America’s Army is growing, combat readiness is improving, advances in training are showing results and, after years of planning, the force is ready to move forward with some dramatic advances that will substantially improve its fighting capabilities.
Laser-focused on current and near-term requirements, the service is prioritizing incremental upgrades on systems that will have the greatest immediate impact and efforts that will put weapons and gear in soldiers’ hands quickly. And a careful review is underway to identify and eliminate equipment that is no longer required. Readiness and training efficiency are up, thanks to better home-station training and increased rigor at the Combat Training Centers, in large unit rotations like those to Europe and Korea, and from programs that allow Army National Guard, Army Reserve and Regular Army units to work together.
There is just one thing standing in the way of this effort to reset the Army after 16 years of war, and it threatens to halt or even possibly reverse the progress. The problem is the Washington, D.C., budget quagmire.
This issue isn’t solely that the Army doesn’t have enough money, although that certainly is an issue. The modest $600 million increase in research, development and acquisition funds proposed for fiscal 2018, for example, will go nearly entirely to replace spent munitions. What hurts more is the erratic, unreliable and downright harmful federal budget process that frustrates military planners, delays the start of major changes in programs, and leaves soldiers and Department of the Army civilians, defense contractors, military communities and our allies — and even potential enemies — wondering about our national security commitment.
We’ve just begun the ninth consecutive fiscal year without an approved budget, instead forced by Congress to manage a stopgap, short-term, piecemeal allowance with Dec. 8 looming as the next fiscal cliff. A slowdown in combat-related training, production delays in new weapons, and a postponement of increases in Army troop levels are among the immediate impacts of operating under this ill-named continuing resolution. It’s not continuous and it certainly doesn’t display resolve.
Sadly, the Army has grown to expect inaction by Congress and has found ways to minimize the harm by scaling back on spending, shrinking exercises, and accommodating delays in travel and training while remaining focused on the top priority of maintaining combat readiness. Skilled and quietly professional performance masks the damage of the disruption, giving the false impression that the Army’s needs really weren’t that urgent and that shaving a little budget off the top doesn’t really hurt. The Army’s “can-do” mindset may be protecting the nation but has also emboldened politicians who are willing to hold the Defense Department and national security hostage in budget battles.
There is no lack of military challenges in our world. Territorial disputes, rising powers, fragile states, an ever-increasing array of extremist organizations, global trends involving climate, economics, resources and population shifts, and conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia point to a world filled with hot spots and the potential for many more.
The Army isn’t yet fighting in all of those places, but there are more than 180,000 deployed soldiers supporting combatant commanders in 140 countries. Many more soldiers are in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands involved in humanitarian relief and recovery in response to devastation from Hurricane Maria. Others, mainly Army National Guard and Army Reserve, responded to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma or to wildfires, of which 40 burned in Montana alone.
As we at the Association of the U.S. Army prepare to launch our annual Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 9, we are calling for a bigger Army so that units can be fully manned and soldiers get more time to train, more time for professional development and even a bit more time to be with family and friends. Yet, we are also worried that the service may be authorized more soldiers than it can afford, which happens when Congress orders an increase in personnel strength without fully funding the personnel and support costs associated with each additional soldier.
Congress must fully fund the increases the Army requires. We also want the force to grow at a sensible pace so that quality standards are maintained, concentrating growth on first filling vacancies in existing units and then adding capacity and the capabilities that it requires. And, as it grows, maintaining family readiness and quality of life must remain a high priority for all components.
With a little extra money and some constancy in the budget process, the Army stands ready to move ahead with long overdue improvements in weapons and other capabilities that were put on hold while the force was shouldering the heaviest burden for the nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The time is now to build the Army America needs.