WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army is preparing to embark on a third all-encompassing deep dive into its budget to ensure it properly allocated money to cover its ambitious modernization efforts. And while the process may be getting easier, the decisions will get tougher.

The budget review process has been coined “night court” after the 1980s television show about an eccentric New York judge.

There’s always been a detailed review process at the program level every year, Lt. Gen. James Pasquarette, the Army G-8 chief, who is in charge of planning, developing and resourcing programs, told Defense News.

Before night court, the Army would hold an off-site meeting at the end of the calendar year to begin its five-year budget plan, Pasquerette said. Decision-makers weren’t involved in the details “and often I saw frustration like they didn’t see they had decision space,” he added.

Night court fundamentally changed that.

In the Army’s first night court, the chief, secretary, vice and undersecretary presided over decisions — big and small, easy and tough — for roughly 600 programs. It was a long and arduous process but resulted in the shifting of more than $33 billion from programs across the fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2024 five-year plan. Those funds were moved because the associated efforts did not meet the Army’s modernization plans to make the force more lethal and agile against near-peer enemies.

That budget is awaiting approval from Congress.

The service repeated the process for the FY21 budget, which is complete. Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said the Army was aiming to find another $10 billion across the five-year plan to apply to priority programs. The request will be released around February 2020.

The Army will soon begin another round of night court for the FY22 through FY26 plan after picking much of the low-hanging fruit from programs that will no longer meet the service’s needs in the future.

“We’re going to get a ladder,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told Defense News in an interview at the Pentagon just ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

Getting after that higher fruit means the Army will have to work harder to ensure funding is in the right place — and that means making tougher decisions.

“It’s not about winning the last fight, it’s really about being ready to win the next fight, and we believe we must modernize the Army and we know that there’s only so much in the budget,” McConville said. “The secretary and I are shoulder to shoulder. We believe in this thing and we were there for night court at the birth and we’re going to stay with that and we are going to continue to resource the highest priorities first, and that means some things are not going to get resourced because we don’t have enough money.”

While the decisions may get more difficult, the chief and secretary are entrusting more of the decisions to leaders below them now that night court has become a regular budgeting activity and senior leaders know exactly where the Army is headed.

“We’ve educated a lot of the senior leaders on how resources work, and they understand the trades now,” McConville said, “so they are actually doing a much better job within their portfolios of moving the money around, which I think is going to make it easier for us to make the tougher decisions.”

The expectation now is that the chief and the secretary will only make “the really hard decisions,” McConville said, rather every decision, which is what happened during the first night court.

Money is generally managed better, McConville said, from how the service handles de-obligations to improving contracting methods. “All these other type things have helped us make sure that our priorities are being resourced,” he added.

Empowering Army senior leaders to make decisions as part of the night court process has made the effort more efficient, McCarthy told Defense News in a recent interview.

“There’s a great partnership, but there’s also much more ownership,” he said, “They drive these investment plans where they have the appropriate level of expertise — the owners from a policy or an execution standpoint are in charge.”

The toughest decisions will still fall to himself and the chief, McCarthy said, such as divesting a current system to pay for a future one, but that may not involve a lengthy meeting. “A lot of that might just, for me personally, be reading a briefing book by myself and I take notes, and then I may ask for a follow up,” he added.

For the equipping peg, Pasquarette serves as the manager of the night court effort, while the head of Army Futures Command, Gen. Mike Murray, and acquisition boss Bruce Jette make the decisions.

Pasquarette has already attended a few sessions to discuss the challenges, strategies and targets. More such meetings are planned for the end of October through mid-November.

Part of those discussions will include the Army’s goals for night court, he said, and how to set parameters going forward.

Since the Army has new leadership with McConville and McCarthy, the guidance might change, Pasquarette acknowledged, but clarity on the way forward should happen “in about a month.”

The FY22 through FY26 program objective memorandum is an important one for the Army because it’s roughly the time when the service will begin spending more of its budget on future programs than it plans to spend on current programs.

“We’re going to take a hard look at the equipping portfolio,” Pasquarette said, and the “screening criteria will continue to be the same as it has been,” which is whether the Army can operate in the future environment against pacing threats Russia or China.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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