Times are hard for the United States Army. It has experienced a budget decline of almost 50 percent in constant dollars since 2008 as a result of the combined effects of the drawdown of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the caps established in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Army force structure is on a path below its post-World War II lows, and potential competitors around the world are working overtime to challenge the Army in ways not seen since the Cold War.
To be clear, we are far from the hollow Army of the late 1970s. Today’s battle-tested, exceptionally professional Army remains far and away the world’s preeminent large-scale ground force. However, it is rare these days to see Army leaders with smiles on their faces. They look at today’s trends and see that the Army’s ability to retain its preeminent position is far from assured.
Not least among the Army’s concerns is its modernization challenge. Army modernization funding declined 74 percent from 2008 to 2015, well beyond the decline in its overall budget. Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capability Integration Center, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Airland subcommittee that the Army is “behind in modernization against current and future threats” and that “our competitive advantage we’ve continually banked on is decreasing, [and] the Army risks losing its qualitative overmatch in future conflicts.”
Comparing the Army’s current modernization challenge to previous drawdowns shows that the drawdowns after Vietnam and the Cold War also featured major Army modernization reductions. However, this time the Army is facing a “triple whammy” for its modernization efforts. First, this drawdown was larger than the drawdowns that occurred following Vietnam (64 percent decline) and the Cold War (59 percent decline). Second, this drawdown follows a build-up that didn’t deliver much in the way of new systems.
The Cold War drawdown came after the Army had modernized most of the force with its so-called “Big Five,” the Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Apache helicopter, Blackhawk helicopter, and Patriot air defense system, meaning that the Army had modern designs leverage and new systems to live on.
But the 2000s was a lost decade of procurement for the Army in which the programs designed for the future battlefield, such as the Comanche helicopter, Crusader artillery system, Future Combat System and Ground Combat Vehicle failed to reach production. Finally, the Army’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) accounts have been unusually hard hit, declining 52 percent during the current drawdown.
In previous drawdowns, RDT&E was relatively preserved to protect future capabilities. Army RDT&E declined only 29 percent and 17 percent in the post-Vietnam and Cold War drawdowns respectively. As a result, the Army has an empty pipeline of new design systems for the future and very limited funds to recover lost ground.
The current Army modernization portfolio is shaped almost entirely by cuts rather than by a clear strategy for achieving future capabilities. It is heavily weighted toward programs to sustain and upgrade its existing platforms at relatively flat production rates. Even current programs designed to significantly expand Army capabilities such as the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical are planned to take decades to deploy across the Army.
As a result, Army modernization is effectively stuck in a defensive crouch that runs the risk of ceding the initiative to the United States’ potential competitors. The Army Operating Concept, “Win in a Complex World,” rightly identifies the need to “operate consistent with the tenet of initiative, dictating the terms of operations and rendering the enemy incapable of responding.” It is incumbent on Army leadership to create an Army modernization strategy that ensures the Army seizes and retains the initiative in modernization.
And while the Army’s modernization challenge is staggering, it also presents opportunity. The Air Force and the Navy are heavily committed to substantial portfolios of new systems as a result of programs such as the F-35 fighter, B-21 Bomber, Ohio-class replacement submarines, and Ford-class carriers, but the Army has a cleaner canvas. With the exceptions of Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, the Army does not have major platform replacements currently planned for production in the next decade. The very scale of the Army’s need for new programs gives the Army flexibility to tailor its modernization strategy to the future operational environment.
Technology trends may actually be playing toward the Army’s strengths. The current push toward human-machine teaming may work particularly well in leveraging the Army’s tremendous human capital, as demonstrated by recent teaming between Apaches and unmanned MQ-1C Gray Eagles. Given the tremendously complex nature of the Army’s missions, emphasizing the combination of technology with the human element is essential.
And because the challenges the Army faces while working in the land domain and confronting human terrain change especially quickly, the current push for more rapid innovation presents real opportunities for the Army. The Army has developed great venues for conducting experiments to figure out what technologies can actually deliver war-winning capabilities, but has yet to develop robust mechanisms to capitalize on fast moving technology opportunities.
The critical need now is for the Army to seize the initiative with a forward looking modernization strategy that plays to the Army’s strengths and matches its future missions. It is not certain whether such a strategy can be successful at today’s budget levels, but a clear modernization strategy will make the case for resources for modernization far more compelling.
Andrew Hunter is the director of and Rhys McCormick is a research associate for the Defense Industrial-Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.