The U.S. Army is at a crossroads as the Pentagon is reorienting itself to fight a capable great power opponent after nearly two decades focused on counter-insurgency conflicts.
Russia poses a traditional land-power challenge for the U.S. Army with its large mechanized formations threatening the Baltics, as well as formidable long-range ballistic missiles, artillery and surface-to-air missiles.
By contrast, a hypothetical conflict with China would focus on control of the sea and airspace over the Pacific Ocean. To remain relevant, the Army would need to deploy long-range anti-ship-capable missiles and helicopters to remote islands, allied nations like Japan and South Korea and even onto the decks of U.S. Navy ships.
Almost all the Army’s major land warfare systems entered service in the 1980s or earlier. Five ambitious programs to replace aging armored vehicles, artillery and helicopters consumed $30 billion only to fail spectacularly.
Thus, in 2017 the Army formed eight cross-functional teams led by brigadier generals to rapidly cost-efficiently develop a new generation of hardware. These far-reaching modernization initiatives are collectively called the “the Big Six.”
1. Long-Range Precision Fire (Artillery)
The U.S. Army was famed for its lavish, rapid and accurate use of artillery support during World War II. However, in recent conflicts, the U.S. military has increasingly relied on air strikes using precision-weapons over artillery barrages.
But on-call air support would be far from given when facing a peer enemy possessing formidable air defenses. In fact, long-range missile and artillery strikes might be needed to destroy air defenses, “kicking in the door” for air power.
Thus the Army’s top priority is “Long Range Precision Fire.” a half dozen projects seeking to enable accurate ground-launched strikes against targets dozens or hundreds of miles away.
To begin with, the Army seeks to further upgrades its tank-like 1960s-era M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzers with long-barreled Extend Range Cannon boosting regular attack range to forty-three miles, and possibly even ram-jet -assisted shells extending range to eighty-one miles.
The artillery branch’s other mainstay, the truck-based M270 and smaller M142 Multiple Rocket Launcher Systems, will receive extended-range rockets doubling reach to ninety-three miles. Moreover, their capability to launch a single large, 180-mile range ATACMS tactical missile will be replaced with two smaller Precision Strike Missiles with a range of 310 miles that can hit moving targets (ships).
Following the killing of the INF treaty, the Army furthermore is developing two even longer-reaching weapons: a hypersonic missile with a range of 1,499 miles, which could prove extremely difficult to defend against and boast deadly anti-ship capabilities, and a gigantic Long Range Strategic Cannon supposedly boasting a range of one thousand miles.
2. Next Generation Combat Vehicle (Armor)
The Army’s second priority is to replace its increasingly vulnerable and underpowered M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. In 2018, the Army decided to proceed with improving the Bradley’s power train but canceling replacement of its turret.
Instead it seeks an Optionally-Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) capable of carrying larger squads, a thirty- to fifty-millimeter automatic cannon (the Bradley has a twenty-five-millimeter gun), and new missiles and active protection systems. Current competitors include the Raytheon/Rheinmetall Lynx, the General Dynamics Griffon III and the BAE CV-90 Mark IV.
The separate Mobile Protected Firepower program seeks a fast and air-transportable light tank. Currently, a dozen 105-millimter gun-equipped M8 Bufords with scalable armor are set to compete versus Griffin II tanks armed with 120-millimeter guns.
The Army has also begun procuring turretless Bradleys to serve as Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, replacing old M113 APCs in support roles such as combat engineering, utility transport, ambulance duty, command post, and mortar carrying. And some of its wheeled Stryker APCS are receiving “Dragoon” turrets with thirty-millimeter cannons and Javelin anti-tank missiles to give the lighter vehicles a fighting chance versus enemy mechanized forces.
The Army is also installing Trophy and Iron Fist Active Protection Systems on Abrams and Bradley tanks. These detect incoming missiles and jam or shoot them down before impact. As long-range anti-tank missiles have destroyed hundreds of tanks in Middle Eastern wars, including Saudi-operated Abrams, APS could significantly improve survivability.
3. Future Vertical Lift (Aviation)
Helicopters are essential for battlefield and operational mobility—however they are also expensive, relatively slow (150–200 miles per hour), short-ranged and vulnerable to enemy fire.
The Army is looking ahead to a radical new “Future Vertical Lift” system to eventually replace its over two thousand Blackhawk medium transport helicopters and its heavily armed and armored Apache gunships.
Two innovative flying prototypes are competing. The Bell V-280 Valor is a tilt-rotor aircraft: it can rotate its engines from a helicopter to an airplane-like configuration. The likely more complex and expensive Valor would boast greater speed (320 miles per hour) and range.
The Sikorsky SB-1 Defiant is a compound helicopters with two counter-rotating blades atop each other and pusher rotor. The Defiant likely is better at helicopter-style low-speed maneuvers—at the expense of speed and fuel efficiency.
The Army also retired its last OH-58 scout helicopters in 2015, only to discover that Apache gunships were a poor replacement. As a result, the Army is searching for an agile scout helicopter separately from FVL.
The Army would like a brand-new unified, field-deployable Command, Control, Communication and Intelligence (C3I) network tying together its land-warfare systems.
The last attempt to field such a network, called WIN-T, was cancelled after $6 billion in spending due to its vulnerability to electronic-and cyberwarfare. In 2014, the Army observed how Russia forces extensively jammed, hacked and geo-located Ukrainian command-and-control nodes—and even targeted them with lethal attacks.
The Army intends to buy as much of the software off-the-shelf as possible to avoid spending years and dollars building a new system from the ground up. The new network needs to be standardized yet modular, transportable, and cybersecure.
A separate “Assured Position Navigation & Timing” team is developing redundant navigational aids so that ground forces smoothly function under GPS-denied circumstances, particularly by using ground or air-deployed “pseudo-satellites.”
5. Air & Missile Defense
In the last half-century, air supremacy courtesy of the U.S. Air Force has reduced the demands on the Army’s ground-based air defenses, which have been heavily downsized. However, new threats posed by swarming drone attacks and proliferating cruise and ballistic missiles have made re-building the air defense branch a huge priority.
The Army is currently focusing on “Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense”—vehicles accompanying frontline troops to shoot down low-altitude threats. The Army plans to field 8 x 8 Strykers armed with Stinger and Hellfire missiles, anti-drone jammers and thirty-millimeter cannons. It’s also interim procuring Israeli Iron Dome missile systems, the munitions from which may eventually be adapted to Multi-Mission Launcher.
The Army is also developing a vehicle-mounted 100-KW laser that could be used to cost-efficiently burn drones out of the sky.
For longer-range air defense, rather than develop new missiles, the Army is spending billions to improve its existing Patriot and THAADS systems by tying together their dispersed radars and fire-control systems into an Integrated Air & Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) network.
6. Soldier Lethality
Close-combat infantrymen account for only 4 percent of the army’s personnel but have suffered 90 percent of the casualties in conflicts since 2001. The “Soldier Lethality” initiative is divided in two teams.
One focuses on improving “human” factors using more realistic training simulators, and retaining experienced NCOs and officers through better perks and incentives.
The other team plans to procure “Next Generation” assault rifles and light machine guns—likely using the 6.5-millimeter Creedmoor round, which is deemed to have superior penetrating power versus body armor. The Army also is devising an infantry “Head’s Up Display” with integrated (and improved) night-vision, tactical data and targeting crosshairs.
The Army is killing or curtailing 186 older programs and procurements, including down-sizing CH-47F heavy transport helicopters and JLTV Humm-Vee replacement orders, to ensure the Big Six’s 31 initiatives receive a targeted $33 billion in funding through 2024.
To avoid the earlier dramatic failure of “super programs” like the Future Combat System, the Army plans to adopt off-the-shelf solution where possible, and operationally test numerous projects before deciding which merit the funding to ramp up to full-scale development and production.
Time will tell whether the Army’s new, seemingly more agile approach will dodge the bullets that have taken down prior modernization efforts.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States.