Back on a War Footing: Five Capabilities the Army Must Have in a Decade
The future is not what it used to be. Not, at least, for the U.S. Army. In the three-plus years since Russia invaded Ukraine, Army leaders have had to rethink what they will need to wage tomorrow’s wars successfully. Near-peer, state-based threats such as the Russian military are a different kind of challenge than the Taliban.
Somehow, the Army will need to prepare for fighting both kinds of enemies, and a diverse range of other adversaries, with a budget that amounts only to a dozen days’ worth of federal spending per year. Personnel and readiness will have to come first, leaving relatively little money for modernization. So, Army leaders are struggling to prioritize which investments matter most.
The Army must have new items to fight and win in the medium term, meaning 10 years in the future. Much of the commentary about future land warfare technology focuses on ideas that won’t come to fruition for 15–20 years. For instance, the Army’s Future Force Development Strategy warns that even if development of a next-generation combat vehicle were to begin today, system fielding would likely not begin until the early to mid-2030s.
A lot could happen between now and then. In the near term, any war will be a come-as-you-are campaign. Other than filling munition stocks, up-gunning some Strykers and fielding better radios, there isn’t much the Army can do in the way of investments to shape the outcome of a European war during this decade. Rotational deployments to bolster forward-based forces will certainly help, but then-Army Vice Chief of Staff Daniel B. Allyn got it right when he told Congress earlier this year that the Army is “outranged, outgunned and outdated.”
Fixing Most Serious Gaps
While the Army can’t do much to change that in the near term, it can fix the most serious capability gaps by the second half of the next decade. Furthermore, it can make the most important fixes without a big infusion of new money—which is a good thing, because Army leaders believe the fiscal picture is not likely to brighten anytime soon. The Army just needs to prioritize its investments correctly. Five of the most critical items follow.
First, though, a bit of good news. The U.S. military is not going to lose air dominance in Europe or anywhere else over the next 30 years, thanks to the F-35 fighter. One reason Army leaders think they need better air defenses, longer-range fires and enhanced electronic warfare capabilities in places like Eastern Europe is because increasingly lethal enemy defenses may deny air cover to friendly ground forces—something they have depended on for generations.
However, the F-35 is essentially invisible to Russian or Chinese radar and incorporates an array of technologies for suppressing hostile defenses, fires and maneuver forces. All three variants of the F-35 meet their stealth specifications, and over 1,000 will be available for combat 10 years hence (200 have been delivered already, 600 will be by 2020; 400 pilots and 4,000 maintainers have been trained). Despite all its bad press, the F-35 works as advertised and will assure U.S. air dominance in overseas theaters during the next decade.
So, the situation isn’t quite as bad as Army planners fear. But it’s bad enough. Despite chronic budget problems, the Russian military has matched or surpassed America’s Army in several areas crucial to effective combat.
Here are five investments that must be made to give U.S. soldiers a fighting chance in 10 years:
Army commanders at the company, battalion and brigade level are equipped with networking equipment that cannot communicate on the move. When they want to network on the battlefield, they must set up fixed command posts, which as Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley has repeatedly warned, is a prescription for being killed during the early days of combat. The latest version of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) is the only system that can solve this problem anytime soon.
The mobile variant of WIN-T got a mixed reception when it was first fielded because it was installed on 5-ton trucks that could not be airdropped. However, the weight and volume of the equipment has been reduced by half, and can be carried on Humvees. Without the satellite links and line-of-sight radios in the latest version of WIN-T, mobile command will not be available to most companies or battalions for a long time. They need it soon if they are to sustain coordinated operations against a near-peer adversary.
In a fight against countries like Russia or China, agility on the ground and in the air won’t be enough to prevail. The Army must also be able to maneuver in the electromagnetic spectrum, denying adversaries access to key frequencies while assuring the ability of friendly forces to function. Not only will electronic warfare capabilities be crucial to suppressing enemy sensors, communications and drones, but soldiers must be able to counter enemy efforts at degrading GPS signals, command links and the like.
The Army largely divested its electronic warfare capabilities after the Cold War, relying heavily on the jamming aircraft of other services to address threats like improvised explosive devices. It needs to invest in a new generation of organic systems and operators to cope with electronic threats likely to be posed by high-end adversaries. That process has begun with programs like the Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool, but the current level of research and development spending ($70 million–80 million per year) probably is too modest to get ahead of the threat.
The Army has a grand plan for replacing its Cold War helicopters called Future Vertical Lift. Some observers think that plan sounds too much like the Future Combat Systems and Joint Tactical Radio System for comfort. Like those failed efforts, Future Vertical Lift has many moving pieces and requires generous annual appropriations in a time frame when federal budget deficits are expected to approach a trillion dollars annually. Even if it stays on track, the program will not field new rotorcraft for a long time.
With Apache and Black Hawk helicopters likely to stay in the force through the middle of the century, the Army needs to restore power margins lost as a result of increasing weight by developing a better engine. The Improved Turbine Engine Program is the only effort underway that has any hope of boosting the combat performance of the current fleet in a time frame relevant to the medium-term fight. It also could power a next-generation replacement of the Kiowa scout helicopter. Without this investment, Army aviation will be hobbled in high-end fights 10 years from now.
The U.S. Army has lagged behind Russia in providing active defenses to its front-line combat vehicles. Active defenses are automated sensor/interceptor systems that defeat incoming anti-tank rounds before they can reach their intended targets. The most capable systems, such as Raytheon’s Quick Kill, provide 360-degree hemispheric protection of vehicles against simultaneous threats while minimizing fratricidal effects on dismounted soldiers nearby.
The Army is already installing interim active defense solutions on Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, but to defeat anti-armor threats 10 years from now, it must field an integrated architecture providing common standards and interfaces for all vehicles. The Modular Active Protection System provides that framework, and is potentially applicable to kinetic and nonkinetic methods of defense. It needs to be accelerated, otherwise Army vehicles will be too vulnerable to survive future conflicts.
The area where today’s Army is most decisively “outranged, outgunned and outdated” is long-range fires. Not only have prospective adversaries such as Russia and North Korea deployed much greater artillery and missile assets in key theaters than the U.S. has, but Washington has limited the Army’s future warfighting options by signing on to a cluster munitions ban that takes effect in 2019. Deployment of the F-35 will mitigate this challenge, but the Army needs to bolster its organic fires for the midterm fight.
The Army’s Long Range Precision Fires program is the most important effort aimed at closing this capability gap. It was conceived to replace the longer-range missiles currently fired by the Multiple Launch Rocket System with new missiles delivering the maximum range permissible under arms control agreements—about 300 miles in Europe—but also compact enough to fit two missiles rather than one in a launcher. Thus, it would double the firepower and triple the reach of launchers. It needs to be kept on track and fielded expeditiously.
There are other capability gaps that need to be dealt with in areas like missile defense and cyber protection, but these five are the ones that will make the most difference in 10 years. If the Army does not address all five in its near-term spending plans, its ability to deter and/or defeat near-peer adversaries a decade from now will be in doubt.