With an animalistic growl, the armored infantry carrier lurches toward a ten-foot-deep trench, its two-person crew peering from the twin front hatches. The beefy machine, standing eight feet high atop eight thick wheels, doesn’t slow as it crosses the water-filled hazard, then makes a sharp turn toward the next obstacle—a flat-topped pyramid formed by steep inclines, some at 45 degrees. After cresting that, it carries its handful of helmeted passengers across a patch of rubble-strewn terrain, down a straightaway drag strip to test its top speed, and along an undulating concrete path that rattles its suspension. 

The M1126 Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle and the eight soldiers from Fort Hood who operate it, led by First Sergeant Thomas Rowe, are taking turns practicing on a course just outside College Station. The next day, November 4, their mission will be to impress the VIPs attending the official opening of the George H. W. Bush Combat Development Complex. The BCDC, spread across a handful of buildings and two hundred acres, is a new, military-focused industrial park seven miles from the flagship Texas A&M University campus.

“They didn’t stick with the typical obstacles,” Rowe said of the course. “A lot of times, we know what the vehicle is rated for, but this way we can know what it can truly do.” As a veteran of multiple combat tours in the Middle East, he knows this difference isn’t academic.

A host of sensors mounted on the vehicle and embedded on the course monitor the vehicle’s ability to navigate each section and relay that information to a nearby data center where researchers can monitor the results in real time. Yet the BCDC—a $195 million private-public partnership funded by the state of Texas, the U.S. Army, and the Texas A&M system—is much more than a proving ground for vehicles and robots. Unlike typical military test ranges, this one comes with well-equipped fabrication shops and workrooms, ready to repair machines damaged from hard testing. And still under construction, but on track to start operations next year, is a 3,281-foot-long, 8-foot-wide wind tunnel that can propel models of missiles to ten times the speed of sound.

“As soon as these facilities are complete, we’ll have research laboratories unlike anywhere in the country,” said M. Katherine Banks, president of Texas A&M.

Construction of the complex started three years ago, and in the time since, the rationale behind its creation has seemingly become more relevant. China has been increasingly aggressive toward Taiwan, backed by two decades of steady military modernization. And Russia’s recent military investments concerned the Pentagon even before the invasion of Ukraine sparked renewed fears of a nuclear conflict. As such global tensions rise, the Department of Defense has scrambled to upgrade its forces. Cutting-edge weaponry—primarily drones, robots, lasers, cyber-warfare programs, and hypersonic missiles—have become critical priorities for the Army. Not coincidentally, these are also areas in which China and Russia have invested heavily.

The BCDC was built specifically to aid in the development of precisely these sorts of technologies. If the U.S. military is to get more battle-ready hardware for the research dollars it invests, this university laboratory will have to perform as promised.

The complex’s most important client is Army Futures Command, which was created in 2018 to lead modernization efforts for the military. The idea behind it was to seek active partnerships with the private sector, instead of relying on the traditional, bureaucratically driven DoD system that too often resulted in long delays or wasteful spending on dead-end projects. “They want to get away from the standard military institutions and tap into civilian innovation,” says Mark Cancian, a senior adviser to the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “There’s a strong belief that there are civilian technologies and innovations out there that DoD is just not able to access.”

Futures Command chose Austin as its headquarters over 149 contenders, largely because the city was viewed as a tech hub crawling with venture capitalists and ambitious engineers located in a military-friendly state. (Nevertheless, its soldiers are ordered to work in the city’s downtown in civilian clothes instead of uniforms.) Plus, Austin is home to the University of Texas, a tier-one research institution.

Texas A&M soon moved to ensure that Futures Command knew that College Station was close enough to Austin to prove useful. “The thing that really impressed me, from day one, was that the question was never, ‘What can the Army do to help Texas A&M?’ It was always, ‘What can we do to help the Army?’ ” says General John Murray, then the commander of AFC. “I just found that very refreshing. I’ll be completely honest, I did not get that from a lot of universities.”

The BCDC was funded in 2019. The Texas Legislature ponied up $50 million to buy and install instruments for the proving ground and hypersonic testing range, and Texas A&M paid $80 million for construction costs. “Most universities would not take the step,” says Banks, who above all credits her boss, A&M chancellor John Sharp, for getting the feds, the state, and the board of regents on the same page. “Universities tend to be risk averse, but through his leadership, we had the resources.”

Building real-world labs had become a priority for the university, which remains in the midst of a push to more than double its number of engineering students—to 25,000 from the 11,000 it had in 2013—by 2025. Nothing, says Banks, attracts students quite like the chance to work on actual hardware, as well as to connect with researchers and government programs that may one day employ them. In the fight to lure engineering talent to A&M, such relationships could become critical selling points.   

The university’s investment is already paying its first dividends. Last September, Army Futures Command signed a $96.2 million, five-year contract to operate in the BCDC through 2026, and the Office of Naval Research already has a full-time representative stationed there. The facilities are available to the entirety of the national security apparatus, plus the private sector as well. BCDC officials say nearly every major defense contractor has already visited at least once, but the staff also made time for small companies, such as an Austin e-motorcycle manufacturer that’s looking to start selling to the Pentagon.

Texas A&M is selling its potential customers on speed. In the traditional development of defense technology, a contractor’s products are tested at often-crowded government sites, and the data is shipped elsewhere for analysis. Prototypes would then be adjusted and returned to the test range later to check any fixes. 

The BCDC brings these processes under one roof, enabling researchers to use real-time data to make changes on the spot—theoretically reducing delays in development. In offices and workshops at the complex, visiting researchers can process the data and tweak their technologies on the spot. “The ability to make changes in design during prototype testing, rather than waiting till after field testing, that’s a big deal,” Banks says. “It’s really transformational.” 

Bush Combat Development Complex at Texas A&M
A workshop at BCDC, which will be used by engineers to repair prototype vehicles and robots. Joe Pappalardo
Bush Combat Development Complex at Texas A&M
An armored vehicle crests an obstacle on the Mobility Challenge Course at the BCDC. Joe Pappalardo

Serving customers beyond Army Futures Command may be wise, as the winds of Washington, D.C., blow both hot and cold. This year, DoD officials started pushing back harder against Futures Command, with suggestions that it be stripped of its power to fund near-term projects and demoted to an advisory role. Some hackles had been raised at the Pentagon when AFC was established and given charge of a $187 billion portfolio of programs. AFC’s creation was not only a massive power shift away from Virginia, but it also seemed to move acquisition decisions out of civilian control, where they have normally resided.

So far, Futures Command has given some ground but largely withstood the challenge. The strongest recent sign of its continued life was October’s naming of a four-star general, General James Rainey, to lead it after ten tenuous months without a confirmed commander. (AFC could have been effectively neutered by the appointment of a lesser-ranked leader, or shut down altogether.) Still, the struggle is not over. “There’s been continuing stress between Futures Command and the Pentagon, and I think the balance of power has shifted maybe a little more towards the Pentagon recently,” Cancian says. “But that’s still an ongoing story.” 

Texas A&M wisely stays agnostic when it comes to these Beltway knife fights. The development center would not exist without AFC, but its officials are planning for a future beyond it. “It’s not going to be, ‘As goes Army Futures Command, so goes the Bush Combat Development Complex,’ ” says retired USAF major general Tim Green, BCDC’s director. “We’re increasing our partnerships with the other services, for the long term. We believe our partnership is with everybody who’s interested.”

The greatest potential for what such partnerships might yield resides perhaps in the complex’s wind tunnel, which is referred to as the BAM, short for the Ballistic, Aero-optics, and Materials Range. It’s deceptively simple in appearance, a long metal tube fitted with a straight track for a sled. On one end is a gun, powered by compressed gases, that will accelerate projectiles—scale models of missiles, wing shapes, and chunks of material—to ten times the speed of sound.

A hypersonic missile is one that can maneuver at faster than five times the speed of sound. Plenty of long-range warheads can reach these speeds, but they fall in predictable ballistic arcs. Hypersonic missiles launch from rockets or drop from airplanes before gliding on weaving, shallow trajectories to reach targets. Their speed and funky flight paths make them nearly impossible to track and intercept. Future versions may carry nuclear warheads. Controlling a missile going that fast is an immense challenge, especially because air resistance can generate scorching heat and aerodynamic pressure that weaken most structural materials. Without being able to handle this extreme environment, a hypersonic missile can’t be outfitted with fins or wings to steer. The BAM is one of relatively few places in the United States where testing of materials can be done in realistically hellish conditions.

Hypersonic missiles have become the focus of Cold War 2.0’s centerpiece arms race, but they haven’t always been a priority. The Pentagon remained ambivalent about the technology until China’s military, and, to a lesser extent, Russia’s, claimed breakthroughs. The most advanced may be China’s Xingkong-2 “waverider” cruise missile, expected to be operational in 2025. The United States has nothing like it in its vast arsenal.

“Often it would seem that federal agencies wake up one morning and say, ‘Oh my goodness, we need this,’ ” Banks says. “And then it takes five to ten years to build something. At this point, everyone was waking up and saying, ‘Where are our hypersonic test beds?’ ”

BAM is also a weather simulator, enabling researchers to run full-sized vehicles through realistic rain, clouds, and turbulence, and it can test high-energy lasers and new battlefield communications devices. The concept was so new that A&M had a hard time even getting a cost estimate for the tunnel. “No one has ever built anything like this before,” Banks says. “We had to find a contractor who could understand what we wanted.”

The former military officers who work at BCDC see their new jobs as an extension of their service. They see themselves as still in the fight. “I wasn’t going to do the BCDC thing when [Banks] asked me last year to step over as executive director,” Green says. “But as things began coming online, I felt the sense of responsibility to help prove this idea.”

In his office, Green keeps a crate that once held the explosive C-4, given to him by Air Force explosive ordnance disposal technicians when he retired. It lists the names of airmen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, from a group he had tried to help with new robots equipped with lasers. “My sense of responsibility comes from serving in the Middle East,” he told me. “What I found within my own little world there was, we could use better equipment, better training, and a more agile mindset, one that’s respectful of your adversaries. You realize that they are thinking, creative, talented, and trying to kill you every day. If you don’t continually fight for that edge, and be committed to it, you’re going to lose it.”