Modernization Priorities for the Army and Air Force
(Source: The Lexington Institute; issued May 3, 2006)

(© The Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
Remarks by Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D. to the Heritage Foundation
April 28, 2006

My task in the next ten minutes is to describe the most pressing modernization needs of the Army and the Air Force.

Since Baker Spring is discussing strategic forces, I will confine my comments to conventional capabilities -- in other words, to the areas where the two services cooperate most closely in conducting joint warfare.


Let me begin with the Army, which -- despite being the prime beneficiary of supplemental appropriations for Iraq -- is in a bit of a pickle.

The U.S. Army entered the new millennium with a rapidly aging inventory of Cold War weapons and no clear idea of what future challenges it might face.

Given those twin problems, it eagerly embraced the notion of a capabilities-based posture proposed by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meaning a posture characterized by flexible forces and versatile technologies.

It envisioned a future Army consisting of modular brigade combat teams enjoying unprecedented mobility, awareness and connectivity to the rest of the joint force.

That vision was so different from the industrial-age force that it inherited from the last century that Army leaders expected three decades of technology spending would be required before their warfighters reached the promised land.

The centerpiece of this strategy was a program called Future Combat Systems, which would provide agile ground vehicles, unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicles, and a resilient battlefield network for the future force.

It was all quite exciting, and quite expensive, but with global military tensions in something of a lull, it seemed like a good time to take risks and plan for the long term.

You all know what happened next.

The Army had barely begun implementing its transformation vision when the 9-11 attacks occurred, clarifying the nature of near-term threats.

Operations in Afghanistan did not tax the Army's capabilities all that heavily, but the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq did.

In fact, the service ended up sending 40% of its equipment to remove Saddam from power, and committing a force ten times bigger than the force in Afghanistan to three years of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq.

The Army has done a good job of protecting and maintaining its equipment in Iraq, with the mission-capable rates of ground vehicles averaging over 90% and the mission-capable rates of helicopters approaching 80%.

The problem is that much of the Army's equipment was already old before it was sent to Iraq, and the combination of high operating tempo, harsh conditions and enemy attacks is wearing it out five times faster than peacetime operations would.

For example, Abrams tanks typically drive about 800 miles per year in peacetime training, but in Iraq they are averaging over 5,000 miles.

Humvees are being used six times more intensively than in peacetime, and heavy trucks ten times.

Add in the dust and heat, and it isn't hard to see why an aging force might be running down pretty quickly.

So here's the equipment dilemma the Army faces...

-- First of all, it is waging a labor-intensive war against global terrorism at the same time its capital equipment is wearing out.

-- Second, its existing inventory of equipment was designed for another time -- a time when enemies wore uniforms and front lines were well-defined -- so it has required extensive modifications to function effectively in Iraq.

-- Third, to keep this aging, overburdened equipment at a high state of readiness in the midst of a multifront war, the service must dedicate extensive resources to maintenance and repair that then are not available for investment in new technology.

-- Meanwhile, it is trying to transform itself by fielding modular, networked brigade combat teams that are capable of leveraging the full potential of the joint force through collaborative warfighting.

The Army has managed to bridge these competing needs with a vast infusion of supplemental appropriations that cover the cost of the Iraq operation, but in the process the service has become dependent on a temporary funding mechanism that soon will be going away.

So how do you keep modernization on track at a time when your budget is shrinking and the cost of personnel, especially their healthcare benefits, is rising rapidly?

Well, the short answer is no one knows, but it probably requires taking money from other places -- including other services and the defense agencies. Because funding is sure to be scarce, Army leaders will have to be very clear on what their top modernization priorities should be.

As chance would have it, earlier this week the Lexington Institute and the Center for American Progress jointly released a study called Army Equipment After Iraq.

I would like to cite six key findings from that study to illustrate what sorts of investments deserve greatest emphasis.

First, the war in Iraq has demonstrated that the current inventory of Army equipment lacks sufficient force protection features, such as armor and electronic countermeasures.

For example, the Army is still years away from fielding anything besides flares on its helicopters to cope with heat-seeking missiles, even though the Air Force began installing more effective laser countermeasures on its planes years ago.

The Army will need to give more attention to force protection as it develops future combat systems, because Iraq may very well be a harbinger of conflicts to come.

Second, brigade combat teams and smaller units need their own reconnaissance assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles.

The current practice of relying on higher echelons, other services or national agencies for timely local intelligence simply doesn't work.

Rather than making warfighters line up to wait for scarce reconnaissance assets, we need to give them such tools to carry into the field as integral equipment within their units.

Third, the Army's communications equipment is antiquated and vulnerable, so it needs to be replaced with digital links that can assure connectivity to troops on the move.

Warfighters in Iraq have been very pleased with the performance of a satellite and radio-based network called Blue Force Tracker, and the Army should certainly complete its fielding across the fleet.

Beyond that, the service needs to move quickly to deploy the Warfighter Information Network - Tactical, also known as WIN-T, to provide more robust communications on the move to maneuver forces at the earliest possible time.

Fourth, the Army needs better tools for rapidly intercepting, analyzing and jamming enemy electronic signals.

In particular, it needs equipment that can quickly correlate and interpret distinctive signals generated by threats such as improvised explosive devices.

It doesn't make much sense to monitor 80,000 frequencies, as the Army currently does in Baghdad, if you can't fuse the information you collect into timely intelligence.

Fifth, heavy armor turns out to be much more useful in urban warfare than anyone expected, so we have to rethink our biases about whether tanks have a place in the future force.

The lesson of battles like Fallujah is that we would be fools to retire our heavy tanks, and in fact we need to upgrade them for retention in the force to mid-century.

That doesn't mean we can't reduce numbers and consolidate variants, but it will be essential to have heavy armor in the force for the foreseeable future.

Finally, as you might have expected, the Army's helicopters have been hugely important to its effectiveness in Iraq. Unfortunately, all four types -- utility, cargo, attack and recon -- are growing old at the same time, so it is critical to keep recapitalization and replacement plans on track.

That is especially true in the case of buying a new armed reconnaissance helicopter to replace the aging Kiowa and extending the service life of the workhorse CH-47 Chinook, without which operations in places like Iraq would be nearly impossible to sustain.


Let me turn now to the Air Force, which faces its own crisis in modernizing for future military challenges.

The Air Force's crisis arises not because the service is overly burdened by foreign wars or lacks a clear vision of the future, but because the political system has come to take air power for granted.

No American soldier has been killed by hostile aircraft in over 50 years, and no American plane has been shot down by hostile aircraft in over 30 years, so our political leaders have come to view air dominance as a birthright rather than a capability requiring constant renewal.

Here's the result of that naive view...

-- Most of the Air Force's top-of-the-line F-15 fighters fly with flight restrictions due to age-related metal fatigue, and they were repeatedly defeated by pilots from India in recent war games.

-- The fleet of 600 aerial refueling tankers that make it possible for Air Force and Navy planes to reach places like Iraq and Afghanistan average over 40 years of age, making them more than three times the age of the U.S. commercial airliner fleet.

-- The C-130 turboprop planes that provide most of the short-hop deliver capability for the Army and Marine Corps in Iraq are so aged that many have been grounded out of concerns for their safety -- even though parochial interests in Congress refuse to allow their retirement.

-- The C-17 intercontinental cargo plane that is supposed to carry Army expeditionary forces to distant war zones quickly under the administration's new warfighting doctrine is being terminated at 180 aircraft, far below the number that Army leaders say they will need.

-- And a next-generation radar plane designated E-10 that is the Air Force's main hope for maintaining its airborne surveillance capabilities in the future has been terminated despite congressional refusal to fund a space-based alternative.

So if you want to believe that America will still have the air power to bear any burden and defeat any enemy ten years from today, then don't look too closely, because our biggest advantage in future warfare is ebbing away fast.

It is a never-ending source of amazement to me that serious people think fighters designed during the Vietnam War will be able to defeat foreign aircraft and missiles built at the dawn of the new millennium, but that's what many critics of the F-22 Raptor are saying.

Those same "experts" are now telling us that 180 C-17 cargo planes will be enough flexible intertheater airlift to police the world for the next several decades, and that our 40-year-old tankers can last another 40 years.

They say we should be putting our scarce investment dollars into space, unmanned vehicles, and small twin-engine cargo planes capable of landing in the high Andes.

These priorities are not as prescient as we have been led to believe.

Space-based reconnaissance is losing relevance as it becomes more feasible to operate near targets of interest.

On the other hand, while unmanned surveillance vehicles offer unique persistence, they haven't managed to find Osama, or Omar, or Zawahiri, or Zarkhawi.

And buying latter-day DC-3's for flying short-hop cargo missions in the third world is a waste of money.

A rigorous assessment of the Air Force's most important future requirements leads us to five aircraft programs.

First, we need to buy the 400 F-22 fighters the service says it must have to assure future air dominance, because without command of the air, you can't do much else in modern warfare.

If we have to give up 600 of the less capable Joint Strike Fighters the Air Force is planning to buy to get enough F-22's, then that's what we should do.

Second, we must get started on replacing our decrepit fleet of Eisenhower-era aerial refueling tankers before they start falling out of the sky.

It will take two decades to replace the fleet, and if anything goes wrong with existing tankers during that time, we have no backup plan for getting to places like Kabul.

Third, we need to buy a versatile next-generation electronic aircraft that can serve as successor to aging AWACS, Joint Stars and eavesdropping planes.

It will not be feasible to meet the military's long-range surveillance needs relying solely on satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Fourth, we need to get serious about the intertheater airlift requirements that the future force will generate as the Army increasingly emphasizes rapid force deployment from domestic bases.

That means the Air Force will require many more C-17s than it currently has in its investment plan, and we really shouldn't think of the added cost as an Air Force need, because the planes are mainly for the Army.

Finally, and in a related vein, policymakers have to think through how age is degrading the hundreds of C-130 turboprops that provide everything from intratheater lift to aerial refueling to tactical gunfire to weather reports.

It's just plain dumb to terminate the C-130 production line when we know we'll need to purchase more, just as it's dumb to start building less capable planes for missions we know the C-130 can do.

You will notice that there isn't a single space program on my list.

The reason why is simple -- space has all the money it needs if we just can learn to spend the money wisely.

It's the aircraft programs that have been starved, so that's where we need to add money.


prev next

Breaking News from AFP See all

Press releases See all

Official reports See all