President Trump has promised to rebuild the military. In his speech last week to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the President promised “one of the greatest military buildups in history.” The outline of his plan is supposed to be in his address to a joint session of Congress today where he promised some $50 billion in additional defense spending. Elsewhere he has spoken of a 350 ship Navy, a larger Army and Marine Corps and the modernization of U.S. nuclear forces.
But years of underfunding, downsizing and overuse have left the U.S. military in a state of profound unreadiness. There are reports that more than half of the Navy’s premier fighter, the F/A-18, are sidelined due to a lack of funds and personnel to properly and quickly maintain them. The Air Force has a severe shortage of both pilots and maintainers. As tensions rose in the Middle East last year, the Navy was forced to operate for months without an aircraft carrier in offshore waters because prior demands for their presence and deferred maintenance meant that none was ready for deployment.
An underfunded, overcommitted military is facing insurmountable readiness problems. They have insufficient resources and time to provide the necessary maintenance and sustainment of existing equipment and platforms. Moreover, with respect to its fleets of aircraft, ships and vehicles, the military is aging rapidly. As a consequence, maintenance costs are rising at an accelerating rate. In a growing number of cases for older platforms, there are no companies that make the necessary spare parts. More and more, contractors and depots are forced to cannibalize one aircraft to keep another flying, raid the boneyards or even fabricate their own spares.
No service is in greater need of additional funding for readiness than the Army. The Army has been required not just to maintain but increase its deployments on three continents and to do so while shrinking in size. It is now struggling to return forces to Europe for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Current demands on the force also mean that units are unable to train adequately for future missions, particularly the high-end fight against nation-state adversaries. According to recent testimony, in 2016 only three of the Army’s combat brigades were fully ready to perform the required range of missions.
However, if the Army receives additional resources in FY2017 and 2018, it must resist the impulse to spend it all on additional end strength and the traditional measures of readiness – training, spare parts and maintenance. The Army has been forced to shortchange modernization in order to avoid a readiness collapse. Since 2011, the Army has cancelled 20 modernization programs, delayed 125 and restructured 124. In its present condition, near-term modernization should be considered of equal importance to readiness measures, or even a component of current readiness.
The Army has a sensible plan for near-term modernization. It wants to upgrade its Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Paladin tracked howitzers, add new Black Hawk and Apache helicopters and do a service life extension program for the Army Tactical Missile System. There is a lethality upgrade for the Stryker which adds a 30mm cannon and possibly anti-tank missiles that could be sped up to allow a brigade’s worth of vehicles to be enhanced per year. The procurement rate for the Army’s advanced on-the-move tactical communications, known as WIN-T, could be doubled. This would provide all early arriving combat forces with secure and effective comms within five years.
If it gets extra resources, the Army also can accelerate the current procurement of the replacement for the 50-year-old M-113 personnel carrier in the Armored Brigade Combat Teams, the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. There is an opportunity to find a replacement for the M-113s residing in the force structure of divisions and corps. The Army will be able to reinvest in that lost art of ground-based short-range air defense. It could even provide active protection systems (APS) for thousands of armored fighting vehicles. An APS is designed to protect vehicles and their crews by sensing and defeating anti-tank rockets and guided missiles. All of these programs involve existing production lines so speeding up procurement is straightforward.
Without question, readiness must be priority one for all the services. This means the Trump Administration and Congress must provide the military the requisite resources for maintenance, ammunition and training. But it is important to recognize that without timely and appropriate modernization, the military will continue to age, maintenance costs will rise at an unsustainable rate and the armed forces will enter a death spiral. Near-term modernization must be part of the answer to the readiness challenge.
Dr. Dan Goure is a Vice President of the Lexington Institute. He served in the Pentagon during the George H.W. Administration and has taught at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities and the National War College. You can follow him on twitter @dgoure and you can follow the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.
Image: U.S. Army