The US Army’s Next Big 5 Must Be Capabilities, Not New Platforms

Spc. Bradley Muszalski, an air and missile defense crewmember with the 101st Airborne Division closes the door to an Avenger anti-aircraft missile launcher pod.

U.S. Army / Sgt. Neysa Canfield

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Spc. Bradley Muszalski, an air and missile defense crewmember with the 101st Airborne Division closes the door to an Avenger anti-aircraft missile launcher pod.

The service’s weapons are increasingly unsuited for tomorrow’s battlefields, but there’s too little time and money to start from scratch.

One of the most confounding discussions in defense circles these days is how to go about modernizing the Army. Almost everyone supports it in principle, but several critical questions remain: What should the future of the Army be, why is that Army needed, how and when should we build it, and how can we afford it? This state of confusion is particularly dangerous because threats to land forces are growing even as the Army’s modernization program has been hit with a triple whammy: steep modernization funding reductions, vanishing investment in new systems, and a missed procurement cycle during the last buildup. The Army finds itself today at a precipice where it can no longer continue to underinvest in modernization without significant risk to tomorrow’s warfighter. Army leadership needs a strategy for modernization that establishes clear, compelling priorities for increased investment that can deliver more resilience, mobility, and lethality to Army units in the near, medium, and longer terms.

In recent months, the Senate and the House Armed Services Committee have worked to address this problem with funds for upgraded versions of the Army’s existing combat systems; both committees have also called for the Army to start developing a new generation of combat vehicles. These efforts are worthwhile, and furthermore, they represent some of the only options available under the Army’s current modernization strategy. However, they are also clearly unsatisfactory as a solution to the Army’s near- to mid-term modernization challenge. New systems, particularly those developed and sold globally by Russia, have increased the threat to U.S. and allied ground forces by adding range, firepower, precision, and sophisticated electronic attack to a wide array of weapons that the United States can expect to face in future conflicts. The Army upgrades currently in production were not designed to face these new threats, and a new generation of vehicles would likely take more than a decade to field. The Army needs a new strategy that develops a broader range of modernization options that can rapidly address these current threats, prepare for emerging threats, and capitalize on U.S. warfighting advantages.

In our recent report, The Army Modernization Imperative: A New Big Five for the Twenty-First Century¸ we argue that the new strategy should focus on developing and fielding the critical capabilities the Army needs rather than new-design platforms. While it is sound for the Army to explore the development of new combat vehicles, it is too risky to hang a modernization strategy on one or more long-term programs. Should one or more of these programs fail, as several recent Army acquisition programs have, so too will the Army’s modernization strategy. Rather, the new strategy should pursue a variant of Creighton Abrams and the Army’s successful 1970s and 1980s modernization strategy, an approach known then and now as the “Big Five,” by explicitly prioritizing a select number of capabilities.

Given the operational challenges presented by near-peer adversaries, we propose a “New Big Five for the Twenty-First Century”: Electronic Warfare, Air and Missile Defense, Cross-Domain Fires, Advanced Protection, and Logistics. The strategy should provide a range of near, medium, and long term modernization initiatives across these capabilities.

We offer the following recommendations to the Army to help guide their pursuit of a new Big Five:   

  1. Clearly articulate a modernization strategy focused on the most important capabilities. In recent years, the Army’s modernization priorities, undermined by the Budget Control Act, have been shifting and unclear.
  2. Make Army modernization a higher priority. Congress and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, have prioritized readiness and force structure increases, leaving modernization with $5 billion to $10 billion less than it has historically taken to develop and deliver the capabilities the Army needs. Most of the Army’s production lines have been running at minimum levels, leaving little flexibility to shift resources between programs. More modernization funds will be need to fix capability shortfalls.
  3. Focus on capabilities, not platforms. Even with more money, a modernization approach focused primarily on new platforms would narrow the scope of capabilities the Army can pursue and delay their fielding by a decade or more. This is simply unacceptable when the Army faces serious capability gaps in all of the New Big Five such as the need for active protection, increased air defense, the ability to operate in visually degraded environments, and improved capabilities for electronic warfare and cyber protection. 
  4. Make Army acquisition more agile by focusing on continuous innovation: Several notable Army acquisition programs since the Big Five have attempted leap-ahead, revolutionary technology advances only to eventually end in failure. Rather than repeating these mistakes, the Army should progressively field capability improvements in regular, sizable increments as new technologies and upgrades in the New Big Five prove available, relevant, effective, and mature. These upgrades more rapidly deliver capabilities to the warfighter, while eventually generating revolutionary improvements through their cumulative effects. New vehicle programs, where affordable and producible in a relevant timeframe, can field these upgrades alongside their existing counterparts.
  5. Ensure room for newly emerging opportunities and challenges. The traditional defense acquisition system cannot always keep pace with rapid technological and geostrategic changes, so additional pathways are needed to deliver critical capabilities to the warfighter. Along with continuing to fund the Army Rapid Capabilities Office, the service should create a separate modernization fund that is not tied to a specific program, but is available for responding to immediate challenges and opportunities.
  6. Align human capital with updated modernization: The Army’s greatest asymmetric strength over adversaries resides in its soldiers. If any modernization strategy is to succeed, the Army must ensure that it has the human capital necessary to execute it and maximize the effectiveness of the systems and equipment produced.

The Army’s approach to modernization must not only meet its own needs, but also fit into a larger approach to joint warfighting. The Army’s work on the multi-domain battle concept of operations provides a solid foundation for ensuring this is the case. In addition, the Trump administration is preparing a new National Security Strategy, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has indicated that he will pushing for more modernization finding in the 2019 budget build. These efforts provide the ideal opportunity and imperative for the Army to undertake a new modernization strategy. We believe the Army can succeed by articulating a strategy with clear priorities that delivers rapid improvement in capabilities and embraces an approach of continuous innovation organized around a New Big Five for the 21st century. With apologies to Theodore Roosevelt, when it comes to modernization, the Army needs to talk clearly, and build a sharp stick.

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