Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Donate
Topics

Minnesota doesn’t have much in the way of military facilities. But the Army’s new Futures Command may be the perfect fit.

By any measure of military footprint Minnesota lags behind its neighboring and peer states.

The Futures Command is focused on preparing the Army for conflicts that could arise in the next five to 10 years.
REUTERS

Minnesota is home to 18 Fortune 500 companies, a powerhouse agriculture sector, top-notch universities, and maybe the most renowned hospital in the world. For a state that ranks in the middle of the pack in population, there’s no question Minnesota punches above its weight when it comes to economic pull and brainpower.

Minnesota has just about everything a state would want — except a real U.S. military presence. Military bases and installations are economic engines and political lifelines in other parts of the country, from Virginia, home to U.S. Navy hubs, to California, a stronghold of the Marines.

By any measure of military footprint — the number of people employed, the amount of money it spends, the companies it contracts with — Minnesota lags behind its neighboring and peer states, and has for decades.

That could soon change: In the last year, the Pentagon has given Minnesota a fresh look as it seeks a location to host a headquarters for a significant new U.S. Army initiative — and Minnesota is in the mix exactly because this new headquarters is so unusual, by Army standards. It’s not in need of a new cold-weather training hub: instead, the Army is searching for a highly educated workforce, leading science and technology companies, and major research institutions.

Article continues after advertisement

The Army is preparing to launch — or “stand up,” in military jargon — what it is calling the Army Futures Command, a new initiative whose mission it is to place the military on the cutting edge of combat, ensuring that the U.S. can prevail in any conflict by producing the most advanced technology, from tanks to missiles and body armor.

Army brass say it is the most significant reorganization the service has done since the Vietnam War, and it involves putting a four-star general in charge of a 500-person research and development outfit that would work not behind the walls of a military installation, but behind the glass of an office building in a bustling American city like Minneapolis or St. Paul.

The Army is considering the Twin Cities region, along with 14 others, to host the Army Futures Command. Faced with competition from major cities like New York and Los Angeles, and tech hubs like San Francisco and Boston, key Minnesota forces — from city governments and state agencies to the congressional delegation and the University of Minnesota — are working furiously to persuade the Army to put its prestigious new facility in Minnesota.

Doing business differently

At its core, the Army Futures Command is about modernizing the military’s largest fighting force for the near term. Unlike the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which works on long-term technological breakthroughs — like laying the foundation for the internet, which it did in the 1960s — the Futures Command is focused on preparing the Army for conflicts that could arise in the next five to 10 years.

According to Col. Patrick Sieber, the spokesman for the Army Futures Command, there’s no precedent for this initiative.

“We don’t have a dedicated force that’s looking out into the future, looking at how do we get the best equipment to our soldiers in the shortest amount of time, so we maintain clear overmatch against any potential adversary,” he told MinnPost. “We don’t want to enter a fair fight — we want to be so far ahead that nobody would think about how to challenge us.”

The defense industry publication BreakingDefense put it another way: “Army Futures Command is just a means to an end: modernizing the Army for high-intensity war against Russia or China.”

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine colonel who studies security issues at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, explains that the Futures Command would blend research and development, acquisition of new equipment, and an active testing operation. “This is to develop major systems for the long term,” he said. “If you were going to build a new tank, or new ground combat vehicle, this would be the organization to think up what does that need to look like.”

The Army has thought about that kind of thing for a while, but the Futures Command aims to spur the service to think about it in a different way — and in the process, shake off the conventions of a rigidly bureaucratic and sometimes hidebound institution.

Article continues after advertisement

“Instead of trying to reform their current organization, they decided to create a new organization,” Cancian said. “To emphasize that they want to break away from the old way of doing things, they’re thinking of locating it in a non-Army location.”

It’s that piece that makes the Futures Command so unusual: Army brass and observers talk about it as if they were plunking down a big new office for an established tech company — the parallels to Amazon’s HQ2 are plenty — instead of an initiative to win wars that will be among the Army’s most significant facilities.

“The intent is to place this headquarters in a city that allows access for academia, industry, and innovation to come together,” Sieber says. “A four-star command, typically, you’re thinking a traditional, gated fort or station with a big flagpole and cannons and tanks out front. That’s kind of a traditional headquarters, but this is not. This is different — we’re trying to do business differently.”

Michael Langley, the CEO of Greater MSP, the region’s lead economic development agency, says that despite the Futures Command’s relatively small size — it will be home to 500 jobs, roughly one-tenth the number Target employs in downtown Minneapolis — it could have a significant impact on Minnesota’s economy.

“The direct economic impact of this particular command is easily, tangibly calculable,” he said. “What’s not as immediately calculable, but we believe is also the case, is the aggregation of tech-related businesses. … If we had less than a dozen tech, defense-related companies that wanted to be proximate to the Army Futures Command in the near term, I’d be very surprised.”

Fresh ground for the Army

Historically, Minnesota has not been viewed as an especially attractive location for the traditional kind of military facilities Sieber describes. There is no major Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine base in the state; the only significant military facility in Minnesota is Camp Ripley, a 53,000-acre base for the National Guard located in Morrison County, in north-central Minnesota. As of September 2017, there were roughly 600 active-duty military personnel stationed in Minnesota — the fourth-fewest of any state.

Minnesota has also not benefited from the Pentagon’s largesse as much as many other states. According to the Department of Defense’s annual report, in fiscal year 2015, the military spent $4.3 billion in Minnesota, placing it 26th out of all states. That sum accounted for 1.3 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

The military supports roughly 22,000 jobs in Minnesota, and the vast majority of what it spends goes to contracts with state businesses. In FY 2015, the lion’s share, $2.8 billion, went to Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group. (UnitedHealth managed the military’s Tricare health insurance system until 2016, when its contract was not renewed.) Other Minnesota firms receiving substantial military contracts include Honeywell, 3M, and Polaris.

A study from the Rand Corporation think tank found that the economic output driven by the Army in Minnesota was $1.9 billion in the 2014 fiscal year — less than half as much as the output the Army generated in Wisconsin, and a fifth of the output generated in Colorado.

Article continues after advertisement

But Minnesota has many of the attributes that the Army is looking for in a host for the Futures Command, which is why it made the cut to the 15-region list the Army announced in May after it made the project public in April.

The Army says it is looking for a place with “innovative and agile industrial and academic institutions,” and a region with a business community that has a strong track record of generating new ideas.

It’s also looking for a place with a lot of scientists and engineers, and will measure the strength of a region’s bid for the new HQ based on its share of nine occupations, from chemical and electrical engineers to software developers.

But the Army also wants to set up shop in a region people actually want to live. “We want to have the best,” Sieber says. “We want to be able to compete to get right kind of talent that’s thinking about innovation. …  it has to be someplace they’re going to want to live.”

‘We think we have a lot to offer’

Naturally, the Minnesota boosters who are in charge of preparing the Twin Cities’ bid believe that they have a remarkably strong case to make to the Army to “stand up” the new headquarters somewhere in the metro area.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, along with Greater MSP, wrote the pitch that was sent to the Pentagon before the May 10 deadline. Also involved in developing the pitch were the city governments of Minneapolis and St. Paul, county governments, the University of Minnesota, and Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

“As we crafted our response to the Army, we focused on the fact that we are primed to meet their needs of the future, which are also our needs of the future: a future workforce, a future way of thinking about medical tech, transportation, logistics,” Greater MSP’s Langley says.

That included emphasizing the cluster of Minnesota companies and entities that are involved in the worlds of technology, medicine, agriculture, and manufacturing, Langley says, but also more traditional factors like quality of life. “We’re ranked in so many ways as a really great place to live and work,” he says. “We think we have a lot to offer.”

Though Minnesota’s advocates believe they’ll put together a strong bid that makes it past the next round of cuts, the competition is stiff. The other cities in the running include tech capitals like San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Boston, and global business hubs like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Article continues after advertisement

The Army’s list also includes regions similar to the Twin Cities, such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver, along with the research hub of Raleigh, North Carolina, and San Diego, which has the largest existing military presence of any city in the running. (Those familiar with the process expect the Army to make at least one more round of cuts before arriving at a shortlist of finalists, which military officials would plan to visit in June.)

Greater MSP, which rates the region’s competitiveness against “peer cities,” says it stacks up favorably; a new report released last Friday had MSP as the second-strongest metro area out of a dozen, including some competitors for Futures Command.

But CSIS’ Cancian thinks that the Twin Cities’ bid is a longshot: “If I had to bet, I think they would go to Silicon Valley, Boston, Austin … if you put an HQ in Silicon Valley, you’re making a statement about your desire to link up with high-tech firms. Minnesota would not give the same message.”

He also raises the example of the Defense Innovation Unit, or DIUx, which was created by former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter with a similar mission to the one Futures Command has now. The Army placed a DIUx cell in Mountain View, California — home to Google’s headquarters — as well as in Boston, Austin, and the Pentagon. “That might be indicative of where the Army might go if they want to make the same point,” Cancian says.

But the Pentagon is also cognizant, especially these days, of the importance of expanding into areas of the country that lack a military presence. According to Mark Jacobson, an associate professor at Georgetown University who has advised top Pentagon officials, that could be an advantage for Minnesota.

“The entire Midwest has had problems with high tech and the defense industry,” he said. “It could be an opportunity for the department to build up in the Midwest.”

“Because of the future aspect of this opportunity, the Army is looking beyond the norm,” MSP’s Langley says. “Maybe that gives us a bit of a competitive advantage that we’re not necessarily a traditional Army community, but we are very dedicated as a state and region in supporting national defense.”

The public bidding war for Amazon’s second headquarters — a much larger project that is looking for some of the same things the Army is — casts somewhat of a shadow over the Twin Cities’ effort: Amazon notably snubbed Minnesota, and several of the regions that made the tech giant’s shortlist are also being considered by the Army.

The region’s boosters told MinnPost that they’ll be applying what they learned from the HQ2 process to try to persuade the Army to invest in Minnesota — but they won’t try to look like something they’re not.

According to David Frank, director of the City of Minneapolis’ economic development office, Minnesota’s bid emphasizes what makes it unique — not what makes it similar to Silicon Valley, or anywhere else.

“If I tell you that your competition for the parking space you want is driving a Maserati, you’re not going to be able to do that much differently if your competition is a Toyota Prius,” Frank said. “You are what you are.”

His message to the Army is concise: “We think it’s a great place, with great workers, and we’d love to have you come and join us.”