An eye-opening item in the 2018 defense budget request is the serious money that the U.S. Army is pumping into its arsenal of high-tech missiles and munitions.
The justification is simple: Army leaders fear they have insufficient firepower to go head to head against Russia if war broke out in Eastern Europe. They want to ramp up production, and soon.
They are asking for $3 billion worth of missiles and precision-guided munitions in the 2018 budget, and have submitted to Congress an additional $2.3 billion munitions wish list as part of the military’s “unfunded requirements” the services send to Capitol Hill every year.
And this is only the beginning of what senior Army commanders believe should be a long-term buildup in preparation for possible Russian aggression. The United States, they argue, cannot afford to deploy sufficient anti-missile systems to defeat a Russian volley, but instead, should amass a large enough arsenal of advanced weapons to discourage an attack in the first place.
A ramp-up in munitions manufacturing is a direct consequence of the Army’s shift toward “offensive deterrence,” observed Hamilton Cook, senior analyst at the consulting firm Avascent.
“What you’re really seeing in the budget is a shift to offensive fires.”
The Army is feeling pressure to scale up production to level the playing field, as Russia has a much larger inventory of short-range missiles and artillery shells. The budget would fund orders for interceptor missiles like Patriot, but there is an even greater emphasis on tactical missiles and precision-guided rocket artillery, Cook noted. Production of the Army’s guided multiple launch rocket systems would increase from 6,000 to 10,000 per year by 2020.
“This is an area of need where we are shorthanded,” Cook said. These munitions will be needed “if we’re looking at a return to combined arms warfare.”
The budget also would accelerate the development of a new “long-range precision fires” missile for deep-strike offensive attacks. The Army is seeking $102 million to build two prototypes by 2019. This program is viewed as essential to counter Russian missiles that currently out-range U.S. weapons.
Russia for decades has sought to modernize its conventional tactical weapons and bulk up its inventory to become less dependent on nuclear weapons. Russia easily could annihilate NATO and the United States with its nuclear-tipped missiles, but the U.S. has more than enough nukes to deter global destruction.
Since the first Gulf War, Russia has pursued arms programs such as a conventional long-range strike to build a robust non-strategic force.
A high-level Army official recently laid out the situation in blunt terms. “The most likely adversary in the near term is North Korea,” he said. “The most dangerous adversary in the out-years is Russia.”
The size, scale, and scope of Russia’s missile force is keeping generals up at night, the official told an industry conference, requesting that he not be quoted by name. “The problem is the numbers. They have such an inventory that we can’t keep pace,” he said. “Can we shoot them down? Yes, but the question becomes for how long.”
The official repeated the complaint that others have leveled about Russia: Its deployment of weapons that violate a 1987 arms control treaty that bans ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 km. Many of Russia’s tactical ballistic missiles can reach 1,000 km, the official said. “Whereas all our systems go 499 clicks.”
Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are prepared to support the Army’s big munitions budget, Cook said. “They are very concerned about the air and missile defense gap.”
The Army’s goal is to gain leverage in the “numbers game,” said Jim Tinsley, Avascent managing director. “They extend the inventory, so it forces us to defend before they start applying the more expensive and precise weapons.”
U.S. enemies know the United States will only have a limited supply of anti-missile interceptors that cost six-digits. They build more cruise and ballistic missiles, the United States ups its missile defenses, and the likely outcome is that “our magazines will run out before theirs,” Tinsley said.
The Pentagon has sought to address this problem by investing in new technologies like railguns, laser weapons and high-velocity projectiles that would offer far more economical options. Those systems are still years away, however. A collection of defensive technologies and sensor networks known as “integrated air and missile defense” is how the Army and Air Force envision defeating future enemies like Russia. U.S. forces would take out enemy drones, satellites, communications, to disrupt their ability to launch missiles. This concept is still in development and has stirred some tension between the Army and the Air Force over how air forces would support troops on the ground. The Air Force, for instance, would have a primary role in shooting down enemy cruise missiles.
A war in Eastern Europe would be a testing ground for the U.S. military’s emerging concept of “multi-domain” warfare where the services are more closely interdependent. The new long-range precision fires missile will have a range 150 km longer than current Army missiles but a fight where the Russians are lobbing missiles out to 1,000 km would require help from the Air Force, Tinsley noted. “The question of which service will own the command-and-control infrastructure has been one of the biggest debates.”