WASHINGTON — The Army is at an inflection point. It’s a statement its top leaders have acknowledged countless times in recent months as they have made the case to begin major investment in future capability.
And that means, at some point soon, the Army will have to make difficult decisions on how long legacy weapon systems and planned upgrades for those capabilities can — or should — carry the service into the future.
It logically follows that to get there, much has to happen in the 10 years between now and then.
The Army wants longer-range fires, new combat vehicles and tanks, two new helicopters, highly capable autonomous vehicles and aircraft, a robust and resilient network tying together everything on the battlefield, a layered and more advanced air-and-missile defense capability and more lethal systems for warfighters.
These capabilities all fall under the Army’s top six modernization priorities, which the service laid out a year ago in an overarching modernization strategy.
The Army then stood up Army Futures Command — a new four-star command — that will focus on rapidly bringing online modernized equipment and weapons that fit under the top six priorities. And it put a general officer in charge of a cross-functional team for each priority to advance prototypes and technology development.
Each CFT has since laid out ambitious plans to put prototypes and other capabilities quickly into the hands of soldiers within just a few years, with plans to ramp up production and further fielding as the Army refines capabilities from soldier input, concept development and new technology.
At the same time, the Army’s budget is not expected to get any larger. The Trump administration, in its fiscal 2019 budget request, deviating from the norm, included a prediction of what funding would be needed across a five-year plan. That showed the administration is intending to work with budgets relatively level with the current one, although what Congress does with the defense budget is another matter entirely and is subject to much uncertainty as midterm elections loom.
In order to pay for the on-ramping of new equipment, legacy programs will either have to be slow-rolled or simply canceled. Many legacy systems have planned upgrades ahead. But it remains to be seen when those programs will start getting cut.
On the chopping block?
Army Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy, when asked if the service’s budget in FY20 would force tough decisions about legacy platforms and upgrade plans, he said, “yes.”
That budget is already being reviewed at the top in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
“My impression is the Army’s senior-most leadership is spending more time with this process and with this materiel than they have in the past,” said Susanna Blume, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security’s defense program. “I think there’s definitely been a lot of hype around FY20. I think that for the political leadership here, they realize they are on the clock. The ‘20 budget is the last they are assured to be able to execute from start to finish. There is a lot of pressure to deliver for ‘20.”
Signs that these tough decisions are around the corner include the fact that the Army has already canceled a major engineering change proposal — or upgrade — of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Instead, the money will be pushed over to the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle CFT’s effort to replace the Bradley entirely with what it is calling the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, or OMFV.
“I think the Bradley is a good example of how decisions were made to do the best for our legacy forces but realize there will be a transition point where we believe next-generation technology will come on board," Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette, the new Army G-8 chief, said in an interview with Defense News. "And so we have decided to curtail the A5 Bradley because by the time we would get that in the force, we believe we will have the NGCV coming in, and so those are the kind of tradeoffs I think our leadership is looking for,”
It’s also rumored the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter Block II upgrade program could be slowed. Boeing is already building engineering and manufacturing development versions of the aircraft ahead of a low-rate initial production decision.
The Army has ambitious plans to procure not just one variant of a future helicopter in the future, but two — a long range assault aircraft and an attack reconnaissance platform. The procurement plan lines up so the helicopters are procured somewhat back-to-back.
While there are more affordable ways to build and develop future helicopters now, according to industry sources, helicopters don’t come cheaply.
Before the service even gets to bring online its Future Vertical Lift family of systems, expected by roughly 2030, there are a lot of big ticket upgrade programs in the pipeline — from the Improved Turbine Engine Program engine replacement for UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, to a major conversion of UH-60 Limas to digital cockpit Victor-models already underway.
The service has already essentially scrapped major components of its network, such as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program last year in favor of a more agile and resilient network it is developing that will be more capable against adversaries with electronic attack capabilities that threaten the current systems.
While any cuts or delays to free up cash for modernization priorities likely won’t be made public until the FY20 budget is released, the service has been hard at work for many months, taking a fine-toothed comb to programs to see what stays and what goes.
“I would assess that every dollar that you invest should be consistent with that long-term view and then challenged by near-term mitigation,” Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, the Army Capabilities Integration Center director, told Defense News in an interview before the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting.
ARCIC now falls under the AFC and will help align concepts with modernization plans.
“So, you build an Army against the future, and then you anecdotally or, in exceptional cases, make investments that are divergent of that pathway only when you make a compelling case that the near-term risk is greater than the investment for the long-term risk,” he said.
The Army’s top leaders have made it a priority to assess whether the Army’s current path — program by program — lines up with potential future operational scenarios against predicted adversaries, McCarthy told Defense News in a recent interview.
“The more you do this, this analytical rigor or forecasting and modeling, it helps you make determinations of a new capability versus an existing legacy platform,” McCarthy said.
One way Army leadership has tackled deep assessments of programs is through what the group at one point called “Night Court.” The meetings included the Army secretary, the chief, the vice chief, McCarthy and all of the major commanders and senior Army staff.
The meetings, which began in the spring, took deep dives into hundreds of programs focused first on the equipping peg.
“We’re trying to be as judicious as we can with every dollar that has been disposed by Congress,” McCarthy said. “This is a way for us to put the highest level of rigor and prioritization that you could give for the department against our priorities.”
The Army needs to be prepared for potential contraction of the Budget Control Act, McCarthy noted, “we will be ready for that no matter what.”
Starting this month, the Army will take on manning and training programs in the same way.
Through the night court process, “our commanders now are intimately involved at the direction of the secretary to be involved in these reviews and looking at where are there efficiencies to be gained,” Pasquarette said. “Our commanders are bringing those forward, those recommendations and the reviews forward, with what happens inside of the Pentagon, and then our commanders outside the Pentagon are part of it, and, to me, that is kind of new.”
Pasquarette said he believes that as long as this set of Army leaders is in charge, the service will do these reviews annually to support the budget and programming cycles.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.