The FY2022 proposed defense budget was the first test of the U.S. Army’s commitment to its modernization program. Despite a stressful budget environment where the Army took a $5 billion cut compared to its FY2021 request, the entire modernization effort consisting of the high priority “31+4” programs were protected. This was the right thing to do. These are good programs backed up by a sensible acquisition strategy, so the Army needs to stick with the plan.
The Army is about to see critical parts of its modernization effort come to fruition. Despite anxiety from within and criticism from the outside regarding its ability to bring its modernization agenda to fruition, the Service must press ahead. Without modernization, the Army could find itself irrelevant in future high-end conflicts.
In 2017, the Army announced plans to undertake the most radical modernization program in more than thirty years. It went well beyond the legendary Big Five programs that shaped the way the Army fought since the 1980s. The Army’s new modernization drive envisioned a Big Six set of priorities that would allow the Army to restore combat overmatch and engage in a new type of warfare called Multi-Domain Operations. The six priority areas are: Long Range Precision Strike, Air and Missile Defense, Future Vertical Lift, Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Networking, and Soldier Lethality.
Each of these priority areas encompassed several innovative programs for a total of 31. Additional special programs such as Assured Position, Navigation and Timing, and Synthetic Training Environment cut across the six primary modernization efforts. The 31 were grouped under eight Cross Functional Teams (CFT), which became part of a new major command, Army Futures Command (AFC).
The Army later expanded this set of 31 with four additional programs (including hypersonic missiles and directed energy weapons) under a new organization, the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technology Office (RCCTO). The RCCTO focused on programs of such high priority that the Army could not wait even for AFC’s new, swifter acquisition process to bring them to the field.
Some four years later, the work of AFC and the RCCTO is about to bear its first fruit. In some respects, it already has. The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle started production in FY2020. The first set of Initial Maneuver Short Range Air Defense vehicles, part of the Air and Missile Defense CFT’s portfolio, began deployment in 2021. The Army is also fielding a new communications capability set and is on schedule to field improved communications capability sets every two years.
It is worth laying out in some detail the expected near-term products of the Army’s modernization program. The next few years will see the rollout of up to 22 of the systems under the Army’s modernization priorities. In FY2022, we will see the first Integrated Visual Augmentation System. These are multi-functional, augmented reality goggles sponsored by the Soldier Lethality CFT. We will also see the Air and Missile Defense CFT’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System.
FY2023 could also begin the transformation of Army long range fires. AFC will roll out the first product of the Long Range Fires CFT, the Precision Strike Missile. Supplementing this long-range missile (500 km) will be two products from the RCCTO. The first is the Mach 5+ Long Range Hypersonic Missile, which has a range of nearly 3,000 km. The second is a new mid-range missile, a derivative of existing systems, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile and/or the Standard Missile 6. The mid-range missile will cover distances between that of the Precision Strike Missile and a hypersonic weapon.
For the remainder of the decade, a host of new capabilities are slated to move from development to initial production. These include the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, ground robots, Mobile Protected Firepower and the Strategic Long Range Cannon.
One of the most revolutionary and costly programs the Army is pursuing is Future Vertical Lift. By the end of the decade, the Army hopes to be able to acquire both a Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft and the Future Long Range Assault Aircraft.
It is ironic that at a time when the Army’s modernization program is largely on track to provide the capabilities needed to achieve dominance in multiple domains, it faces serious budgetary challenges. The Army has taken some $35 billion from so-called legacy programs in order to ensure it could fund modernization. It now faces a point of no return.
One way the Army sustained its modernization effort is by cutting back on resources to enhance legacy vehicle fleets. This is a mistake. Even while introducing new types of capabilities, the Army must continue to upgrade existing ground combat vehicle fleets. These capabilities include: the Paladin PIM, JLTV, Stryker, and most particularly, the Abrams M1 main battle tank. The Army’s proposed budget cuts some $150 million from upgrading Abrams upgrades to the advanced Abrams, the M1A2 SEPv3.
This is a bad decision given the uncertainty regarding when the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle will be fielded. However, Army leadership appears to be hoping Congress will save the Army from itself. They put some $370 million for additional upgraded M1s in their unfunded priorities. Congress needs to act to restore funding for critical ground combat systems.
Army leaders acknowledge that their efforts to find savings for modernization by trimming existing programs are reaching an end. There is no more low-hanging fruit. Any additional resources will have to come either from readiness or force structure. This will be an agonizing decision for Army leaders, but the choice is clear. Modernization must prevail, or the Army will lose its next major conflict regardless of size and readiness. As AFC Commander General John Murray opined recently:
“We have to seize this opportunity to modernize. We’ve been given the opportunity over the last two or three years to really get a great start towards a transformational modernization, and we can’t afford to give up on that.”
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.