The Army Modernization Imperative

A New Big Five for the Twenty-First Century
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The U.S. Army currently faces a difficult truth: without changes to its modernization strategy, the Army risks losing qualitative tactical overmatch. A lost procurement decade and recent, significant modernization funding declines have resulted in an Army inventory that remains heavily leveraged on the “Big Five” programs, originally procured in the 1970s and 1980s. Meanwhile, technology proliferation has made potential state and nonstate adversaries increasingly capable; shrinking the U.S. overmatch advantage and in some cases surpassing it. While current, and projected future Army modernization funding is below historical averages, necessitating increased modernization funding to ensure continued U.S. qualitative tactical overmatch, the Army’s modernization problem cannot be fixed only by increasing modernization funding. Additional funds also need to be accompanied by an updated Army modernization strategy that presents a compelling case for modernization funding and sets clear priorities for fulfilling future operational requirements.

The goal of delivering to the Army the key capabilities it needs is best accomplished by adopting an Army modernization strategy that adds capabilities to the Army’s large force of fielded systems across five major areas including: electronic warfare, air and missile defense, cross-domain fires, advanced protection, and logistics. These capabilities will require, and can further leverage, the Army’s substantial investment made in the last two decades in networking and situational awareness. The Army can obtain the fastest, most pervasive improvement in its force by progressively fielding these improvements in regular, sizable increments. In addition, the Army’s modernization strategy should explicitly set aside room in the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) for quickly developing, prototyping, and deploying capabilities in response to emerging threats and opportunities. Because the Army’s technology pipeline currently has serious gaps, some of these capabilities may need to leverage developments undertaken outside of the Army’s technology development process by adapting mature designs to meet the Army’s needs. Although this modernization strategy would not rule out some limited investment in efforts to develop new platforms, as many of the Army’s platforms will eventually need to be replaced, such investments should be undertaken only to the extent that they do not undermine the strategy’s central approach.

This report characterizes the context and nature of the Army’s modernization challenge and recommends ways the Army can maximize the effectiveness of its modernization budget going forward. From this analysis, the study team identified the following key findings informing and recommendations for addressing the Army’s modernization imperative.

Army Modernization Outlook Findings

  1. The Army is experiencing a modernization triple-whammy. Historic budget drawdowns, the failure of many programs in the Army’s most recent modernization cycle, and unprecedented declines in research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) have left the Army in a precarious position.

  2. Current Army modernization is insufficient and below historical averages. The FY17 POM projects Army modernization funding that is approximately $7 billion below its historical average and about $9 billion below a conservative estimate of the average modernization funding level during periods of increasing budgets.

  3. Under current plans, there is little budget relief on the way. Over the course of the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), planned Army modernization funding remains just above the existing levels.

  4. Even if the Army could afford new platforms, the Army has limited options. At the moment, the Army does not have any significant new platforms in the development pipeline. Additionally, notable failed acquisition programs such as the Future Combat System have hollowed out the Army’s System Development and Demonstration (6.5) R&D accounts over the past six years.

  5. The current Army modernization strategy has these approaches: accept increased risk, minimize new platform development, continue early-stage science and technology on select technologies, improve and/or sustain the existing inventory, and divest select platforms.

  6. A lack of consensus exists about the Army’s top modernization priorities. Whether it is the Army’s stated priorities, the President’s Budget (PB) 2017 POM, or anecdotal evidence from interviews, there is a lack of consensus and understanding of the Army’s top modernization priorities across the broader defense enterprise.

Today's Geostrategic Environment Findings

  1. Today’s geostrategic challenge is a kaleidoscope of challenges characterized not by a singular threat, but by a multitude of wide-ranging threats. Challenges and threats include, but are certainly not limited to, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and similar Islamic extremist groups, China, Russia, North Korea, and increasingly sophisticated nonstate actors.

  2. Russia is the greatest pacing threat for the United States Army given operational challenges and the proliferation of Russian arms sales. For the Army, the Russian threat currently presents the most stressing combination of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD-enabling) systems, advanced ground combat capabilities, and nonkinetic effects. Additionally, the proclivity of Russian arms sales to regimes hostile to the United States means that likely future conflicts will involve some combination of Russian equipment and tactics, even if Russia itself is not directly involved.

  3. The Russians have either equaled or surpassed certain U.S. capabilities in A2/A2, ground combat, and nonkinetic operations necessitating additional Army investment.

    1. The Russian A2/AD CONOPS is a sophisticated, layered, redundant, multi-domain network that hinders the U.S. ability to project power in Europe and presents challenges to certain fundamental assumptions about the Army and its role in the joint force. In a potential future conflict with Russia, the Army will not necessarily be able to rely on the joint force to provide certain capabilities that the Army is dependent on. Instead, the Army will need to develop its own indigenous capabilities for operating in A2/AD environments.

    2. Comparing ground combat capabilities, the United States retains a diminished lead in combat vehicles while the Russians have surpassed the U.S. in indirect fire capabilities. However, the American solider remains the Army’s asymmetric advantage over the Russians.

      1. Comparing the Abrams and its Russian counterparts, the Abrams remains the better tank on paper, but logistical challenges make it difficult to realize the Abrams’s full combat effectiveness in the European area of responsibility (AOR).

      2. Russian indirect fire capabilities today are superior to those of the United States. Comparing conventional artillery systems, the Russians not only outrange the United States, but can also fire at a greater rate. The capability gap between American and Russian rocket artillery is smaller than between conventional artillery, but Russian advantages in range and types of munitions outweigh the U.S. precision advantage.

    3. Russian nonkinetic capabilities, particularly in electronic warfare (EW) and cyber operations, significantly outpace the limited current capabilities the U.S. Army could bring to a future conflict.

Setting Priorities for the Future Army: Recommendations for Developing a New Army Modernization Strategy

Given the mismatch between threats, budgets, and the current Army modernization strategy, addressing the future security environment requires the Army to reevaluate its approach and devise a new modernization strategy. CSIS identified six overarching recommendations, each accompanied by more specific recommendations, to help guide this process.

  1. Develop a Clearly Articulated, Focused Modernization Strategy

    Senior Army leadership must develop an updated, clearly articulated, and focused modernization strategy that demonstrates and prioritizes development of the most important capabilities. The Army’s modernization strategy does not need to be inclusive of every capability, nor should it be. A focused modernization strategy does not preclude investments in other areas, it just ensures critical capabilities receive the necessary funds in an era of limited resources. The Army should use the ongoing Strategic Portfolio Analysis and Review (SPAR) to rebalance the Army modernization portfolio to reflect the newly developed modernization strategy.

  2. Make Army Modernization a Higher Priority

    To address the future security environment’s challenges, Congress and the new presidential administration must make Army modernization a higher priority and increase funding to address gaps in Army capabilities. As shown by the study team’s historical and POM analyses, remedying the Army’s capability shortfalls is likely to require significantly increased funding. While the overall Army modernization topline is likely to increase under the new administration, a significant portion of that increase is likely to come from increased procurement spending to equip a force structure increase. As such, Army modernization requires not just an increase in the overall topline, but an increase in spending that addresses current capability gaps. Furthermore, simply attempting to shift the current level of funding around the entire Army modernization portfolio, discounting any increased funds for procurement associated with growing the size of the force, insufficiently addresses the current geostrategic threats, given that few “low-hanging fruits” remain and the Army’s modernization portfolio is already stretched nearly as thin as possible.

    As force structure grows, the Army should equip this force structure with fully modernized capabilities, rather than just piecing together older, on-hand equipment to fill out the force. For example, instead of procuring the current-generation Stryker variant, the Army should procure an upgraded Stryker model featuring mature technologies that have already been proven available, relevant, effective, and mature. Procuring existing variants extenuates existing capability shortfalls, as this approach consumes critical modernization funding without actually addressing current capability shortfalls.

  3. Focus on Capability Gaps, Not Platforms

    The Army is unlikely to have sufficient funding to invest in developing, testing, and procuring new platforms for the foreseeable future. Given funding limitations, the Army should not focus on specific platforms, but instead on crosscutting capabilities necessary for future conflicts. As previously mentioned, the Army cannot afford to modernize everything and should instead prioritize the most critical crosscutting capabilities it needs to fight tomorrow’s fight. In the vein of General Creighton Abrams, CSIS recommends the Army prioritize the following five capabilities, as the “New Big Five for the Twenty-First Century”:

    • Electronic Warfare: On future battlefields, the Army needs to be capable of operating both offensively and defensively across the electromagnetic spectrum, yet Colonel Jeffery Church, chief of electronic warfare on the Army Staff, has described the EW portfolio as “empty.” Neglect since the end of the Cold War has left the Army’s EW capabilities critically behind those of potential adversaries. Furthermore, little relief is under way under current plans as current EW investment totals just 0.8 percent and 1.6 percent of the Army’s procurement and RDT&E budgets, respectively, and leaves the Army without a new offensive jammer until 2023. The Army should significantly increase EW funding in the coming years to not only accelerate production of new capabilities, but also to fund production of critical capacity indigenous to the Army.

    • Air and Missile Defense: Given post–Cold War divestments and global technological trends, the U.S. Army lacks sufficient Air and Missile Defense capabilities, which should be a top five Army modernization priority. In particular, the Army’s nearly completely lacks Short-Range Air Defense capabilities within the Brigade Combat Team and should prioritize Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2 development. Additionally, potential improvements such as Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System development and a new interceptor loading system would significantly improve the PATRIOT missile defense system capabilities.

    • Cross-Domain Fires: Given the trends in the future operational environment, the Army needs to invest in cross-domain fires, or “lethal and non-lethal effects against targets in all domains (air, land, sea, cyber, and space) at increased range, with greater effect, and in spite of attempts to disrupt cyber, electromagnetic spectrum, or space systems.” This encompasses investments in improvements to existing systems, such as was done with the Army Tactical Missile System, and the investment in new capabilities that include, but are not limited to, Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, Multiple Launch Rocket System warhead variants, and nonkinetic effects in the cyber, space, and electromagnetic domains.

    • Advanced Protection: The rapid proliferation of advanced munitions such as advanced rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided munitions by both state and nonstate actors threatens to outpace U.S. defensive capabilities barring investment in advanced protection systems. The Army should prioritize procurement of operationally usable active protection systems to address immediate capability gaps, while over the long term, work toward developing indigenous capabilities.

    • Logistics: Logistics, while not glamorous, offers the Army some of largest potential to improve on capability and lower operational costs in return for its investment, given recent commercial-sector advances in autonomous and semi-autonomous driving assist kits, 3-D printing, unmanned vehicles, nanotechnology, and robotics. Investments in logistics bring not just increased fuel-efficiency, but actual increases in military effectiveness given future operational necessity and the benefits that come from reduced operational risks and potential rebalances to the composition of Total Army.

  4. Make Army Acquisition More Agile by Focusing on Continuous Innovation

    The history of military innovation demonstrates that most successful innovations are not the result of revolutionary scientific advances but a continuous, evolutionary process. However, Army acquisition efforts since the 1990s have focused mostly on developing “leap-ahead” technologies such as Future Combat System that ended in failure. Rather than shooting for leap-ahead technologies, the Army should instead focus its acquisition efforts on progressively fielding capability improvements in regular, sizable increments as new technologies and systems prove available, relevant, effective, and mature. When combined and iteratively upgraded, these progressively fielded capability improvements can potentially prove revolutionary, while simultaneously more rapidly delivering critical capabilities to the warfighter.

  5. Ensure Room for Newly Emerging Opportunities and Challenges

    The pace of technological advancement and the rapidly changing global security environment necessitate that the Army’s budget and acquisition processes accommodate newly emerging challenges and opportunities. By leaving room in the budget, continuing efforts like the Army Rapid Capabilities Office, and finding ways to better reward and incentivize industry innovation, the Army can respond to emerging geopolitical and technological changes more rapidly than the traditional acquisition process permits.

  6. Align Human Capital with Updated Modernization Strategy

    Implementing an updated Army modernization strategy requires ensuring the Army’s human capital aligns with the updated strategy. Without properly aligned human capital, an updated modernization strategy provides little value to the warfighter. The Army needs to ensure that it retains not only the acquisition officials and “thought leaders” who will help implement these recommendations, but also ensure the force writ large possesses the knowledge, skills, and experience necessary to operate future technological advances.

Andrew Philip Hunter

Rhys McCormick