Army Pfc. David Hanson recovers a parachute after jumping onto Donnelly Drop Zone during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center at Donnelly Training Area, Alaska, Feb. 8, 2024.

Army Pfc. David Hanson recovers a parachute after jumping onto Donnelly Drop Zone during Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center at Donnelly Training Area, Alaska, Feb. 8, 2024. U.S. Army / Spc. Wyatt Moore

The State of the Army 2024

The cancellation of a scout helicopter might signal a new era of agility.

Six months into his tenure, the newest Army chief of staff canceled plans for a sleek, futuristic helicopter, a decision that reflects new priorities for the service—and just might epitomize a new era of agility.

Unlike earlier multibillion-dollar programs scuttled for bad program design or cost overruns, Gen. Randy George axed the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft, or FARA, to accommodate major changes in warfare—in particular, those seen in Ukraine—that demand new tech such as loitering munitions and drones.

“We are learning from the battlefield—especially in Ukraine—that aerial reconnaissance has fundamentally changed,” George said in a press release. “Sensors and weapons mounted on a variety of unmanned systems and in space are more ubiquitous, further reaching, and more inexpensive than ever before.” 

It’s a shift that in many ways reflects the Army’s broader shift away from the policies of the global war on terror. 

With an eye on Ukraine and the Red Sea, the Army is pushing harder than ever to exploit cutting-edge, often commercially-derived technologies that have brought clarity to the fog of war. But it’s also taking an old-school approach to munitions: working hard to buy more of them, from 155mm artillery shells to advanced missiles. 

Training day 

The easiest place to see the Army’s transformation is in its most advanced training centers: the National Training Center in California and the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana. 

In both locations, the Army fields an opposing force, or OPFOR, to go up against Army units rotating in for training. Both OPFORs are rapidly absorbing lessons from Ukraine and seeking advantage through a wide variety of cheap, commercially-available ;tools.

An Army soldier arriving at either center might be tracked before she knows it, her cell phone acting as a lone digital light amid desert or forest. OPFOR’s cheap quadcopters might then pick up the signal and drop a fake grenade on them. 

Should OPFOR choose to hold their fire, they could use the drone to track the soldier to their base, then use commercial satellite footage or an AI-powered analysis of signal patterns to map out the command post and its connections to others. 

They could then choose to isolate the base with powerful jammers or level it with a simulated missile. 

It isn’t all high-tech though —the near-constant artillery barrages faced by Ukrainian forces also highlight the continued importance of low-tech explosives. So both centers greet trainees with a renewed emphasis on artillery, forcing them to re-learn the importance of digging fighting positions deep into the earth. 

Commercial tech 

George sees the work of OPFOR and other units experimenting with tech as a path for the Army as whole: greater use of commercial technology, combined with the flexibility to adopt or ditch new gear as needed. 

Conversations with OPFOR and soldiers at the National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center has convinced the chief of staff to “double down on some of the things that we're doing like on [drones],” he said in an interview with Defense One in January. 

Key to that strategy is something George calls “transforming in contact”: pushing out new, often commercial tech to units to have them test it out in realistic training. 

The January exercises, for example, saw the Army’s first use of ATAK— cheap, Android-based mapping and communications software—across all echelons of command. It’s also increasingly common to see Army units deploy Starlink communications devices, a commercial satellite technology used on both sides of the Ukrainian front. 

George’s plan is a departure from how the Army normally fields the equipment, in which major contractors duke it out for years before a single platform is rolled out to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. That system, though, is also what led to the service fielding drones that struggled to fly in the rain. 

As one example of the new equipment strategy, the Army has requested $25 million this year to buy commercial drones for troops. Rather than routing the drones through the lengthy procurement process, the money for the drones will instead be classified as “operation and maintenance” funds. 

This designation makes acquisition of the drones simpler, theoretically allowing unit commanders to acquire the drones directly. 

Major acquisitions 

The Army’s transformation isn’t all cheap fixes from the commercial world. 

Alongside Starlink terminals and Android software, the service is also planning a raft of investments in robotics, loitering munitions, counter-drone weapons, far-seeing spy tech, and far-reaching missiles to match. 

Although many programs are only just started, the Army is moving quickly by fielding systems in a year or two rather than the nearly decade-long process it often takes. 

The Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance program is slated to field loitering munitions to infantry units in 2024 in an iterative process, the Army Futures Command’s chief, Gen. James Rainey, said late last year. 

Various types of launched effects—what the Army calls drones launched from helicopters—will enter production by next fiscal year, officials said at last week’s AUSA Global Force conference. 

Medium-range drones, which could include loitering munitions, are also being tested this year and will be produced in fiscal year 2025. Short-range drones will be tested in fiscal year 2025 and produced in fiscal year 2026, and longer-range drones will be tested in fiscal year 2026 and fielded in fiscal year 2027. 

Other efforts include packing business jets with spyware, a new organization focusing on long-range intelligence-gathering, and developing long-range cannon shells

With Ukraine and Russia using tens of thousands of shells per day and wargames of a Taiwan-China fight showing a high need for missiles, the Army is also re-focusing on munitions to pair with its high-tech sensors. 

Army efforts include a rapid increase in production of 155mm shells to aid Ukraine, with 100,000 a month promised—as long as Congress passes a Ukraine aid supplemental bill. The Army is also boosting missile production of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) and Patriot anti-air missiles through multi-year buys, a mechanism that incentivizes manufacturers to invest in production. 

Newer missiles are also coming online. In December, the Army received its first batch of Precision Strike Missiles, which will replace the older GMLRS missiles.  

In an increasingly tense globe, many of these munitions are playing an active role as soon as they leave the factory floor. The Army has upped purchase of Coyote drone interceptors, which are already knocking down enemy drones in the Middle East, while 155mm shells are heading to Ukraine. 

Force structure 

Thanks in part to lessons from Ukraine and elsewhere, the Army is also changing the design of its forces, including by planning to add multiple new anti-air units in a nod to both the threat of drones and the belief that the U.S. is not guaranteed air dominance in future wars. 

The redesign of its force structure also reflects a less comfortable reality: fewer and fewer Americans are choosing to become soldiers. The force redesign announced in February is in part to rationalize a force designed to field an Army of 494,000 soldiers, but which in reality only has 445,000. 

At the same time, the Army is hoping to push recruiting up through an intensive recruiting campaign, which includes new ads, launching a trial program to make recruiting a separate career path, and targeting older recruits.  

The Army is seeing an uptick so far over the same time last year, George told Stars and Stripes in February. Still, it hit just 74% percent of its goal in the first fiscal quarter of 2024, from Oct. 1 and Dec. 31.

Those soldiers aren’t just important for staffing out the Army’s formations—they’re also key to the soldier-centric Army innovation George wants to see. The more qualified, tech-centric soldiers the Army can attract, the more feedback the Army will get for their “transforming in contact mission.” 

“We are going to get our best innovation from our soldiers, working with [product] developers,” George said in Defense One’s State of the Army interview. “Our soldiers are really innovative, they will figure out how to make things work.”

NEXT STORY: The State of the Marine Corps 2024