The Army Needs to Speed Up Efforts to Close Critical Capability Gaps
Over the past year the U.S. Army has been conducting a Strategic Portfolio Analysis Review (SPAR) of its 780 weapons and equipment programs. Championed by Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley, the key requirement of the SPAR is to identify modernization priorities that must be pursued in order to maintain and eventually regain overmatch to credibly deter and defeat near-peer adversaries. Based on the SPAR’s identification of critical capability gaps, the Army’s leadership will decide which programs require immediate attention and resources and which programs can be slowed down or de-scoped to extract resources to be placed against higher priority needs. It is apparent that the first Trump defense budget will not provide the Army with significant additional funds to modernize a rapidly aging force. Hence, it must rebalance its modernization portfolio to ensure that high priority programs receive the necessary resources and support.
According to a number of reports, the SPAR identified ten high priority areas. These are: air and missile defense, long-range fires, munitions, mobility, lethality and protection of brigade combat teams, active protection systems for aviation and ground platforms, assured position, navigation and timing (PNT), electronic warfare, offensive and defensive cyber, assured communications and vertical lift. This is quite a list. It reflects how far the U.S. Army has fallen in its ability to overmatch near-peer adversaries as a result of focusing for 15 years on fighting terrorist groups.
Resources and management attention are necessary but not sufficient to efforts to address the ten critical capability gaps. Time is also important. Russia, China and regional adversaries have spent decades building up their conventional military force with a particular focus on undermining areas of U.S. overmatch. They are rapidly approaching a time when they may well believe they have the military power to contest the dominant position of the United States and its allies in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. Also, the Army lost precious time with failed modernization efforts such as the Comanche helicopter, Crusader self-propelled howitzer, Future Combat Systems, Ground Combat Vehicle and Armed Aerial Scout programs.
The Army is taking steps to speed up the process of filling its ten critical capability gaps. These may not be the perfect solution but they can stop the decline. General Milley is personally behind the effort to restore the Army’s capabilities in short-range air defense, scouring warehouses and training facilities to find old Stinger man-portable surface-to-air missiles. The Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office is focused on bringing to the field in a matter of months interim capabilities in electronic warfare and PNT.
The Ground Combat Vehicle program under the Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center is pushing an aggressive test program of existing active protection systems capable of defeating rockets, anti-tank guided missiles and, in some instances, kinetic penetrators. Systems such as the Israeli Trophy are combat proven. Acquiring an existing active protection system would shorten the acquisition timeline by years.
Enhancing the mobility, lethality and protection of brigade combat teams can begin immediately. There are existing programs to upgrade the Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Paladin self-propelled howitzer. A replacement for the venerable M-113, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, is nearing production. The Army just completed a successful Stryker lethality program for the single brigade deployed in Europe. Accelerating procurement of these systems would be a quick and straightforward way of halting the decline in the Army’s capabilities for high-end conventional combat.
Another way to speed up deployment of critically needed capabilities is by truncating the lengthy and overly-bureaucratic acquisition process. A good example of this is the Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) program which is intended to replace the aging Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The goal of the LRPF program is to develop a missile with a minimum range of 400 km (vice ATACMS’ 100 km), an improved unitary warhead and a guidance system that can operate in the face of GPS jamming. The plan is to produce a missile at half the price of the ATACMS. The LRPF system is of vital importance to countering adversaries’ current investments in long-range artillery, rockets and ballistic and cruise missiles.
Unfortunately, the Army acquisition system is taking what can only be described as a rather leisurely approach to development of the LRPF system. Even though both current contractors, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, have decades of experience in designing and building missiles and their designs are based on well understood technologies, the Program Executive Office has budgeted four years for technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR). According to industry sources, this phase is to be followed by a three year R&D effort leading to a competitive contract and down select that could take several years. As a result, a critical capability needed in the field now may not be available for up to a decade.
The Army leadership should look for ways to shave time off the LRPF program. Given the status of state-of-the-art battlefield rockets, reducing the TMRR phase from four to three years would be one option. Add to that an accelerated R&D period with the minimum required set of live fires and another year could be saved. Finally, reducing the time associated with writing contracts and reviewing proposals could save as much as a year. Overall, it might be possible to get to a low rate initial production decision in as few as five years.