,” Sharp said. “When it comes to Army Futures, we don’t use the word ‘no.'”

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© 2019 Austin American-Statesman