WASHINGTON — Without top-line growth in the U.S. Army’s future budgets, the service is headed toward a “collision course,” Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said March 4 at the McAleese Defense Programs Conference.
The Army has already gone through two-and-a-half years of deep budget scrubs through its “night court” process, which seeks to find funding areas in the budget that don’t align with the National Defense Strategy and the service’s modernization efforts, and moves those dollars into accounts that meet its priorities.
In the Army’s first night court, the chief, secretary, vice chief and undersecretary presided over decisions — big and small, easy and tough — for roughly 600 programs, shifting $33 billion from programs across the fiscal 2020 through FY24 five-year plan.
In FY20, the Army is investing $8.6 billion in modernization efforts and, across the next five years, investing a total of $57 billion, a 137 percent increase from the previous year’s five-year plan.
The Army found another roughly 80 programs to scale back or cancel in order to free up funding in FY21, but Army leadership has admitted it’s getting harder and harder to find low-hanging fruit in the process.
The Army is now in the process of conducting its night court for FY22 in order to try to find more money to align with its modernization goals. Officials will have to start making choices in terms of restructuring procurement accounts to begin the divestiture of current capabilities in the force to make room for future programs that will enter Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) in the comings years.
But that may not be enough if the Army doesn’t get an increased top line of 3 to 5 percent in future budget years, McCarthy said.
“What is going to be a challenge for us in ‘22 and ‘23 when [modernization programs] start to mature, we have to make choices in this milestone process, you start buying LRIP tranches,” he said.
At the same time the Army has to grow the force because its current ratio of dwell time to deployment time is 1:1 worldwide, McCarthy said.
“If we don’t get 3 to 5 percent growth in the out-years, there is a collision course if you keep growing the force and starting bringing in all these capabilities,” he said.
“Choices will have to be made if we can’t increase the top line in ‘22 and ‘23, so will that mean will we have to flatten end-strength? Do we tier the weapon systems that we bring into the formations,” McCarthy asked. “These are the choices that we are talking about, we are looking at and we are going to be prepared to make.”
McCarthy referenced recent comments from Defense Secretary Mark Esper regarding the need to review combatant command demands and asked, “Can we reduce demand worldwide? … Are we being efficient with every soldier, sailor, airman and marine that we send forward? Can the allies do better? Can we increase their capabilities that do more of the burden that is everything from investing as well as putting more boots forward in the form of deterrence?”
McCarthy told reporters following his speech that if the demand doesn’t come down there, "there is no trade space left even if you are going to kill weapon systems that we’ve had for 40 to 50 years and if you are successful with Congress in getting that done.”
The Army is discussing the numbers it needs with the White House, McCarthy added, but noted that “this is an election year. This is tough. This is going to be a march for the next couple of months.”
But McCarthy stressed, the Army will “continue to grow until we are forced with a really difficult, really another inflection point, if you will, downstream.”
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.