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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Is the U.S. Army Ready for a War with Russia or China?

M1 Abrams Tank
Battle Group Poland Fires an M1 Abrams Remotely

Over the last few weeks, I have been taking a look at U.S. military combat readiness over several different contingencies for my new book project. I decided to reach out to Dan Goure, a world-renowned defense expert and now a Senior Vice President at the Lexington Institute to clarify some questions I had about great power war, the U.S. Army’s aging main battle tank and more. You can read our full interview below.

No matter who wins the White House come November 3rd, the new administration will have some important choice to make in the composition of the U.S. Army. With great power competition having arrived, does the Army have what it needs to win such a conflict with say China or Russia?

As U.S. Army leaders will themselves admit, at present, they are not well prepared to directly take on either Russia or China.

Today, the Army is structured and postured in a way that will require a major buildup of units, equipment and supplies in order to successfully counter conventional aggression by either great power. There are insufficient Army forces currently deployed forward to pose a serious challenge to a Russian move against Ukraine or NATO or a PRC attack on Taiwan.

The Army had been deploying BCTs on a heel-to-toe rotation into Eastern Europe; recently it announced their dwell times would be reduced from nine to six months. Improvements are being made to prepositioned stocks of equipment and supplies in Europe but these sites are certain to be heavily attacked at the outset of hostilities. In the Indo-Pacific theater, the Army has no significant position outside the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). Personnel, additional equipment, and virtually all supplies for forward-deployed forces will have to come from CONUS. Both air and sea lines of communications will be under continuous attack, as will ports of debarkation. The landlines of communications across Europe from the ports of debarkation in the West to forward positions in the East have lengthened with the expansion of the Alliance. NATO countries such as Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands have proposed spending additional resources on supply chain infrastructure as part of their commitment to the common defense and meeting their spending obligations.

What the Army needs to do is deploy a full heavy division plus corps headquarters and enablers to the East, probably in Poland. NATO allies need to pony up some formations to rotate into the same area. In the Pacific, the Army needs to decide if it wants to be a second Marine Corps, deploying long-range precision fires units and air and missile defense batteries along the first island chain. If the Marine Corps thinks amphibious assaults are passé’ and that it must get lighter, what possible role does a heavy Army have in the region? Seems to me, the Army would be best served by focusing on Europe and the Middle East.

With respect to equipment, the Army’s modernization efforts are just building up a head of steam. While there are promises being made for early deployments of man capabilities, it is unlikely the Army will have a significant fraction of the force (but certainly less than 50 percent) modernized by 2030. Even if stellar progress is made on all the new weapons systems, it is not certain that the necessary supporting capabilities such as long-range, real-time ISR, a secure network and the required computing /analytic capabilities. In addition, the Army says it will be several years before it will adopt a formal doctrine for multi-domain operations. It may take longer. Also, it has barely made any progress in figuring out how the new capabilities such as long-range precision strike will fit into a TO&E or operating concepts.

ERCA and PrSM appear to be doing well. The Army may even get a long-range hypersonic ballistic missile. The Army has gone out on a limb with its R&D effort for a strategic long-range cannon (SLRC). The Army’s explanation of the requirement for the SLRC is that it will be too costly to conduct strikes at very long ranges with hypersonic missile alone. In addition, it is not clear what its firing doctrine will be. If you thought there were stability risks associated with PII and GLCM back in the 1980s, imagine long-range systems with flight times measured in a few minutes.

The Next Generation Combat Vehicle CFT’s Optionally Manned Combat Vehicle (OMFV) looks like it is following in the footsteps of FCS and Ground Combat Vehicle. It is falling far behind the other modernization portfolios. It turns out you cannot make a serious combat vehicle that is simultaneously maneuverable lethal, survivable, and cheap. The CFT was warned about the way it was approaching the OMFV effort. That is why only two companies bid on the vehicle and one couldn’t even get its prototype ready in time. The effort to develop robots is in its infancy. Won’t be ready by 2030.

The air and missile defense CFT has made significant headway. The IM SHORAD program looks set to deliver the required four battalions. A follow on is needed. IBCS may improve coordination and interoperability between air and missile defense units, but you still need lots of shooters, which we do not have. Two batteries of Iron Dome have been procured but there is no clear path forward for a major program to fill the IFPC Increment 2 requirement.

FVL may be a winner but is not planned to be deployed until 2030. There are still a lot of moving parts in terms of tactics, networking, weapons, etc. Also, what about the modernization of existing aircraft? The Apache and Black Hawk will be in the force for decades to come. The same is true for the Bradley Fighting Vechile. If they are not continually modernized, what role will they play in the next decade or two?

While the Army at least has the outlines of a role in Europe and the required capabilities to make good on its vision, the same cannot be said for the Army in the Indo-Pacific region. The Marine Corps has already staked out for itself the role of operating long-range fires units along the first island chain. What is the role for the Army? Moreover, the Marines are getting lighter to make its formations agile and easier to resupply in WestPac. The Army is getting heavier. Not a good sign if the Army wants a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.

The M1 Abrams MBT is the U.S. Army’s warhorse—but it was dreamed up in the 1970s. While the tank has surely been upgraded over the years, there are constant questions it could tank on the best China or Russia have to over. Is the M1 out of upgrade pathways? Is it time for an entirely new tank design?

The M-1 Abrams is the best main battle tank in the world today. With appropriate upgrades, some of which are already in the works, it will retain the position of the best MBT for decades to come. While the NGFV CFT desperately sought a workable idea for a replacement to the M-1, without a breakthrough in materials sciences or weaponry, there is nothing even on the horizon.

The Army is beginning to receive the latest upgrade, initially called the System Enhancement Package Version 3 but recently renamed the M-1A2C. The M-1A2C upgrade includes new computers, sensors, radios, and power management systems. It installs a new Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) that allows the Abrams to keep its sophisticated systems running while the engine is off. Survivability measures include an improved Crew Remotely Operated Weapon Station, a Counter Remote Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare package and reinforced armor. The M-1A2C also will enhance the Abrams’ lethality by adding an improved Ammunition Data Link for the fire control system and new rounds for the 120mm main gun, including one designed to defeat the explosive reactive armor on the latest Russian tanks. The Abrams will also mount an active protection system, either the Israeli Trophy or the product of the Army’s development program for a modular active protection system.

Even more advanced upgrades are being planned. What is likely to be called the M-1A2D will include new, advanced armor-killing munitions, improved sensors and electronics and a counter-drone capability. There is an effort underway to design an automatic loader. This would allow for a redesign of the Abrams turret with a corresponding reduction in weight. Another upgrade the Army should consider is a new engine to replace the old and very expensive to maintain gas turbine engine. Looking even farther out, with developments in super propellants underway as part of the long-range precision fires program, the M-1 could be equipped with a gun capable of firing hypersonic shells.

With the U.S. taking on mountains of more debt thanks to the Coronavirus, there are calls by some progressives and populists to cut overall military spending. If you had to make a cut to the army, where would you do it?

The combination of raising taxes, imposing new regulations and cutting defense sending should be the “perfect storm” of policies to send this nation into a depression. But for the sake of argument, should it be necessary to cut the Army, the first area to be reduced needs to be readiness. About half of the Army’s BCTs, are at Category 1 up from just 2 in 2016. This is quite an achievement in a few short years but is this really necessary?

Reducing end-strength is another option, particularly if the Army can be directed to focus on Europe and the Middle East. While it is worth considering how the Army would play in a high- end conflict in the Pacific or even a major fight with the DPRK (North Korea), designing and maintaining a separate Army of the Pacific.

Third, it is time to reign in the Army’s appetite for modernization. 31 plus 3 programs are just too many. The modernization portfolios need to be triaged. Also, the Army has managed to find nearly $50 billion in Night Court resources to shift to modernization. Most of that has come from canceling or slowing down programs. This suggests that there was (probably still is) a lot of fat in the Army’s acquisition portfolio. The one thing I would caution is not to bet the farm on a future capability that has not been adequately demonstrated and cutting an existing system or its upgrades in the meantime. The Army has done that repeatedly to its own detriment.

Written By

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive and serves as President and CEO of Rogue States Project, a bipartisan national security think tank. He has held senior positions at the Center for the National Interest, the Heritage Foundation, the Potomac Foundation, and many other think tanks and academic institutions focused on defense issues. He served on the Russia task force for U.S. Presidential Candidate Senator Ted Cruz, and in a similar task force in the John Hay Initiative. His ideas have been published in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, CNBC, and many other outlets across the political spectrum. He holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Harvard University and is the author of The Tao of A2/AD, a study of Chinese military modernization. Kazianis also has a background in defense journalism, having served as Editor-In-Chief at The Diplomat and Executive Editor for the National Interest.