At the core of the US Army’s post-9/11 hollow buildup sits a significant procurement holiday created by wartime necessities and budgetary instability on top of the previous procurement holiday of the 1990s. Exigent funding priorities crowded out both expansion of the force and investments in the future such as the Comanche, Future Combat Systems, and the Ground Combat Vehicle. By the time service leaders were ready to recapitalize again, sequestration knee-capped Army modernization.
Despite a lack of Congressional and presidential foresight on current and future warfare needs, the Army has triaged programs in its equipment portfolio remarkably well. Using incremental upgrades, reduced requirements, and rapid acquisition authorities, the Army was able to juggle priorities to maintain a floor of capability and capacity and reduce operational risk. With proper foresight, Army leaders can prepare to move programs off the backburner and rebuild a balanced equipment portfolio in the near future.
When the charge comes to rebuild, the Army must be positioned to both expand and modernize its forces. Broadly speaking, all the services should remain realistic about moderately improved funding levels over the next two years, but optimistic that a new Ppresident and Congress will bring a changed political dynamic capable of repealing sequestration and getting defense budgets back to predictable levels of growth. As a new American Enterprise Institute defense plan lays out, Army acquisition will have to blend expansion of current procurement programs, rapid acquisition of new mission-specific capabilities, and cautious investment in next-generation technologies. Though the vehicle fleet of the Reagan era cannot be upgraded indefinitely, a lost generation of investment renders betting solely on technological breakthroughs unwise. Particularly for ground forces, conditions do not augur well for a "third offset" to produce a degree of technological overmatch equal to that enjoyed in the 1980s.
The Army can engage in targeted investment in future technology even as it expands the capacity of the current vehicle fleet and rapidly acquires new equipment. By supporting further legislative acquisition reform and wisely using his newly acquired procurement authority, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley can posture the Army to improve both its capacity and capabilities in the next five to 10 years.
The Army’s embrace of incremental upgrades for the "bBig Tthree" — Abrams, Bradleys, and Paladins — continues to affordably pace adversary advances, even if it has not delivered overmatch in capability or capacity. The usage of commercial-off-the-shelf and existing military technology has proven very successful. The MRAP Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) program met urgent needs relatively cheaply, the JLTV Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program kept development costs low by capitalizing on Oshkosh’s existing M-ATV MRAP all-terrain vehicle design, and the AMPV armored multipurpose vehcicle replacement for the M113 is essentially a turretless Bradley. The ULCV Ultra Light Combat Vehicle program has mitigated a great deal of risk by competing vehicles already in use in the military, particularly within Special Operations Command. Quietly, the Army’s ISR intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance branch has also fielded its medium-range fixed-wing aircraft fleet (RC-12X, DHC-8, EO-5C) rapidly and efficiently.
Still, other programs will need more traditional development, including the Future Vertical Lift helicopter program, the Mobile Protected Firepower follow-on to the Mobile Gun System and M551 Sheridan, and the Future Fighting Vehicle effort that replaced the Ground Combat Vehicle. Disregarding calls for "disruptive" technology, the competitive and iterative Future Vertical Lift program stands set to reliably deliver a family of systems that builds on the tactical and operational advantages of the V-22 Osprey — a platform the Army could purchase and integrate to mitigate risk in the interim. The new ground vehicle fleet, spearheaded by the Future Fighting Vehicle, will require marrying traditional procurement methods with long-range investment in active protection systems and rapid fielding of new secure communications capabilities. A simple new armed aerial scout might also be pursued as a rapid acquisition effort. OH-58D Kiowas have been retired amid a promise that new-build or remanufactured Apache Guardians will be able to use Grey Eagle drones to mitigate the need for a new armed aerial scout — yet now those Grey Eagles will be redirected to joint intelligence support. Technology efforts must continue with programs like the high-energy laser mobile demonstrator and the multifunctional electronic warfare effort, but the Army cannot afford to anchor any operational concepts to promised technological breakthroughs. On the ground, mass and maneuver continue to reign supreme. By contrast, the Army stands to gain a great deal from new acquisition reform in this year’s defense policy bill that could expand opportunities for partnerships with commercial firms in communications systems, soldier enhancement programs, and information management.
To remain competitive in the next decade and beyond, the Army must hedge and balance its acquisition priorities to absorb further possible budgetary and technological disappointments as it seeks to rebuild its forces for the 21st century.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. Rick Berger is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. They can be followed on Twitter @meaglen and @bergerrichard.
Since Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood took over the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, he’s overseen the Pentagon’s attempt to build the U.S. hypersonic weapons industrial base, begun fielding hypersonic launchers and other equipment to the first unit to receive the capability and has started building out the first battery of a laser-weapon equipped Stryker combat vehicle.