The U.S. and South Korea armies on Wednesday each fired a “deep strike” missile in a show of force against North Korea. The salvo came a day after Kim Jong-un test-launched the country’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, an event that Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis called “destabilizing and dangerous.”
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said a war with North Korea would be “catastrophic and probably the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetime.” All-out war would be the option of last resort if deterrence, diplomacy and other measures failed. But the latest escalation is a reminder that major ground wars are contingencies the Pentagon must plan for. And the consensus among military leaders and analysts is that the most likely adversaries would be North Korea or Russia.
How American troops would prepare for such conflicts is a heated topic of discussion in the Pentagon these days. One issue that has stirred angst is the idea that the Army lacks sufficient firepower to counter foreign armies that are highly trained and equipped with advanced technology.
Efforts are underway in the Army to acquire weapons it would need in a large-scale conflict, such as missiles that can hit targets 300 miles away, advanced tank-killing projectiles, and defensive systems to shoot down incoming rockets. Congressional committees are backing these programs amid concerns that the United States could be outgunned. House appropriators last week green-lighted a budget of about $8 billion in 2018 for the Army to buy precision-guided munitions and upgrade combat vehicles.
Analysts warn that after years of starving its modernization budgets to fund personnel costs and maintain old equipment, the Army is climbing out of a deep hole. The Pentagon, for more than a decade, has not trained or equipped ground forces to fight advanced armies.
“We have big gaps in land forces,” said David Johnson, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Almost every Chinese, Russian or Iranian surface-to-surface weapon outranges the U.S. Army’s current rockets and missiles, he said last week at a national security strategy conference in Washington, D.C. These countries make anti-tank guided rounds that could penetrate American armor, said Johnson. “We are the only advanced military without active protection in tanks to stop rockets or rocket-propelled grenade fire.”
The Army’s artillery vehicles date back to the 1960s. No new tank is on the drawing board, as the plan is to keep the Abrams main battle tank until 2060, Johnson said. This is not just a budget issue, but also one of military strategy. “We need to be brutally honest about who are we going to fight, and get the capabilities we need,” he said. “We haven’t done that.”
Mattis is leading a sweeping review of military strategy and requirements that will be shaped by growing concerns about deterring Russia and North Korea. “We have a lot of ground to make up in the coming years,” said defense analyst Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We have focused on readiness and capacity in ground forces. What we sacrificed, and what we punted on are capabilities.”
The Army has wasted billions of dollars on programs that failed before any equipment was actually produced, according to Harrison. “We are still trying to figure out what we need in future ground vehicles.”
Budgets are always constrained, he noted, and the Army will continue to face tough “people-versus-hardware” choices. If a new military strategy, as expected, emphasizes readiness for a major ground war, it is not clear that the Army leadership is ready to make tradeoffs between increasing the size of the force and investing in advanced weaponry.
Former Pentagon official Mara Karlin said the 2018 budget, with more money targeted to munitions and training, puts the military on a “positive trajectory.” But the broader trends are “worrisome,” she said. “We spent 15 years focused on capacity, and there are not a lot of indicators that’s changing,” she said. “The U.S. qualitative military advantage is shrinking.”
One hot-button issue has been the lack of long-range firepower in the Army, a problem that could haunt land forces in a war in Eastern Europe, Johnson said. “The greatest challenge for the Army is being overmatched” by Russian artillery and rockets. “Every one of their tanks can shoot antitank guided missiles that outrange our armor by two kilometers,” Johnson insisted. “We haven’t fought this kind of adversary since World War II.”
The United States has a huge advantage in air power, but in a potential conflict in Eastern Europe, a “key component is ground-based fires” that would devastate enemy positions and open up the airspace for the U.S. Air Force, Johnson said.
Army leaders were grilled on this issue by congressional committees on Capitol Hill. During a hearing last month, Army Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. John Murray assured lawmakers that modernization is picking up steam. He specifically cited a “long-range precision fires” program to develop a powerful new missile that can reach targets 499 kilometers out, or about 310 miles. The range has to stay below 500 kilometers to comply with a 1987 arms control treaty signed by the United States and the-then Soviet Union. The Army requested $102 million in 2018 to start developing two competing designs. The long-range weapon would replace the Cold War-era Army tactical missile—the one used in the show of force against North Korea—that has a range of less than 200 miles.
The Army in June awarded Raytheon a $116 million contract to build a long-range precision fires prototype. Rival contractor Lockheed Martin is expected to receive a contract for a competing prototype. A Lockheed spokesman said the company would make an announcement in the coming weeks.
Raytheon’s director of advanced land warfare systems J.R. Smith said a prototype should be ready for live-fire demonstrations by the end of 2019. One significant feature of this weapon is that it will allow the Army to launch two missiles from existing artillery launch pods, compared to only one of the current tactical missiles.
Raytheon also is working with the Army on other ground-combat modernization projects such as tank ammunition and active protection for armored vehicles.
“There’s some real needs they’ve got out there, long-range fires being one of them,” Smith said in an interview. The company is investigating ways to improve tank rounds. “There is interest now in reaching out at extended ranges with precision using the Abrams 120 mm main gun,” Smith said.
Raytheon is one of several companies offering active protection technologies for Army tanks and infantry carriers. These are vehicle-mounted systems that detect and destroy incoming rockets and missiles. This is the type of technology that would be essential in any conflict against well-armed adversaries.
In its version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the Senate Armed Services Committee called for the United States to “do more to deter Russian aggression” and expressed alarm that Russia is deploying weapons that breach the 1987 treaty which limits the range of ground-based missiles to 500 kilometers. “Russia continues to occupy Crimea, destabilize Ukraine, threaten our NATO allies, violate the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and bolster the Assad regime in Syria.”
The committee authorized $65 million to begin researching a ground-launched intermediate-range missile “in order to begin to close the capability gap opened by the Russian violation of the INF Treaty.”
The heightened tensions and burgeoning efforts to boost firepower in the Army mark a sharp departure from just six years ago, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told West Point cadets that any future defense secretary who advised the president to send “a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
The behaviors of powers including Russia and North Korea have compelled the Pentagon to rethink the military’s posture. The Defense Intelligence Agency has been taking a deeper dive into the capabilities of foreign militaries and recently issued a sobering report on Russia. One of the DIA’s unclassified assessments of Russian forces was posted online last week by the Federation of American Scientists. “The resurgence of Russia on the world stage—seizing the Crimean Peninsula, destabilizing eastern Ukraine, intervening on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and shaping the information environment to suit its interests—poses a major challenge to the United States,” the report said.
With regard to North Korea, Army leaders have begun to contemplate the unthinkable—a ground war in the Korean Peninsula as Kim steps up provocations. “The greatest capability out there remains Russia. But clearly, North Korea is probably the most dangerously close threat, in terms of time, in my view, that the United States faces,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
This piece originally appeared at Real Clear Defense.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides a firing contest among multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries selected from large combined units of the KPA, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 21, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters