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How To Make Sure The Army’s Big Six Get Built

Posted by James Tinsley on


Bell V-280 Valor, part of the Future Vertical Lift program

I’ve got history with the Army. I helped in some small ways to kill Comanche, Crusader and, to a lesser degree, the Future Combat System.Those huge acquisition failures are embedded deep in the psyche of everyone in Army acquisition and in the minds of many who really hope the Army gets it right this time. Army Futures Command seems a sound approach, especially when combined with the Cross Functional Teams and the persistent and penetrating involvement of top Army leaders. (Army three- and four-stars must STAY involved, all while delegating much day-to-day authority to majors and colonels.) This excellent analysis of what the Army needs to do should be read by everyone in the service who wants to get it right this time. Read on! The Editor.

When House Appropriations defense subcommittee chair Pete Visclosky urged the Army leadership recently to “plow the field” with members of Congress, it reflected more than just a free coaching session for what has traditionally been the least Hill-savvy service.

It was recognition that all the hard work and tough decisions that produced $22 billion in program cuts over the Army’s fiscal 2020 Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) to fund higher priorities would come to naught if Congress – and its defense industry constituents – was not convinced fully that the Army could see its ambitious modernization plans through to fruition. In short, that this time will be different.

After 80-plus hours of “Night Court” followed by a similar commitment of briefings, hearings, roundtables, speeches, and more, arguably the hardest part is just beginning for Army leaders. To overcome recent history (read the Decker-Wagner Army acquisition study) and ultimately achieving its stated modernization goals by 2028 will require, among other factors, two attributes that are not known as Army strengths, at least in recent history.

first flight, March 21, 2019. Photo courtesy Sikorsky and Boeing.

The Sikorsky-Boeing SB>1 Defiant, part of the Future Vertical Lift program

First, per Chairman Visclosky, is the importance of communicating – to cranky legislators, anxious contractors, and, in some cases, querulous reporters – the why and how of the cuts being proposed to what had been considered reliably executed and required programs; and, arguably more important, a credible acquisitions roadmap for the 31 or so ‘signature programs’ that are supposed to take their place.

This brings us to the second attribute, which is the willingness of the Army to walk away from some of these ambitious modernization initiatives if they do not, early on, show credibly the leap-ahead in capability needed to justify their costs in what will likely be a constrictive budget environment ahead.

In coming years, the Army needs to be prepared for the Big Six to become the Big 4, the 31 Signature Programs to become 21, and they need a plan to shut off the spigot in pursuit of the “10X” leap and settle on what “good enough” looks like for the 2020s and 30s.

Don’t Just Communicate, Over Communicate; Then Communicate Some More.

It has been some time since Army modernization was the talk of the annual defense budget cycle.  That all changed in the Army’s latest budget request: more than 180 programs cut or reduced – most notably the CH-47 cargo helicopter, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle– and some $22 billion in resulting savings shifted towards development of future capabilities optimized for near-peer warfare. During the 2020 budget roll-out Army leaders proclaimed the long-awaited shift away from the 1980s-era “Big Five” platforms was finally underway – this time for real.

The Army gamely did its utmost to message the magnitude of the shift beforehand: the priority modernization areas and signature programs were identified last year, as was the need to shift billions from legacy programs to future capabilities over the FYDP. Congressional committee members and senior staff got more Army pre-release information than in recent memory – as did the defense industry.

It helps that, in general, the Army tends to mean what it says in budget requests to Congress and minimizes overt gaming strategies. While Army leadership made a point of highlighting all the future opportunities available to industry in the Big Six modernization priority areas, from the perspective of companies accountable to shareholders, those future development programs are a far from certain proposition (especially given the Army’s modernization track record of recent memory).

Now the Army calling on industry to place significant financial bets on a game whose rules (read: requirements) are again subject to change. Defense firm program managers will increasingly have to build in mitigation plans into the structure and justification of their bids

So far the Army is relatively tight-lipped around the specific methodologies and reasoning behind many of the “Night Court” decisions, which could otherwise inform where industry measures investment risks on the new programs. In addition, budget justification documents, usually treasure troves for indicators of overarching procurement trajectories, are atypically sparse. For example, the lack of justification for ending the Utility Fixed Wing Aircraft with one additional buy – the prior plan was two per year through the FYDP – may only interest the relatively small C-12 caucus and obsessive readers of budget documents. Cutting back on mortuary equipment and earthmovers will likely be uncontroversial. But how well the Army can explain and justify even the smaller cancelations will set the stage for how Congress and contractors will view potential future reductions, such as the sharp planned decrease in the UH-60M helicopter next year after receiving a significant boost in FY 20.

There is an adage in politics that just when the candidate has become almost physically sick of repeating the same things over and over again – that is when his message is just starting to get through. The analogy applies partly to the Army – not in terms of staying “on message”– but in terms of sharing information and analysis. This must happen even if the analysis is pre-decisional or not yet internally vetted and at the risk of leaks and occasional off-message moments. (Eds. note: Oh, if only Big Army can handle this.)  Over the long term, the Army will gain a much more understanding – if not always more agreeable – partners on the Hill and within industry.

Be Willing to Walk, Run Even.

The question the Army has grappled with is how much and how much longer can legacy platforms still counter adversary threat advances? The answer delivered to both in the 2020 budget submission was: not enough by 2028. To get there, the Army will be relying on a large number of things to go right all at the same time – and, under different leadership in the Congress, in the White House, in the Pentagon and, in the Army itself as the programs progress.

Even if the modernization strategy appears sound – and Army’s key stakeholders are well informed and get the message – the specter of the service’s recent history with Future Combat Systems, Comanche, GCV and others still casts a shadow.

The Army leadership has already done considerable work to lay the foundation for success. A capably-led and empowered Army Futures Command (AFC) should help prevent a repeat of the acquisition debacles of the past by enforcing stable requirements while avoiding mission creep and platform redesigns. AFC and the Army leadership have publicly embraced the “fail fast” mantra. But this is easier said than done, especially when reputations and funding streams have been staked on the success of the Big Six.

Overall, the Army is trying to mitigate risk and avoid repeating the pitfalls of the FCS/Comanche/Crusader debacles, by disaggregating the 31 signature modernization programs across six semi-siloed modernization priorities (though, as with FCS, the failure of one of these priorities, a new data network, would cascade across the others and put their viability at risk).

The testing ground for future Army program discipline will likely be Future Vertical Lift (FVL). It will be vulnerable to Pentagon budget cutters in the future because of: its size (scope and dollars); technological ambition (two dramatically new rotary designs); the enduring utility and political constituency for the helicopters it will replace; and, its somewhat tenuous application to potential combat operations against China (the #1 priority of Pentagon leadership).

The Army has already taken steps to prevent FVL becoming, in effect, the Joint Strike Fighter of helicopters: two basic platforms instead of going all-in on one and separating airframe prime contract from plug-in mission systems).

This discipline and realism, combined with early-and-often communications, will enable Congress to provide more effective oversight and incentive industry to invest with more confidence, in support of the Army achieving its modernization goals.

 James Tinsley is managing director and Hamilton Cook is research associate at Avascent, a strategy and management consulting firm.

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