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The Russians Are Coming: The Army’s Best Case For Modernization

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

DoD photo

Russian military honor guard.

WASHINGTON: The US Army has blown billions on weapons that never got built, so Congress is understandably wary of funding Army modernization. A senior Hill aide told us today that if the service wants money to modernize, it must convince Congress that its requests are in response to a specific threat the legislators care about, namely Russia.

Making that case is a challenge for the Army, which as the largest service with the widest range of missions has an institutional fondness for vague, abstract and unchallenging language. But, said Doug Bush, a former Army officer now with the Democratic staff on the House Armed Services Committee, Congress has found the cash when the Army’s made a clear and specific case.

Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments

Defense of the Baltic States and Poland against a notional Russian missile barrage. (CSBA graphic)

“Once it became specific…the floodgates opened on the money,” Bush told me after he spoke to the Center for Strategic & International Studies here, a rare on-the-record appearance. For example, armored vehicle upgrades — like a bigger gun for the 8×8 Stryker vehicle, or Active Protection Systems (APS) to jam or shoot down incoming missiles — could potentially benefit Army forces in any theater, but they’re most urgently needed in Europe against massive Russian mechanized formations. Once the Army made that linkage clear to lawmakers, the projects got funded.

Likewise, Congress has zealously supported the European Deterrence Initiative, formerly the European Reassurance Initiative, to cover specific shortfalls in Europe. Much of that money has gone to Army forces there. “Congress has been writing whatever checks they want for ERI,” Bush said. “Members have supported that, quietly” and in a bipartisan manner.

Army graphic

An Army slide attempting to explain the service’s new Multi-Domain Battle concept

The Army’s Vision Thing

“Lacking geographic, specific context, it’s hard to sell any threat,” Bush told me. “The Army’s been challenged with that for a while.”

Consider the Army’s new flagship concept, Multi-Domain Battle. (To be fair, this is arguably the most important concept for any of the four services today.) Its essential idea is that, after decades of unquestioned superiority, US forces will now be challenged in every domain of warfare — land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace — and must respond with a unified effort across all those areas, bypassing enemy defenses in one domain by attacking in the others.

The implied adversary in this scenario is a “near-peermajor power such as China or Russia. We at Breaking Defense make sure to name those nations in almost every story on the subject, but the Army often doesn’t.

“Intellectually, it’s a good effort by the Army,” Bush told the CSIS audience. “The challenge, when it makes contact with Congress, is it’s not location specific. It’s somewhat amorphous: We’ll have this multi-domain battle somewhere against somebody.”

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Heidi Shyu

Part of the problem is built into the Army. “What’s tough for the Army is, because its portfolio is far broader than the Navy and the Air Force, we have two-three times more products” — most of them too small-dollar to get much congressional attention, said Heidi Shyu, until last year the Army’s acquisition chief. “We have so many demands on the dollar, on modernization (that), without increasing the topline, everything is driven by, ‘do I have enough budget?’”

Part of the problem, however, is self-inflicted. As the largest service, Army is also the most diverse, with internal constituencies ranging from infantry to aviators to boat crews, from cannoneers to cyberwarriors to supply clerks. Army leaders spend much of their time wrangling these wayward tribes. There’s so much consensus-building and bureaucratic compromise internal to the Army that, by the time the service as a whole agrees on a plan to present to the public and Congress, it’s been watered down to incomprehensible catchphrases.

Such vagueness often afflicts official Army pronouncements of priorities. Consider the “Big Six Plus One” (i.e. seven):

There’s a lot of jargon about capabilities but no clear statement of what they’re for. (We’ve provided some explanatory links).

Even CSIS’s own recommendations, released this morning, suffer the same problem, said Dan Roper, a retired colonel who’s now director of national security studies at the influential Association of the US Army. Like the Army, CSIS speaks in terms of generic capabilities rather than specific weapons systems like a new tank. “Intellectually, that absolutely makes sense,” Roper said, but “it’s a little harder to get excited about a capability…. Underneath that are systems that people sell and people advocate and people attach their identity to.”

Russian SPETSNAZ Special Forces

Getting The Threat Across

“I don’t think we have a problem with analytics (or) with the science,” Roper said at CSIS. “I think the biggest challenge is the communication on what needs to be done (with) what resources.”

“Hopefully, there’s an opportunity with Zapad, which is the big exercise that they (the Russians) are running in September,” Roper told me after the panel discussion. “It may not exactly be a dress rehearsal for a war, but it’s a big (field) experiment of how they would fight…. The more people look at it, the more people see it with their own ideas, then it might start swaying those who are sitting on the fence.”

Sen. Tom Cotton

“The Army has a somewhat tougher case to make on modernization than does the Air Force or the Navy,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, a prominent hawk on Russia, also speaking at CSIS this morning. “That’s not unique to this administration or this Army leadership. It’s relatively simple to explain why you need to modernize ships or aircraft or missiles….We talk about the 355-ship Navy or 100 B-21 bombers, (and) that’s the thing the educated layman can get his hands around.….Army systems are a little bit harder.”

That said, Cotton went on, “the point we’ve made to our colleagues (is), absent much greater and quicker investments in both readiness on the front end and modernization in the medium term, that we will no longer have overmatch against countries like Russia in the European theater.”

“Russia is deliberately probing our defenses all around the globe,” Cotton said. “We urgently need to modernize our military, especially the Army, which would bear the brunt of any fighting in Europe.”

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