Army's Mason working to fulfill PEO Aviation's strategic plan
Patrick H. Mason, a member of the Senior Executive Service, and the relatively new deputy program executive officer for the U.S. Army’s PEO Aviation, has a challenging duty — helping bring the Army PEO Aviation’s 2018 Strategic Plan to life, which includes delivering capabilities to warfighters faster, streamlining the acquisition process and building a better workforce.
Mason assumed the Huntsville, Alabama-based role in May 2017. He was the commander of the Redstone Technical Test Center and most recently as the chief of staff for the Aviation Development Directorate of the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center.
“Really, it starts clearly with the Secretary of the Army and Army Chief of Staff, General Milley, modernization priorities. Of the six modernization priorities Future Vertical Lift or FVL will be the biggest initiative in Army Avaition,” Mason says. “It’s also recognized from the Secretary and the Chief of Staff the clear desire to accelerate capability to the field so we are able to stay ahead of adversaries in contested environment. The responsibility rests with not just the FVL programs and the current Army Aviation fleet of unmanned, rotary wing and fixed wing aircraft. Aircraft which will be in the fleet and field for years to come.”
The strategic plan includes several initiatives that are listed as “critical now” including adding digital, open architecture cockpits to UH-60V Blackhawk helicopters (operational by 2021); and enhanced payload and range capability for CH-47 Chinook Block II helicopters (operational by 2023). PEO Aviation is rolling out the MQ-1C Gray Eagle Extended Range UAS to the fleet, with its additional range and payload capacities and ease of maintenance (activated August 2018).
Being able to accelerate the Army’s capability is one key roadmap goal, and “if you look at the next layer to accelerate our responsiveness, where are the areas where we see the most rapid expanse? Clearly it’s within the portfolio and user community you deal with,” he tells Unmanned Systems. “It is in unmanned systems.”
Across the programs that PEO Aviation supports, and from the combatant command or COCOM with four star commanders, the desire is clear for persistent reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, and more of it, Mason says — it’s a capability “that they just cannot get enough of in order to execute the missions that they’ve been assigned.”
A big question for the Army is how to be agile in such a large organization, Mason says, to get that capability to the people who need it.
“The Army needs us to be extremely agile, but the Army is an incredibly big organization and our scale is quite significant. When you just look at the number of manned platforms we have, you quickly get over 4,000, and then you get into 10,000 unmanned systems with multiple aircraft in each system,” he says. “So, the challenge is, how can we be agile to iterate faster to meet our customers’ demands while doing it at sufficient scale to deliver for the Army?”
We, PEO Aviation and the Army, must have acquisition professionals working in a streamlined system, he says, meaning “the right people to the right tasks with the right skill sets” who can “create the right solutions.”
The AI push
Having greater autonomy in systems is a big push across the military, Mason notes, and is driving the need for open systems architectures. That, in turn, is changing the acquisition approach somewhat.
As the Army deals with larger and larger data sets created by more capable and plentiful sensors, it needs machine learning and AI to help boil the data down to usable and actionable intelligence which is accurate and timely. Especially to the Combat Aviation Brigades, Divisions, and COCOMs. AI and machine learning dependent on algorithms.
However, “as we develop these algorithms, we do not see them being proprietary to one particular vendor who happens to build a great air vehicle,” Mason says.
“What’s the right business approach? How do we incentivize industry, how do we give industry space, how do we make sure that we can instill competition but still protect data rights, access current and emerging technologies, and give businesses the opportunity to compete fairly and make a fair and equitable profit? At the same time, ensuring readiness and modernization of the current fleet” he says.
Building the workforce
The second strategic objective listed in the Army PEO Aviation plan is building a “robust and diversified PEO Aviation team,” one that maintains and enhances its skills and has a culture of cross-functional collaboration.
Mason says that’s a big drive for him personally. He moved to Huntsville in 1975 when his father went to work on a missile program, becoming program manager for the Stinger missile.
“In 1975 and 1976, there was so much going on in Huntsville, and I just got to get a little glimpse the space and missile capabilities from being able to go to things with my dad,” he says. “And that gave me the bug that said, I want to go to an engineering school” — in his case, Georgia Tech, followed by the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and the U.S. Army War College.
Mason says he’s bringing that focus on education and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to PEO Aviation by focusing on the talent within the organization and its human capital strategy.
“Along with all of these technology and acquisition initiatives that are going on, they don’t occur unless you get the right people, you get the right talent and you empower them and give them the right resources to go excel,” he says.
“What we are doing within the PEO is an integrated human capital strategy that we’re in fact getting ready to deploy. Along with that we’ve got what we call the Flight Leader Handbook, the Flight Leader Manual, which is a manual on how we build our next cohort of leaders within the organization,” he says.
All of the things the Army is striving to do, whether developing new technology or acquisition models, won’t happen if they don’t have the right workforce, Mason says.
“We need to make sure that our workforce is trained and ready to go do this. I take it as my responsibility, and working in conjunction with the other senior leaders in the organization, to make sure we have the right strategy in place so that those who are following us and are going to carry this through for the next 10 or 15 years can succeed and can succeed extremely well, can wildly succeed, because we’ve given them the right resources and empower them.”
The workforce itself is changing, as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers give way to Millennials.
“The younger workforce that we have out there, those Millennials, are very interested in a multitude of different areas. They are no longer interested in, ‘I’m going to work in this office and I want to work on this aircraft for perpetuity, I want to be there for 20 years.’ I believe that their interests and their desires and their aggressiveness in seeking opportunities is exactly aligned in what the Army is saying right now with future vertical lift and autonomous systems. All of these technologies that need to come out,” he says.
“Our PEO Aviation workforce get me pumped up when I have the opportunity to go out and talk to them. Great innovative ideas. They don’t think in terms of boundaries, which is where we need to be. They think in terms of opportunity. They’re not talking about risks, they’re saying what can we go do.”
Below: Mason addresses a PEO Aviation leadership class. Photo: Tonia Beavers