The U.S. Army is slowing, cutting and canceling hundreds of weapons programs in order to free up cash for just six kinds of new hardware.
The "Big Six" are key to winning high-tech wars against modern armies such as Russia's or China's, according to the ground-combat branch.
The Army's $190-billion budget proposal, which represents an $8-billion boost compared to the branch's 2019 budget, channels $9 billion into six main efforts.
The highest-priority category is Long-Range Precision Fires or LRPF. In other words, artillery and ground-to-ground rockets. In 2020 the Army wants to spend $1.3 billion improving its howitzers and rocket launchers and developing new, longer-range munitions.
Howitzers are getting longer barrels to boost their firing range plus new, father-flying shells. Rocket launchers are getting new, longer-range munitions, potentially including some with anti-ship capability.
Next in line is Next-Generation Combat Vehicles or NGCV. Tanks and fighting vehicles. The Army in 2020 wants to spend $2 billion developing NGCV. The new vehicles eventually would replace the Cold War-vintage M-2 fighting vehicle and potentially the M-1 tank, as well.
The Army has tried and failed at least twice to develop a replacement for the M-2. One attempt ended with the 2009 collapse of the overly-complex Future Combat Systems program. The other failed in 2014 on account of its ballooning weight.
After NGCV there's Future Vertical Lift, an initiative to develop a new, high-speed aircraft to replace existing UH-60 and CH-47 helicopters plus a separate attack and reconnaissance aircraft to fill the gap left by the Army’s failure to develop a replacement for the now-retired OH-58D scout helicopter. The twin aviation efforts would get $800 million in 2020.
The Army's fourth priority is its communications network, which would tie together all the other forces and would get $2.3 billion in 2020.
Air & Missile Defense -- surface-to-air missiles and their supporting launchers and radars -- is the fifth priority and would receive $1.4 billion in funding in 2020.
Finally, the Army in 2020 wants $850 million for its Soldier Lethality effort, which produces kit for the individual infantryman. The category includes new night-vision devices.
In all, the Big Six categories include more than 30 individual programs. They must prove they work before the Army buys them in bulk, Army under-secretary Ryan McCarthy stressed.
He alluded to the Future Combat Systems family of lightweight armored vehicles, an ambitious but flawed and pricey program that then-defense secretary Robert Gates canceled in 2009.
"The Army has had challenges with major defense acquisition programs in the last 20 or so years, because we don’t lock in threat, operating concept and ultimately materiel and have it all come together," McCarthy said.
To pay for the 30 or so Big Six programs, the Army is proposing to cancel 93 other programs and trim or delay 93 more. To select the sacrificial programs, the Army convened a bunch of planners for long planning sessions the attendees jokingly referred to as "night court."
"You went in there and tried to explain your program to the leadership, and if it didn’t survive contact, it was out," McCarthy explained.
The idea was to move around money within a roughly $190-billion annual budget instead of asking Congress for a bigger overall budget. That way, the planning is proof against a worsening economy or a big change in federal spending priorities.
"We made hard choices inside of our budget," McCarthy said. We wanted to do that so we can protect them in the out years if it’s a flat fiscal environment."
Among the casualties are upgrades to old M-2 fighting vehicles, Avenger air-defense vehicles and CH-47 helicopters. The Army also is slowing down production of new Joint Light Tactical Vehicles and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicles. The JLTV is an armored truck that replaces up-armored Humvees. The AMPV is an armored infantry carrier that replaces 40-year-old M-113 carriers.
In all, the night-court planners shifted $33 billion in the Army's five-year budget projection for the years 2020 to 2024. The ground branch would spend $8 billion of that in 2020 and the remaining $25 billion over following four years, with all the diverted spending going toward Big Six programs.