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Army Looks Beyond Budget Cuts To The ‘Deep Future’

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: Forget sequestration. Never mind fiscal 2013. The Army knows it’s in for a tough decade, not just a tough year — but it’s already thinking way ahead, past 2020.

With the Iraq war over, Afghanistan (slowly) winding down, and a new strategy that emphasizes Navy and Marine Corps operations in the Pacific, the Army is painfully aware it’s going to shrink. The service increasingly focuses on how to make it through the coming long, lean years to the decades beyond.

“We’re watching the storm of politics around us,” Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal said Wednesday morning at the National Press Club, at an event moderated by Government Executive editor Tim Clark. His near-term goal, Westphal said, is to navigate the storm “to get to that Army of three to five years [from now] without major disruption because of budgets.”

But while the post-2017 Army will be smaller, it will not otherwise be very different in weapons, personnel, organization, or ideas. Change comes slowly because of the Pentagon’s budget planning process and the painfully long lead times to develop new weapons. “The Army of 2020 is pretty much that same Army,” said Westphal. “It’s when you get beyond that that you start thinking about what this Army is really going to be.”

Westphal’s not the only senior leader saying this. “2020 is not an end point,” said a four-star general (whom Breaking Defense was asked not to name) at a recent conclave of top brass at National Defense University. “I affect POMs [Program Objective Memoranda] through 2020,” he went on, but the Army has to look beyond that, to 2025 and 2030.

That NDU event wrapped up the Army’s 2012 series of seminars and wargames on the future force, called “Unified Quest,” and set the groundwork for a new series in 2013. The crucial difference: This year’s scenario focused on “the Army of 2020.” Next year, the service’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) will add a second track exploring the “deep future,” 2030 to 2040.

“The problem with UQ 2012 was that the horizon was too short,” retired Army War College commandant Robert Scales told Breaking Defense. Scales led the respected “Army After Next” wargames in the 1990s and continues to participate in service future-gazing. “It takes 12 to 15 years to develop a [weapons] system. It takes 15 years to develop a platoon sergeant [from a private], so if you only go out eight years, you’re still in the sphere of current action,” Scales said. “I’d pick 2030.”

But how can the Army afford to look so far ahead when it has so many troubles now? “Oh, come on, Sydney!” Scales exclaimed. “Why do you think I was hired to do this in the mid ’90s? What was going on back then?” That post-Cold War downsizing makes today’s look tame. Or consider the intellectual ferment in the Army during the 1920s and 1930s — Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton experimenting with tanks, Hap Arnold and Ira Eaker with airpower — on a shoe-string budget amidst a Great Depression that dwarfs the Great Recession today. It’s precisely in such tight times, Scales and others argue, that it is most important to look ahead to the long term.

“Right now, we should be planning for 20 years from now,” Westphal said at the Press Club. “We have been for the last ten years so wrapped up in providing and equipping the force for the two wars that we’ve been in,” he argued, “that we have, I think, neglected really thinking about the long-term future, and we can’t afford to do that. It takes too long to develop and to begin to put things in place.”

Part of that planning is research and development to lay the foundations for future systems. Westphal emphasized digital communications, cybersecurity, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). He also highlighted energy efficiency — not so much to make the Army “green” as to reduce the tremendous logistical burden of powering all its digital gadgets. Vulnerable convoys use costly fuel to carry backpacks full of disposable batteries.

Newly-confirmed Army Acquisition Executive Heidi Shyu “has put together a very interesting plan for us,” Westphal said, one that is “more focused…on this long term acquistion process.” But investing for the long-term amidst short-term shortfalls will take a new, less cautious management culture, Westphal said, with leaders in both the military and civil service who “are willing to take some risks and are willing to put some dollars and invest in things that don’t realize an immediate return.”

So the Army’s ability to invest in future technologies requires it invest in its people. “The first thing we have to do,” said Westphal, “we have to invest in these individuals, we have to invest in their education, in their training… During these wars that declined a little bit; we don’t like to admit that but it did.”

For a decade, senior troops were deployed over and over again, on such tight schedules that many had to defer the Army’s normal programs of professional military education, let alone out-of-the-box opportunities like civilian graduate schools. The result was a generation of leaders deeply experienced in combat, counterinsurgency and Islamic culture, but lacking their predecessors’ breadth.

Now that the pace is slowing down, said Westphal, “we need to bring them back to the schoolhouse and educate them, in a broader way, not so much in military tactics but in history, science, mathematics, leadership, and the human dimension.”

Skeptics doubt the Army can pull all this innovation off. As the largest of the armed services, it has also always been the most bureaucratic, and its institutional sclerosis tends to reimpose itself as the urgency of wartime fades.

“The top leadership is not very agile and forward thinking,” said defense analyst Robbin Laird, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. The brass is still fixated on “big land wars and the big land forces,” he said; it’s just substituted counterinsurgency in the Middle East for tank clashes in Central Europe. There have been real innovations in Afghanistan with the Army’s use of its Apache helicopters, its Special Forces units, and an unprecedentedly close collaboration with the Air Force. But, Laird said, “the question is whether that’s really gotten into the mental furniture.”

Certainly the current leadership is awfully vague when asked what their future Army is actually going to look like. “A more technologically advanced force, a smaller, leaner force,” with more emphasis on cyber and on space, was about as specific as Westphal got on Wednesday. Unlike the Air Force and Navy with their AirSea Battle concept, or the Marine Corps’s return to its expeditionary roots, the Army is still wrestling with what it wants to be. That uncertainty, of course, makes looking at the “deep future” all the more essential.

What do you think?