Rep. Mick Mulvaney held a 2011 meeting in his office to discuss defense spending after learning that the U.S. Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) modernization program had cost American taxpayers more than $20 billion and produced nothing for the Army. The irate freshman lawmaker (now head of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget) asked, “What came out at the hearings?”
Rep. Mulvaney received his answer: There were no hearings. The money was spent and, most important, the money went where it was supposed to go: to defense industries in states and districts across the country where jobs tied to the FCS program were funded. In gratitude for the redistribution of cash to grateful shareholders, re-election campaign contributions poured in. Meanwhile, James Terry, the one-star in charge of FCS until Defense Secretary Bob Gates cancelled the failed program, was rewarded for the $20 billion failure with a second star and command of the 10th Mountain Division. (He was replaced by a certain Mark Milley, now Army Chief of Staff.) Eventually, Terry was promoted to three stars and given command of a corps — so much for accountability.
The money is flowing again. This time, the money is flowing to an Army Futures Command headed by a Four Star general with eight general officer-led cross-functional teams pursuing the service’s Big Six modernization priorities; priorities tied largely to identified gaps or capability shortfalls inside the old Cold War Army. None of these priorities represent breakthrough concepts or capabilities. On the contrary, they are modest upgrades, if that.
Confused? Well, it may help to think of the modernization command in a sports context:
“The Japanese Army and the U.S. Army agreed to a rowing competition on the Potomac River. Both teams practiced long and hard. On the big day, the Japanese won decisively. An Army General Officer Steering Committee (GOSC) was convened to investigate and recommend appropriate action.
The GOSC discovered that the Japanese Army had 8 people rowing and 1 person steering, while the U.S. Army team had 8 people steering and 1 person rowing. In response, the GOSC recommended a modified team: 1 Three Star to command the boat, 3 Two Stars to assist the Three Star, and 1 Colonel to act as coach. The GOSC told the Army Chief of Staff that these changes would ensure that the 1 soldier rowing the boat would row much harder in the future.
The next year, the Japanese Army Team won the race again by an even greater margin. Humiliated, the Chief of Staff insisted that the boat be commanded by a Four Star General assisted by 3 Three Star Generals, and a Two Star Coach along with a new, more physically fit Soldier to row. To cap it off, the Army Chief of Staff changed the name of the Army Rowing Team to the “Army Rowing Center of Excellence,” and posted new ‘requirements’ for paddles, boats and other equipment, as well as lavish awards for new prototype boats for delivery in five to 10 years. Officers from the Air Force, Navy and Marines were naturally excluded from participation in the new center.”
Notwithstanding the chronic problem of unneeded general officer overhead, the whole thing has been tried before—and it failed. Today’s Big Six approach is too close for comfort to the French idea between 1919 and 1939: top-down strategic planning by Four Star generals to prevent that anything new from disrupting the Army’s institutional and structural status quo.
Everyone in an Army uniform knows that the heavy general officer presence inside the modernization command will constrain open debate, cut off critical thinking, and — most troubling — obstruct honest experimentation. Army Futures Command’s true purpose is “to hang on to the old business model;” to incorporate “new technologies” inside the existing Army framework of doctrine, tactics and organization.
What’s missing is something Andrew Grove called strategic action. Strategic action occurs in the present, not in the distant future. It seeks a clearly articulated result, but recognizes that the path to results is marked by a series of incremental changes and adjustments that spring from honest experimentation.
The key questions for Congress, President Trump, and his new Secretary of the Army are: What should the desired result look like? And what kind of strategic action is required now—not in the distant future—to achieve it?
The Germans answered these questions with conceptual analysis and field experimentation between 1927 and 1935 with a small group of talented majors and lieutenant colonels insulated from the larger German Army. All were General Staff officers with experience on the World War I battlefield, as well as at the highest command levels. The strategic action to construct the new force design culminated in 1935 with the shift of resources away from the old Infantry-Artillery Army into new formations containing new platforms, weapons, and communication systems, which became known generically by the term blitzkrieg.
When the answer went public in 1940, it was an operationally decisive force of no more than 125,000 troops organized into new, mobile armored formations of all arms tightly integrated with air power. It crushed the French and drove the British from the European Continent in less than six weeks.
FCS consumed more than $20 billion because two Army Chiefs of Staff and their generals were too heavily invested in the old force to admit failure and change course. The strategic mistake set back Army force modernization and joint warfighting for at least 20 years.
Before more money is squandered on the newest version of the Army Rowing Team, the Army’s senior leaders should be compelled to explain what an operationally decisive ground force in 21 Century Joint Warfighting looks like. If they cannot, they must stop funding programs with no chance to increase military lethality today, tomorrow, and certainly not in the future!
Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel and member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors,, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD, and the author of five books. His most recent is: Margin of Victory, (Naval Institute Press, 2016).