7 May 2018

The U.S. Army Is Close To Bungling Its Chance To Get Badly Needed New Weapon Systems

Loren Thompson 

The U.S. Army's opportunity to carry out the first comprehensive modernization of its combat equipment since the Cold War ended may be slipping away. That opportunity was created by the election of President Donald J. Trump in 2016, but now the budget walls are beginning to close in, and the Army is taking too long to get its act together. The latest evidence that the Army may be headed for yet another false start on modernization was provided by the Secretary of the Army himself, Mark Esper, in remarks Monday at the Atlantic Council. As reported by Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners, Secretary Esper stated that the service plans to prioritize readiness until 2022, and then turn to the procurement of a new generation of combat systems.

By that time the Trump defense buildup will be over, and money for new weapons will be far down the list of congressional priorities. We know this because Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan has already stated that defense spending will be "flatlined" after this year and recent tax cuts have saddled the nation with trillion-dollar annual deficits beginning in the fiscal year commencing October 1. With rising inflation likely to greatly increase the cost of carrying the federal debt, Army modernization will become a bill-payer for other priorities.

U.S. Department of Defense

The Army's Patriot air and missile defense system has a modular design that lends itself to rapid upgrades at relatively low cost. 

Past experience indicates that military buildups seldom exceed five years in duration, and the Army's schedule for turning new ideas into fielded weapons requires much longer. So the current reorganization of Army buying commands aimed at revitalizing the nation's preeminent ground force looks unlikely to fare much better than past flourishes at modernization such as Force XXI, the Army After Next and the Objective Force.

Secretary Esper referenced these and other missed modernization opportunities in his confirmation hearings before the Senate last year, but he doesn't seem to have learned the obvious lesson they provide: buy new weapons fast, because the window of opportunity only remains open for a brief time.

Because Army leaders seem unable to assimilate this lesson, not one of the Pentagon's top-ten weapons programs today is an Army effort. The Air Force is simultaneously buying a new fighter, a new bomber, a new tanker, a new trainer and a new intercontinental ballistic missile. The Army is mainly buying upgrades of combat systems that first saw service several decades ago, while it debates what genuinely new weapons it should be developing. Its plans may not gel before the money runs out.

It's not that the Army lacks a clear idea of where the gaps are in its current capabilities. It needs artillery and missiles with more range; rotorcraft with greater speed and reach; a more resilient battlefield network; better air defenses; and a next-generation combat vehicle that can deliver superior firepower, mobility and protection. These are the areas where other "great powers," meaning Russia and China, are catching up. But the Army's schedule for buying new weapons is much too leisurely to stay ahead of the threat.

And as I said, the budget walls are already beginning to close in. Every one-percent increase in inflation translates into over $200 billion in additional costs each year to carry the debt the government has accumulated. With annual deficits and inflation rates rising, it is obvious that the federal budget will go haywire just about the time the Army is ready to bend metal. Factor in the likely return of Democrats to power, and you have a prescription for yet another lost modernization opportunity.

There's only one way out of this conundrum, and that's to accelerate the purchase of new combat systems that are already in the pipeline, evolving those systems in response to changing threats and technology as they are fielded. The Army has little to lose by switching from revolutionary to evolutionary modernization, because its past efforts to make great leaps forward have tended to be failures, and its fundamental approach to warfighting isn't really changing all that much.

In the case of fires, the Army needs to speed up fielding of its latest enhancements to the Paladin self-propelled howitzer while exploring the numerous additional improvements such as new projectiles and a larger caliber that could enable it to continue dominating the close fight. For longer ranges, it needs to stop dragging its feet on the Precision Strike Missile replacement of ATACMS and start bending metal faster. All of the relevant technologies are mature, so there's no need to spend a decade developing a relatively simple weapon.

In the case of air defense, the Army needs to ditch its excessively complicated effort to net together all of the legacy sensors and missiles on the battlefield, instead evolving the existing Patriot system. The most important part of the netting effort, that between Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is already being accomplished under a separate initiative, making the more ambitious netting effort redundant. Here too, an evolutionary approach could meet the emerging threat while saving a lot of time and money.

In the case of networks, the Army needs to resist its propensity to start over and keep working with the technologies it already has spent over a decade developing. These technologies can be gradually modified to resist jamming and cyber attacks while taking up less space in vehicles. Starting over simply saddles soldiers with fixed communications nodes at a time when mobility is essential to survival on the battlefield. Any expectation that connectivity can be maintained without relying to some degree on satellite links is unrealistic.

In the case of rotorcraft, the Army needs to get sorted out fast on whether its top priority should be to replace Apache and Black Hawk or search for a new scout helicopter to replace Kiowa. If armed recon is where the biggest capability gap lies, then it needs to have a discussion with its sister services about how to proceed. Whatever the outcome of those exchanges, it certainly does not need to repeat steps from the Joint Multirole Rotorcraft program before bending metal on a Future Vertical Lift effort.

In the case of armored vehicles, there is little evidence the Army has overcome the technical constraints that force tradeoffs between firepower, protection and mobility. The current Chief of Staff may be right that the Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle have maxed out in terms of weight, but in the absence of major breakthroughs, that dictates focusing on how the legacy vehicles can be modified rather than pursuing the latest version of "unobtanium." We have been here before, and at least for the time being an evolutionary approach is more sensible.

None of this means the Army can't continue investigating hypervelocity missiles or autonomous vehicles or next-generation networks. But the Army needs to get serious about what it can accomplish in the compressed timescale available before modernization money dries up again. It is wasting time deciding whether to put its modernization command in Austin or Boston while the opportunity to buy new stuff is ebbing away. The Trump defense buildup isn't going to last, and the Army needs to move out on modernization now.

Several companies with an interest in the outcome of the Army's modernization deliberations contribute to my think tank. Some are also consulting clients.

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