The Trump administration is putting the finishing touches on a new National Security Strategy. It will be a ringing endorsement of U.S. air power and sea power. But when it comes to land power -- "boots on the ground" -- the message is more muted.
This is an old story in Washington. Every time there is a prolonged conflict -- Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan -- the Army does most of the fighting and takes most of the casualties. But once the war is over, it gets less money than the other services to modernize and stay in a high state of readiness.
One reason why is that politicians and policymakers would prefer to wage war from afar, rather than putting U.S. military personnel within range of enemy weapons. Another reason is that it's a lot easier to understand the signature weapons of the Air Force and Navy -- bombers, aircraft carriers, etc. -- than it is to grasp the details of warfighting systems used by brigade combat teams.
So, the Army has a challenge in selling itself to the political system -- particularly at the national level, where only one in five members of Congress has served in any branch of the military. It needs a clear and compelling message to sustain its programs at a time when federal spending is headed back to trillion-dollar deficits each year.
At the moment, no such message is apparent. The incoming Secretary of the Army, former infantry officer Mark Esper, said as much in confirmation hearings last week: "My personal challenge will be to articulate a clear vision of where the Army needs to be in the future based on the defense strategy, and to greatly improve the acquisition system."
The acquisition system consists of the organizations and processes through which the service buys its equipment. Most observers agree it needs fixing. But no matter how efficient Esper and his team make it, they will still face the more basic challenge of convincing Congress their modernization priorities make sense and deserve to be funded.
The Army currently gets less than three days’ worth of federal spending per year for all of its equipment needs. And it shows. The Army has fallen behind Russian forces it might need to fight in a future European war in everything from air defense to long-range fires to electronic warfare to armored vehicle survivability.
Collectively, these shortfalls could spell defeat for America -- especially when coupled with the geographical advantages the Russians would enjoy in a European conflict. Like all of the U.S. military's other near-peer adversaries, the Russians are poised to fight near their home base of operations. For the U.S. Army, every war is an away game.
That means the Army needs to "overmatch" enemy ground forces in virtually every measure of performance in order to win, because it is likely to be greatly outnumbered in the war zone. So when investment in new weapons lags for decades, as it has in the Army since the Cold War ended, that signals trouble ahead. This should be an easy story to tell to the people who control the purse-strings. Why isn't the Army message resonating?
The biggest reason is that Army leaders can't seem to stick with a plan. One year they tell Congress a particular system is an urgent priority, and the next year they propose to kill it. After this has happened a few times, wasting billions of dollars, legislators begin to suspect that the Army isn't sure what it needs for the future.
Even when it sticks with a weapon program, the arguments the Army advances for how it proposes to execute the program often seem weak, if not downright inexplicable. Let's consider the top five modernization priorities from the service's most recent official list, dated October 3 of this year.
The first priority is Long Range Precision Fires, meaning artillery and surface-to-surface missiles. The Army has a program by the same name that can double the firepower and triple the range of its existing fires. The technology is available today. But the service wants to spend seven years developing it when that could be done in three years, and equip the new weapon with a "unitary" warhead rather than submunitions. That plan wastes time and money, while fielding a munition that lacks the killing power of Russian counterparts.
The second priority is a Next Generation Combat Vehicle that combines firepower and mobility with improved protection. The Army already had a program to meet those objectives that it killed in 2014, and now it wants to start over with little evidence key design tradeoffs have changed during the intervening years. It ought to stick with the tanks and troop carriers it already has, equipping them with active protection systems that can intercept incoming rounds, until it has a convincing case that it can field something significantly better.
The third priority is Future Vertical Lift, meaning a new generation of combat rotorcraft. The goal is worthwhile since all of the service's current helicopters date from the Cold War, but here too the service is taking way longer than necessary to field better rotorcraft. It has funded all the research needed to pick a winning design that can replace its venerable Apache and Black Hawk, but it wants to repeat that step and thereby add five years to the timeline for fielding. The process needs to be compressed to save time, money and lives.
The fourth priority is a Mobile Battlefield Network that can operate when the electromagnetic spectrum is contested. Mobility is crucial because the chief of staff says anybody who stands still in a fight with the Russians or Chinese is likely to be killed in short order. But the service already has a mobile battlefield network for company-size units and above that it suddenly announced this summer it wanted to kill, even though that would leave soldiers in Europe without "comms on the move" for many years to come. The plan makes no sense.
The fifth priority is better Air And Missile Defense that can defeat everything from manned fighters to unmanned drones. No doubt about it, enemies are acquiring lots of new options for attacking from overhead, but the Army acts like the Air Force's stealthy F-35 fighter doesn't even exist. In fact, over 600 will be delivered by 2020, and they will dominate the skies of Europe in a future conflict. The Army needs to focus its development spending on airborne threats like drones and leave the big stuff to the Air Force. That's what airmen are there for.
When a modernization plan is so easy to pick apart, it's hard to make the case for funding it on Capitol Hill. Members from both sides of the aisle recently assailed the new approach to battlefield networking as "half-baked." Now that Army leaders are getting increased authority to oversee the implementation of new weapon programs, they need to develop greater depth in assessing technological options. They also need to do a much better job of telling their modernization story to outsiders, because their credibility is at a low ebb.