There will be war. This should be the fundamental assumption behind U.S. national security and defense planning by the next administration. When I say war, I mean a conventional conflict between the U.S. and a major power, of which there are only two plausible candidates—Russia and China. This would be a great-power conflict coupled with the possibility of a two-front war involving hostile regional actors.
A succession of senior defense officials, military leaders and intelligence experts have made a point of the growing danger of conflict between the U.S. and at least one hostile power. At a June conference at the Center for a New American Security, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter went so far as to acknowledge that all U.S. war plans had been revised to take into account the ongoing aggressive behavior and major arms programs of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, as well as the continuing challenge of defeating the Islamic State group.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the United States has five years to prepare for war. How would defense planning and acquisition priorities be different? What can be done now, with what is available, to improve the Army’s capability to fight a major power?
Over the next five years, the Army should prioritize investments in five categories of capabilities: enhanced lethality, enhanced force protection, aviation upgrades, communications systems, and electronic warfare beyond cyber.
Most Likely Adversary
Russia has been identified as the most serious problem child. Moscow is employing a host of political, economic, informational, cyber, criminal and military means to undermine civil societies in Eastern Europe, weaken NATO and paralyze the European Union. These efforts are supported by intelligence operations, paramilitary forces and even high-end conventional capabilities such as those present in Ukraine. As a June report by the Atlantic Council observed, “Russia’s aggressive military actions in Ukraine and Crimea and threats to Eastern Europe constitute the single greatest challenge to [NATO] since the Cold War.”
In its new military doctrine, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2014, the Kremlin returned the favor, identifying NATO as the No. 1 military threat to Russia. Since then, Moscow has acted in an ever more belligerent fashion, violating the terms of the Minsk Protocol; bombing U.S.-backed Syrian rebels; threatening to use nuclear weapons against states that permit deployment of the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system; conducting multiple, major undeclared military exercises in the western border areas with Ukraine and NATO; and harassing NATO ships and aircraft in the Baltic and Black seas.
Robust Modernization Program
Supporting these demonstrations is a robust military modernization program involving new strategic and theater nuclear systems, advanced integrated air defenses, more capable tactical aircraft and helicopters, enhanced mobility capabilities for conventional forces, increased use of drones, long-range precision munitions, and a world-class ability to shut down opposition communications systems through a combination of cyberattack and electronic warfare.
The U.S. and NATO have thought it necessary to respond to Russian aggression with their own military moves designed to reassure European allies and deter Moscow. NATO aircraft are conducting continuous air policing patrols over the Baltic States. U.S. warships have repeatedly sailed into the Black Sea in the face of continual Russian harassment.
Despite vociferous Russian objections, the first Aegis Ashore missile defense site was declared operational in Romania in December 2015. Washington is spending billions through the European Reassurance Initiative to bolster U.S. and NATO military capabilities in Eastern Europe and create a very high readiness joint task force capable of being deployed in 48 hours. A U.S. heavy brigade combat team will be continuously rotated through the Eastern European members of NATO.
Similar to the half-decade before the assassinations in Sarajevo, the environment in Europe appears to be heading for confrontation and, possibly, armed conflict. An article in the July 3 edition of The Washington Post carried this headline: “Near Russia’s border with the Baltics, soldiers on both sides are practicing for war.”
Prudent U.S. war planners and force providers should be asking themselves two questions: How much time do we have, and what can be done in that time to enhance military capabilities so we have the best chance of deterring war?
Army Has Farthest to Go
This would be a particularly useful exercise for the U.S. Army. While it would unquestionably play a leading role in the event of a NATO-Russia conflict, the Army has the farthest to go to deploy forces of sufficient size and capability to take on the Russian army. As U.S. Army Europe commander Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges has said, he is trying to make 30,000 soldiers look like 300,000.
The other reason to focus on the Army is that by all appearances, its modernization cupboard is bare. Starkly put, the Army has spent the past 30 years destroying its modernization program and wasting more than $40 billion on major new programs that were eventually canceled. The other services have plans in place and programs underway. Not so the Army.
This might not be a problem if the Army had 20 or 30 years to straighten out its acquisition system, something it is just beginning to do. But the Army has been the service leading the chorus on the imminence of the Russian threat. At the same time, even a cursory perusal of Army planning documents gives the impression that the authors believe they have all the time in the world to address the threat of major conventional conflict. They don’t.
Here are the capabilities where the Army must prioritize investments:
1 Enhanced Lethality
The Army made the correct decision when, in response to an urgent operational needs statement from U.S. Army Europe, it decided to up-gun one Stryker brigade with a new 30 mm cannon. But it plans to rest on its laurels for three years before doing another one. Instead, it should do at least a brigade per year. Proposals to add Javelin missiles to Stryker vehicles need to get a quick evaluation.
Plans to enhance the lethality of both the Bradley fighting vehicles and Abrams tanks with sensor and targeting upgrades and, for the latter, a new multipurpose round, need to be funded in the near term. Discussions need to be held with the contractor to see if the Paladin Integrated Management program can be accelerated. The Army badly needs new precision munitions for its artillery, Multiple Launch Rocket System and mortar systems to defeat enemy armor, but also rocket launchers and massed artillery.
2 Enhanced Force Protection
After a decade of learning how to defend against IEDs, it is time for the Army to move forward to defend itself from more sophisticated ground and air threats. If planned tests this summer of available active protection systems show reasonable effectiveness, even if only against rockets and anti-tank guided missiles, the Army should buy brigade sets annually to equip Strykers, Bradleys and Abrams.
Similarly, the Army needs to become responsible for defending itself against air and missile threats. The Army has been pursuing improved defenses against threats from and through the air with its multimission launcher that can support the advanced medium-range air-to-air anti-aircraft missile as well as a future miniature hit-to-kill interceptor to counter rockets, artillery and mortars. Area defense could be achieved by acquiring the combat-proven Israeli Iron Dome system. An even more effective and lower-cost solution would be a tactical laser such as the Boeing system recently tested aboard a Stryker vehicle.
3 Aviation Upgrades
There is no time to introduce new or even modernized helicopters into the Army’s aviation fleets. But with the help of Congress, the Army can get the additional new-build Apache AH-64Es, preserve its Black Hawk production goals, and add enhancements to the force. In particular, the Army should rapidly deploy available navigation systems for degraded visual environments. Not only will this save lives, but it can give Army aviation the ability to operate in weather that would ground hostile aircraft.
4 Communications Systems
Remember when these were the Army’s top modernization requirements? They still should be if the Army plans to fight outnumbered across the vast plains of Eastern Europe. The Army has already acquired 20 unit sets of Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, which provides reliable on-the-move communications. It needs to triple that number in the near term to provide this capability to forces that would be deployed to Europe in the event of war. Another capability that should be acquired rapidly is the new Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit radio systems.
5 Electronic Warfare Even More Than Cyber
Perhaps it could be true, to paraphrase a former U.S. secretary of state, that gentlemen do not jam each other’s communications. But the Russians do. Russian operations against Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have shown a sophisticated ability to manipulate and jam private, government and military communications and weapon systems that depend on navigation signals to reach their target. Hodges described the Russian electronic warfare capabilities as “eye-watering.”
The Army’s electronic warfare challenge is not simply technological. Essentially, the Army got out of the electronic warfare game at the end of the Cold War. It returned to it only insofar as this was part of the effort to counter terrorist radio-triggered IEDs. The Army lacks the systems, personnel and concepts of operations to adequately conduct modern electronic warfare.
Fortunately, the new Russian military is becoming just as dependent on electronic sensors and communications as ours is. So the U.S. Army has the opportunity not only to figure out how to protect its own systems from attack, but also ways to turn everything dark for the Russians. Ironically, both sides may have to learn how to fight in the electronic dark.
One of the most apt commentaries on human nature was by the 18th-century British writer Samuel Johnson. He observed that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” If war is coming, then the only question that matters is this: What can be done to prepare for it, thereby deterring conflict, if possible, but also providing the best chance of winning such a collision? Army leadership should focus on this as the principal, if not the only, factor in developing its force plans, acquisition objectives and resource allocations.