The famous Prussian military theorist and professional soldier Carl von Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. In contemporary Washington, politics sometimes seems like the continuation of war by other means. Partisan infighting has so thoroughly paralyzed federal policymaking that Congress has not completed a budget in time for the new fiscal year even once in the last 20 years. The most basic requirements of sound governance are neglected as politicians maneuver for electoral advantage.
Army modernization was so underfunded during the Obama years that the nation's sole surviving tank plant ended up building only one tank per month.
The U.S. Army is a victim of this decay. It has been severely underfunded since 2011 when Congress approved ten-year budget caps that forced Army leaders to choose between people, readiness, and modernization of equipment. Faced with looming threats from Korea to Europe to the Persian Gulf, the service had little choice but to slash investment in new equipment as it struggled to maintain an adequately sized force that was trained to a reasonable level of proficiency. As a result, the Army's combat systems have become increasingly antiquated.
The new leadership team that President Trump has installed at the Department of the Army understands that it can't stay on this vector any longer without risking defeat in future conflicts. Army Secretary Mark Esper and Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy have repeatedly stated that the service must streamline the way it buys weapons so they can be fielded faster, and the Army is implementing changes to make that possible. But the biggest challenge is that the Army needs a lot more money to modernize equipment than it has been getting.
The Army hates begging Congress for money. Its culture encourages soldiers to make due with whatever funding Congress grants them. But like their uniformed counterparts, Esper and McCarthy see that keeping silent could lead to military catastrophe. So they are stepping up efforts to explain the looming danger that the Army faces to a broad audience. Here, in simplified form, are the five key themes at the core of the Army's plea for more modernization money while there is still time to adequately equip America's soldiers.
1. Army equipment budgets were starved during the Obama years. The Obama Administration badly misjudged geopolitical trends, and therefore failed to sustain a military posture that could cope with developments like a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe. The Army's active-duty ranks were reduced by about 100,000 soldiers, readiness was allowed to erode, and modernization funding was cut to a mere two days' worth of federal spending per year. The last tank plant in America is producing a grand total of one tank per month.
2. Likely enemies are catching up with U.S. warfighting technology. Russia and China have begun matching or surpassing the combat capabilities available to America's soldiers. For instance, U.S. tanks lack the active protection technology appearing on Russian tanks; Russian and Chinese tactical missiles often have greater reach than their American equivalents; and several countries have fielded targeting sensors with superior range. The Army's vice chief told Congress last year that Army equipment is "outranged, outgunned and outdated."
3. New technology allows foes to leapfrog Army capabilities. Several potential adversaries are using unmanned aircraft -- drones -- to spy on U.S. ground forces or attack them, and the Army does not have a ready response. Other enemies are using cheap jamming systems to disrupt U.S. navigation, sensing and communications signals. Cyber attacks against U.S. tactical networks are increasingly common. These non-traditional threats complicate the challenge of staying ahead, without eliminating the need to develop better armored vehicles, helicopters and artillery.
4. Enemies have figured out that soldiers are vulnerable. As national security adviser H.R. McMaster, himself an Army general officer, has pointed out, wars are mainly about the control of territory, population and resources. That control typically cannot be exercised from offshore or overhead -- it requires "boots on the ground." But with the advent of improvised explosive devices, shaped charges and more high-tech options, additional modernization funding is needed for force protection so U.S. soldiers do not become easy targets.
5. The Army has a limited window of time to get moving on modernization. Recent experience indicates that weapons spending rises when Republicans control the government, and falls when Democrats do. So the Army may have little time to lock in key modernization initiatives before the attention of the political system shifts to other priorities. Army leaders need to convince Congress to speed up development of new rotorcraft, combat vehicles, networks and the like to assure durable political support as electoral fortunes shift.
The Army already has identified what its top modernization priorities are, and most of them could be fielded faster than Obama-era plans envisioned. Technology to increase the speed of combat rotorcraft, the range of tactical missiles, and the resilience of battlefield networks has already been demonstrated. If that technology does not reach the force expeditiously, then the risk of mass casualties and catastrophic defeat in America's next ground campaign will inevitably rise.