Here’s How the US Army Should Arm Itself for New Threats
Stop hoping for a funding bump and start making existing weapons work better together.
The U.S. Army has been at war continuously for 16 years. New technologies pose new threats and old technologies grow in numbers and capability. Bad guys throughout the world, newly resurgent, are behaving, well, quite badly. The Army’s budget is woefully short of what it needs to recapitalize and modernize, and gridlock in Congress has again doomed the Army to the budget hell of a continuing resolution. If ever the Army were ever to think creatively about how to meet the extraordinary demands it faces, now would be the time.
The good news is that the Army has steps that it can take, and is taking, to improve its capabilities without massive new hardware initiatives. One key to meeting these challenges: broader and tighter integration of Army capabilities, across mission lines, across service lines, and even across national lines.
Such a notion is hardly new. The Army integrates its space and missile defense capabilities, its air defenses and missile defenses, and offensive and defensive operations. It sought to modernize its armored forces through development and deployment of Future Combat Systems, or FCS, an integrated network of armored vehicles and artillery. The Army and Air Force operated in an integrated fashion under the framework of AirLand Battle in the 1980s and 1990s, and joint operations are DoD’s gold standard today.
But the Army will have to pursue integration with even greater vigor.
The need is driven by expanding threats, and the need to deter and defeat them on tight budgets. Ballistic missile defense, even in the recent past, was hived off into a separate technological path, largely because the unique flight profile of the incoming missiles. Not so any more. More and more missiles are capable of maneuver, and Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons that start their flight ballistically but glide non-ballistically within the atmosphere most of the way to their targets. Further, missile ranges are increasing, threatening former havens such as Guam. In general, adversaries are deploying more threat systems in more ranges and with more accuracy. Finally, serious threats are maturing rapidly from multiple axes—not only Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, but shorter-range threats from Hezbollah and even ISIS, which are using off-the-shelf drones for ISR and precision strikes.
In this new, much more complex threat environment, the lines between missiles and air threats become blurred, as do ballistic and non-ballistic threats. Larger numbers of threat missiles, longer ranges, and greater threat complexity demand an approach that integrates multiple defensive systems, within the Army and across service lines. It also requires the further integration of defensive systems, which defeat threats after they’ve been launched; and offensive ones, to defeat threats before they are launched. Missile and air defenses cannot be counted upon to guarantee protection from today’s threats, let alone tomorrow’s, so offensive counter-battery fire—of all ranges, from very long to very short—will be needed to eliminate threats before they are launched or can launch again.
One of the most significant recent Army efforts along these lines is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS. This extremely complex system provides a network link between multiple air and missile defense sensors, weapons and command systems, and across service lines. The system has been under development for the better part of a decade, and has been tested successfully three times. Critics say that the software remains unstable, and crashes too often. But IBCS is the right capability at the right time. If successful, it will link Army, Navy, and Air Force systems, and add a critical element to the Missile Defense Agency goal of “any sensor, any shooter.”
The current IBCS program of record only goes so far, however, and its goals may need to be expanded. As adversary capacity and precision increases, Army short-range air defense, largely abandoned during the anti-terror campaigns, and counter rocket and mortar defenses need to be expanded and integrated with already potent offensive forces. Short-range missile defenses need to be integrated with these defenses, and offensive systems of appropriate range. Lower- and upper-tier missile defenses need to play together—even today, after years of development and operation, Patriot and THAAD are not integrated to coordinate engagements. New propulsion technologies are needed to enable current systems to thwart ballistic, maneuvering, and hypersonic glide vehicles. Just as the Navy’s SM-6 can now perform surface-to-air, BMD, and surface attack missions, the Army could explore similar concepts. Much tighter integration between offenses and missile defenses will be very valuable as well, for example, the real-time relay of launch point information from missile defense sensors to offensive forces that can plan and execute attack missions to eliminate adversary offenses before they do more harm.
The Army has grappled with integration challenges in the past, largely unsuccessfully. The poster child for complex net-centric warfare development gone badly wrong is FCS, a comprehensive effort to modernize Army combat vehicles with networked unmanned vehicles controlled by a mobile command vehicle. It was cancelled after about a decade and $18 billion, a victim of program and technical complexity, changing Army priorities, and budget inconsistency. And the future holds more and tougher perils. The impact of cyber penetration of systems that are tightly integrated technically—IAMD in IBCS, or between defensive and offensive C3—is potentially more serious than penetration of a single stovepiped system.
But the potential benefits of better integration of Army capabilities are very substantial. Such integration can serve as a powerful force multiplier by improving the reach and performance of Army systems and those of its sister services, and promises to help the Army achieve its missions more reliably and effectively. It can provide better situational awareness, a better basis for effective planning, increased kinematic reach of defensive systems, reduced logistics strain through the efficient use of extant forces, enhanced tactical effectiveness and lethality of U.S. forces, and reduced losses, and by doing all this can shorten the campaign.
The stakes are high and the goals these requirements serve are important. If the Army and its sister services can achieve this kind of integration, it will translate to much improved combat performance—which in turn can reinforce deterrence and perhaps make war less likely.