3 March 2017

Future of Army Combat: McCain Wants Ambition, Army Offers Caution

By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.

CAPITOL HILL: Sen. John McCain wants an ambitious plan for new ground vehicle designs and new kinds of combat units from the Army. So does the Heritage Foundation, which has provided much of the brain power for the Trump administration. But the Army isn’t on board: Burned by past program meltdowns like FCS and GCV. the service is focused on incremental upgrades to existing weapons,

McCain & co. have plenty of suggestions. As Senate Armed Services staffer (and retired Army colonel) James Hickey reiterated today at a Lexington Institute briefing on Capitol Hill, McCain’s recent white paper calls for
leap-ahead investment in new technologies “such as electronic warfare (jamming) and unmanned ground vehicles (robots)”; 

new unit organizations such as “Multi-Domain Combat Brigades” with long-range missiles and offensive cyber, or reconnaissance-strike brigades riding new combat vehicles, such as 
a new design for a multi-mission ground combat vehicle, albeit using existing components to save time and money; 

a new “highly maneuverable, short-range air defense system” to accompany combat units and protect them from drones, helicopters, and attack aircraft; 

“major investments” in Army missiles and munitions, both defensive — like Patriot and Stinger — and offensive — ATACMS, Guided MLRS, and the Paladin howitzer; and 

rapidly upgrading five of the Army’s nine active-duty Armored Brigade Combat Teams to the latest models of existing vehicles, the new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, plus Active Protection Systems (APS) to stop incoming anti-tank missiles. 

The Army is upgrading its brigades, but at a pace of one every three years, which will take three decades to transom the regular active-duty force. (The National Guard gets upgraded… someday). Similarly, the service wants to do almost everything on McCain’s list some day, but those new weapons systems won’t happen until the 2020s or much later.

DARPA concept for future ground vehicle.

“The level of investment in my portfolio is unacceptably low,” said a blunt Brig. Gen. David Bassett, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems. “Sometimes I’m asked, ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to keep the Abrams tank until 2050?’ No, (but) you develop a strategy for the resources that you have…. What we haven’t done is give you a strategy for the resources that we don’t have.”

The service is coming up with what Bassett calls a “more aggressive” long-term modernization plan, but it is also understandably gun-shy about getting out ahead of the Pentagon, the White House, and Congress by proposing its own, much bigger budget. And the Army was twice burned (at least) since 2009 by cancellations of ambitious and innovative, but ultimately impracticable programs.

“I have no desire to develop the next UCV, the Unaffordable Combat Vehicle,” Bassett said. “In the past, technology was going to become that great thing that kept us from making tradeoffs…so our requirements community would sit like Linus in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the great pumpkin of technology to deliver capability that was absolutely everything they wanted. And the Great Pumpkin never came, and we lost generations of modernization.”

Brig. Gen. David Bassett

So the service prefers a low-risk approach. In fact, the Army feels well positioned for any Trump build-up because it has an array of “shovel-ready” modernization programs: 

rebuilding the M109 Paladin howitzer with an all-new automotive system, 

and building the new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV), a utility workhorse that’s basically a Bradley without a turret. 

“We now have upgrades for every single platform in the ABCT (Armored Brigade Combat Team) just about ready to go,” said Bassett. “Those systems today are nearly shovel ready, ready for production dollars, and we can turn industry on to produce them.” There are parallel programs with the medium-weight, eight-wheel-drive Stryker armored vehicle, which is gradually getting automotive upgrades and heavier guns. If Trump and Congress provide more funding than planned — which isn’t guaranteed — then the Army can just dial up production and modernize brigades faster.

The problem with this plan is that “at the end of this period — however long it lasts — this rebuilding period… the Army will still be relying on the technologies and the platforms that were introduced in the 1980s,” countered Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army three-star and director of defense programs at the influential Heritage Foundation. “Absent some change, the Army’s going to continue down the path of de-modernization.”

Lt. Gen. (ret.) Thomas Spoehr

An incremental approach may make the Army miss the bus on Trump-era modernization, Spoehr said. When you look at McCain’s defense white paper, he noted, it calls for lots of new ships and aircraft, from the B-21 bomber to the Columbia submarine, but there are no new Army programs named. That’s not for want of enthusiasm on McCain’s part, Spoehr argues, it’s for want of things to invest in: “The Army’s own wishlist for fiscal year ’18 contains no new programs nor the hint of new programs.” That’s why McCain is forced to call for such things as a generic “new multifunctional, adaptable ground combat vehicle” instead of being able to cite a specific, existing program.

There’s “a vicious Catch-22″ at work, Spoehr acknowledged: “OSD doesn’t typically allow new programs to be started unless you can show they’re fully funded, and Congress can’t fund a program that doesn’t exist.”

The Army has to cut that Gordian knot by advocating for itself, for a change, Spoehr said. “The Army should come forward and make public their concepts and requirements for future new platforms and systems, despite the lack of a clear path leading funding,” he said. “The Army is famous for coloring within the lines, but desperate times call for desperate measures.”

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