Modernizing military forces is never cheap. Even if buying new equipment will result in lower life-cycle costs, the upfront investment is inevitably substantial. When defense budgets are tight, the tendency is to defer modernization, particularly for non-combat platforms.
The consequence of this strategy is soaring maintenance costs for aging platforms that can produce a death spiral in which a military service lacks the resources either to maintain an obsolescent system or to acquire a new one.
A period of increased defense spending produces a race to modernize. Typically, these surges in military budgets rarely last longer than five years. The new two-year budget agreement passed earlier last spring provided a major boost in defense spending.
But starting in Fiscal Year 2020, things could change. It is possible, although unlikely, that the spending caps instated by the Budget Control Act could be re-imposed. At best, future defense budget increases are likely to be limited, possibly to less than the rate of inflation. So there is not a lot of time for the services to bring new capabilities online and also replace aging platforms and systems that are reaching the end of their maximum service life.
For most of the past two decades, defense spending has been declining. Even during the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, increases in defense spending went largely to fund overseas operations or to acquire specialized equipment such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Almost across the board, the services deferred modernization and cut back on maintenance. Our adversaries are now ahead in areas such as electronic warfare, hypersonic weapons, integrated air defenses, nuclear forces and space weapons.
The current defense budget environment is different from previous eras. While resources are available, the Department of Defense must both introduce new, even revolutionary, capabilities in order to re-establish overmatch vis-à-vis global competitors and replace entire fleets of support aircraft and vehicles that have aged to the point of obsolescence.
Each of the services are struggling to establish a balance between the modernization of their primary warfighting capabilities and ensuring the viability of all the platforms and systems that support the pointy end of the spear. It is not enough to acquire new fighting vehicles, fifth-generation fighters or advanced warships if the capabilities needed to enable combat forces to operate on the battlefield are allowed to erode.
The Army has a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to which systems to replace with next-generation capabilities and which to upgrade. It has aligned some 80 percent of its science and technology funding to its six modernization priorities. Even with the current budget increase, the Army needs to find more funds if it is to field all the interim and new capabilities it plans to acquire in the near-term. U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper has made it clear that getting these new capabilities into the field will mean taking money from other, lower priority programs:
It’s going to mean cutting programs, bringing money from current programs by either slowing them or killing them, whatever the case may be, to free up money for those other higher priorities. We just can’t continue to ramble on funding 800 programs when we have higher-priority needs.
The need to take money from lower priority programs in order to fund more important ones seems to have already impacted the Army’s long-term strategy for its light tactical vehicle fleet. This strategy envisioned replacing a significant fraction of the 120,000 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees) in the Army’s fleet with about 49,000 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTV).
The larger, heavier JLTV will replace both up-armored Humvees and MRAPs, with particular attention on Armored Brigade Combat Teams. Together with the 5,500 JLTVs the Marine Corps wants, the total cost of the program will be approximately $39 billion over the next two decades.
Last month, the Subcommittee on Airland of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) cut $250 million from the Army’s $1.3 billion funding request for the JLTV. This mark was upheld by the full committee. Although no specific reason was given, this move suggests that the SASC agrees with Secretary Esper’s idea of cutting lower priority programs to fund more important ones.
Fortunately, cutting procurement of JLTVs doesn’t mean that the Army’s tactical vehicle fleet will suffer. The Army will have at least 50,000 Humvees in service even after it completes its planned JLTV buy. Adjusting the balance between JLTVs and Humvees in its fleet allows the Army to harvest funds for higher priority programs and, at the same time, recapitalize the tactical vehicle fleet.
The Army currently recapitalizes around 1,200 Humvees annually at a cost of some $150 million. Doubling this figure to 2,500 vehicles a year for an additional cost of about $150 million annually would put the Humvee fleet on a path to full recapitalization in twenty years.