U.S. Military Forces in FY 2020: Army

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Part of U.S. Military Forces in FY2020: The Struggle to Align Forces with Strategy

The U.S. Army’s effort to grow its force structure has been stymied by recruitment challenges, making it difficult to expand for day-to-day operations, creation of new capabilities, and wartime surge. With modernization, the Army has increased production of proven systems and shifted billions into development of high priority programs to prepare the Army for great power conflict.


  • The Army has had difficulty in growing the force even modestly because of recruiting challenges. The regular force increases from 478,000 soldiers in FY 2019 to 480,000 in FY 2020 instead of reaching the planned 492,000. The reserve components essentially hold steady in FY 2020.

  • The Army is restructuring to better meet the demands of great power conflict, converting two Infantry Brigade Combat Teams into Armored Brigade Combat Teams and adding some small cyber units. New kinds of units, like multidomain brigades, remain mostly conceptual.

  • There is now less tension between regular Army and its reserve components as a result of closer consultations, higher overall budgets, and shared recruitment challenges.

  • Army modernization is a mix of good and bad news: the Army increased production of proven systems and shifted $31 billion over the five-year (“FYDP”) into higher-priority modernization programs but is still several years away from having a new generation of systems in production.


Force Structure in FY 2020

Table 1: Army End Strength – Regular and Civilians

Source: BCT data in Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), Defense Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, March 2019), Appendix A, Table A-4, A-2, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/ defbudget/fy2020/fy2020_Budget_Request_Overview_Book.pdf; End Strength data in Department of Defense, Army FY2020 Budget Overview (Washington, DC: March 2019), 6, https://www.asafm.army.mil/Portals/72/Documents/BudgetMaterial/2020/Roll%20Out/Overview%20 and%20Highlights/Army%20FY%202020%20Budget%20Overview.pdf.

Table 2: Army End Strength – National Guard and Reserve

Source: BCT data in Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), Defense Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request, Appendix A, Table A-4, A3; End Strength data in Army FY2020 Budget Overview, 6.

Army plans for force expansion collapsed this year. The Army had fought hard against plans in the Obama administration to drop to 980,000 soldiers, regular and reserve, or lower. FY 2019 plans called for expansion to 1,040,000 by FY 2023, and Army officials had talked about much higher levels. As recently as July 2017, General Milley said: “[B]ased on the tasks that are required, I believe that we need a larger Army. . . because of the tasks that are required. It’s not just some arbitrary number. We’ve done the analysis, and we think we need to be bigger.”1 Army officials had implied a regular force of 500,000 to 510,000.

However, recruiting and retention problems have forced both the active and reserve components to scale back their plans. In FY 2020 the total Army will have an end strength of 1,005,500 and by FY 2024 will grow to only 1,016,500. Thus, the Army in the 2020s will be at about the level that it was before the post-9/11 expansion. To its credit, though, the Army did not reduce its standards but rather accepted a smaller size.2

Figure 1: Regular Army End Strength 1999-2024 (000s)

Note: This and other historical charts begin with the year 1999 because it is before the 9/11 buildup but after completion of the post-Cold War reductions. Source: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2020 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, May 2019), Table 7-5: Department of Defense Manpower, 260-262, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/ fy2020/FY20_Green_Book.pdf; Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), PB 20 Budget Roll Out Brief (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, March 2019), 12, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2020/fy2020_Budget_Request.pdf.

The regular Army maintains 31 Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) and 11 Combat Aviation Brigades (CABs), with no net change from FY 2019 to FY 2020. The Army National Guard will maintain its current force of 27 BCTs and 8 Combat Aviation Brigades (CABs). This is a change from the previous plan to deactivate a BCT and go down to 26 BCTs. The Army Reserve, which consists mostly of support units (“enablers”), retains two Theater Aviation Brigades (TABS).

The Army continues its reorganization of BCTs begun in 2014. Under the reorganization, the infantry and armored brigades add a third maneuver battalion. (Stryker brigades already had three maneuver battalions.) This reorganization makes brigades larger and more flexible but requires more soldiers.

The Army also continues implementing its plan to convert two infantry BCTs into armored BCTs, resulting in a total of 13 IBCTs, 11 ABCTs, and 7 SBCTs in the regular force and 19, 5, and 2, respectively, in the Guard. This infantry-to-armor shift arises from renewed tensions with Russia and a focus on near-peer conflicts unlike the counterinsurgency campaigns of the last 16+ years.

Internally, the Army continually moves structure around based on the output of its Total Army Analysis process, which sets the size and structure of all support and logistics elements. Most of these changes are below the level of outside visibility. DOD has, however, announced plans to reduce and restructure the military medical community, so that it focuses more on wartime requirements and less on peacetime care for dependents and retirees. This could make major changes to the Army’s (and all services’) medical establishments, but details are few, and Congress seems reluctant to go along.3

With force structure expanding slightly and end strength goals scaled back, plans to increase unit personnel levels to 100 percent and eventually 105 percent have been shelved. Indeed, the Army will face challenges to avoid “hollowness.”

The Future Size and Shape of the Army

Three opposing dynamics pull the future size and shape of the Army. One is the guidance in the NDS to focus on great power conflicts with Russia and China. That implies a force equipped with advanced, and likely very expensive, technologies paid for, if necessary, by cuts to structure. Another is the day-to-day demand for forces to deploy to Afghanistan, Europe, and elsewhere. That implies a larger force that may not need the most advanced technologies. Finally, difficulties in recruiting and retention, as described earlier, may drive force size regardless of strategy.

In his FY 2020 posture statement, General Milley noted how busy the Army is, “providing Combatant Commanders over 179,000 Soldiers in more than 140 countries, including 110,000 Soldiers deployed on a rotational basis.” Of these troops, Milley highlighted that 30,000 were in the Middle East and Afghanistan, 17,000 forward-deployed in South Korea, and 8,000 in Europe supporting the European Deterrence Initiative.4 The Army has handled these demands and eased stress on the force in several ways:

  • Creation of the Security Force Advisory Brigades (SFABs) has eased deployment demands by substituting for standard BCTs. SFABs train, advise, assist, enable, and accompany operations with allied and partner nations, thus reducing the burden on BCTs, which would otherwise have to deploy in pieces for this mission. The FY 2020 budget builds toward five SFABs in the regular force and one in the National Guard.

  • Continued mobilization of the reserve components fills gaps. The Army has consistently mobilized about 25,000 soldiers from the reserve components to meet deployment demands.

The Army had planned to grow end strength to spread deployment demands over more soldiers, but that is not feasible.

An opposing pressure is for modernization and building different kinds of capabilities. The most common scenarios for great power conflicts do not require large ground forces. The Pacific theater consists mainly of ocean and long distances. In the most challenging European scenario, the defense of the Baltic states, geography makes rapid deployment of large ground forces difficult.

General Milley has often stated his concern about Army readiness to fight a high-end conflict. While noting the Army’s progress in addressing readiness shortfalls from recent periods of sustained conflict and reduced military spending, Milley highlighted that “our near-peer competitors, however, capitalized on this period to advance their own positions by modernizing their militaries and reducing the overmatch we held for decades.”5 RAND’s extensive wargaming of a Baltic invasion concluded, “the outcome was, bluntly, a disaster for NATO. Russian forces . . . were at the gates of or actually entering Riga, Tallinn, or both between 36 and 60 hours after the start of hostilities.”6

This high-end conflict implies a force, perhaps a smaller force, that has advanced systems for ground combat, fires, and aviation. It also implies a force that has different kinds of capabilities such as cyber, electronic warfare, anti-ship/sea control fires, cruise and ballistic missile defense, and very long-range precision fires.7 Creating this force in an environment of constrained end strength will require cutting existing capabilities such as BCT’s, a step the Army has not yet been willing to take.

The first of these new kinds of units to be fielded is cyber. The Army created cyber units quickly to get this new capability into the field and experiment with it. Although this engendered criticism from the Government Accountability Office that the Army had not fully analyzed the capability ahead of time, there is widespread support for the Army’s effort to move quickly. However, the Army is having a hard time recruiting enough personnel with the right skills, so cyber units are only partly filled, despite their relatively small size (several hundred in total).8

Other new kinds of units, like multi-domain brigades, remain conceptual, although the Army has published concepts and conducted experiments. Multi-domain units would integrate space, cyber, air, ground, and maritime “to execute simultaneous and sequential operations using surprise and the rapid and continuous integration of capabilities across all domains to present multiple dilemmas to an adversary.”9

Balance of Regular and Guard/Reserve Forces

Bottom line up front: Although the active/reserve mix has frequently been a source of tension in the Army, those tensions have eased recently as a result of closer consultation arising from the 2016 commission, higher budgets that benefit both components, and the difficulty that both components have in recruiting and retaining additional soldiers.

Tensions between regulars and reservists have existed since the beginning of the Republic. The two forces have different perspectives, histories, and cultures, so the resulting tensions are a challenge to be managed, not solved. This tension is particularly an issue for the Army because it has, by far, the largest reserve component, both in relative and absolute terms. For example, 52 percent of the total Army is in the reserve components, but only 35 percent of the total Air Force, 18 percent of the total Marine Corps, and 15 percent of the total Navy are in reserve components. Army reserve components are nearly twice the size of all the other reserve components put together (in FY 2019, 525,000 versus 275,000).

As the graph below shows, the active/reserve balance has shifted over time. Institution of the Total Force Policy in 1970, which called for increased reliance on the reserves, the initiation of the Volunteer Force in 1973, which raised the cost of military personnel, and the end of the draft in 1973, which cut off an easy supply of active duty personnel, caused the ratio to move away from an active-heavy force to parity between the components.

With the end of the Cold War, the ratio changed to a reserve heavy force as the regular force decreased more rapidly than the reserves.

The ratio reached parity again with expansion of the regular force during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but has returned to what appears to be a strategically stable level: 48 percent regular, 52 percent Guard/reserve. Instead of large growth in either the regular or Guard/reserve force, the Army, and DOD in general, have turned to contractors, as discussed in a later section.

Figure 2: Army Force Mix Ratio 1970-2019

Source: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2020, Table 7-5: Department of Defense Manpower, 260-262; Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), PB 20 Budget Roll Out Brief, 12.

Tensions between the components peak during drawdowns when constrained resources force difficult trade-offs. Thus, there was a crisis in the late-1990s during the post-Cold War drawdown and another in 2014 during the post-Iraq/Afghanistan drawdown. Key to easing recent tensions was the 2016 National Commission on the Future of the Army. The commission looked broadly at all the components and the total Army’s needs and published a set of recommendations that all components could accept.10 The recent budget increases have helped implement the commission’s recommendations and eased tensions generally, as the Army does not need to make tradeoffs between the components.

The bad news this year is that plans for force expansion in the reserve components have collapsed, as they have with the regular Army, amid difficulties in recruiting and retention. As the charts below show, the Army Reserve had planned to increase to 200,000 and the Army National Guard to 343,000. Instead, both struggle to maintain their FY 2019 end strength.

Figure 3: Army Reserve and Army National Guard End Strength

Source: PB 20 Budget Roll Out Brief, 12; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), Fiscal Year 2019 Budget Request (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, February 2018), 7, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Budget_ Request.pdf; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), Defense Budget Overview: Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request; Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller), Request for Additional Fiscal Year 2017 Appropriations (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, March 16, 2017), 7, https://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2017/marchAmendment/FY2017_Budget_Request.pdf.

Rather than increase size, the Reserve components have opted to increase readiness. The number of National Guard rotations to Combat Training Centers has increased from two to four, and the number of reserve component training days has increased. Nevertheless, both reserve components will suffer from understrength units as the force structure has not declined with the end strength plans.

The reserve components need to sustain their status as an operational reserve. On average, about 25,000 Army Reservists and Guardsmen are mobilized at any time, mainly supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.11 With high force demands on the Army continuing, this level of mobilization will likely persist indefinitely.

Modernization – Current and Future

Looked at broadly, Army modernization is a “good news, good news, bad news” story: the good news is that the Army continues production of proven systems and has a well-modernized force as a result. More good news is that the Army shifted $31 billion over the FYDP period into higher-priority modernization programs. The bad news is that the Army is still several years away from having a new generation of systems in production to take it into the 2020s and beyond and set it up for combat against great power adversaries.

Modernizing the Current Force

In the near term, the Army is sensibly plugging its most serious capability gaps by upgrading the major systems it has and producing these systems at relatively high rates. As CSIS acquisition experts Andrew Hunter and Rhys McCormick point out, focusing on capabilities through upgrades rather than developing major new systems avoids the technical, budgetary, and political risk of relying on a few costly, high-profile programs.12

Thus, the Army FY 2020 budget funds the latest versions of existing systems: the Abrams tank (M1A2C), the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (M2A4), the Stryker fighting vehicle (Double V-Hull, 30mm gun), the Paladin self-propelled howitzer (M109 PIM), the PATRIOT missile system (PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement), the UH-60 Blackhawk (M-model), the AH-64 Apache (E model), and the CH-47 Chinook (F-model). These programs run smoothly, produce equipment at known costs and on predictable schedules, and avoid acquisition scandals that in the past embarrassed the Army in front of Congress and the public.

Two relatively new programs are also in production: the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, an armored light truck and replacement for the up-armored HMMWVs, and the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle, a replacement for the M113 armored personnel carrier.

The effect of this approach, combined with the large wartime procurements during the 2000s, is that the Army’s force structure is filled with relatively new equipment. For example, the Apache fleet averages 8 years and the Chinook fleet 10 years.13 Gone are prewar concerns about aging equipment fleets.

Finally, the Army’s FY 2020 budget, like the other services, continues robust funding for munitions, for example, the Guided MLRS rocket, the Javelin antitank missile, and the 155mm artillery projectile. This reflects preparation for the intense combat that conflict with a great power would entail.

Creating the Future Force: Futures Command and “Night Court”

A long-standing concern about Army modernization is that there are no new systems coming online to replace the existing generation. This was the result of a “triple whammy”: a missed procurement cycle due to program failures, a focus on near-term systems for wartime operations, and modernization funding reductions in the postwar drawdown.14

The big news this year is that the senior Army leadership took a bold step toward rectifying this weakness by conducting “night court,” a process by which they reviewed every program to decide its continuing relevance and thereby identified resources for new programs. The decisions shifted $3.6 billion from lower- to higher-priority programs in the FY 2020 budget and $31 billion over the FYDP period.15 The process has received widespread acclaim in the national security community, although Congress has balked at a few of the cuts that the process made.

To bring fresh thinking into the Army’s acquisition programs and to move programs forward more quickly, the Army created the Army Futures Command in July 2018. Headquartered in Austin, Texas, far from existing Army bases but close to civilian innovation centers, the command is intended to follow the rapid timelines of civilian innovators rather than those of the ponderous DOD acquisition system. So far, the command has produced a lot of process and discussion (nine cross-functional teams and an 11-step process) but no new programs. To be fair, the command just recently reached full operational capability, but expectations are high.

The Army has divided its development effort into six major priorities (sometimes known as “the big six”): Long Range Precision Fires (artillery), Next Generation Combat Vehicle (armor), Future Vertical Lift (aviation), Army Network, Air and Missile Defense, and Soldier Lethality (infantry). The chart below shows the effect of “night court” as investment in each of the priority areas has increased.

Figure 4: Funding for Army Modernization Priorities

Note: LRPF: Long-Range Precision Fires; NGCV: Next Generation Combat Vehicle; FVL: Future Vertical Lift. AMD: Air & Missile Defense; SL: Soldier Lethality. Source: Sydney J. Freedberg, “Army ‘Big Six’ Ramp Up in 2021: Learning From FCS,” Breaking Defense, March 14, 2019, https:// breakingdefense.com/2019/03/army-big-six-ramp-up-in-2021-learning-from-fcs/. These charts are used with permission from Freedberg and Breaking Defense.16

These development systems will generally strengthen existing unit structures like BCTs, but a few—like cruise missile defense and antiship munitions—may create entirely new kinds of units.

Army leadership identifies FY 2023-2024 as the time when budget emphasis shifts to modernization and FY 2028 as the year when fielding of new systems begins. That is pretty far into the future, and these programs will need to cross the so-called “valley of death” that separates a technology project from a fielded capability. The Army plans to use the flexible Other Transaction Authorities recently provided by Congress to bridge this gap. However, it will still need to find funds for procurement, which the Army’s chief resource manager called “unrealized bills out [in the future]” that we’re going to have to figure out how to resource.”17

Described below are the major activities in each of the priority areas.

  • Air and missile defense. A major focus here is options to upgrade short-range air defenses. During the Cold War, the Army had extensive force structure dedicated to short-range air defense to protect its forces against any enemy aircraft that got through the U.S. Air Force fighter screen. However, after the Cold War, these units were mostly deactivated, with only a few left in the Army National Guard. The new threat is not so much enemy aircraft as cruise missiles and UAVs. Many prospective adversaries have such capabilities, and the Army has few defenses. The Israeli system Iron Dome may provide an interim capability. The first battery of Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense enters service in 2020. MSHORAD mounts a variety of missiles on 8×8 Stryker armored vehicles to protect frontline mechanized forces from drones, helicopters, and attack jets.

  • Long-range precision firepower. A variety of programs explore ways to extend the range of current fires platforms, both cannon and missile. One potential new capability is an anti-ship missile for MLRS/HIMARS, which would give the Army a major role in a Pacific maritime campaign. The effect of these initiatives is to revive the artillery branch, which had been considered a “dead branch walking” during the years of stability operations when firepower was a lower priority.

  • Next generation combat vehicle. Greatly desired by the armored community, the program is still in the demonstrator phase, previous efforts having failed to produce a viable program. A replacement for the Bradley is the highest priority with the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. However, the next armored vehicle to appear will likely come out of the relatively mature “Mobile Protected Firepower” effort (i.e., a light tank). One supporting capability on the verge of being fielded is armor protection systems mounted on existing armored vehicles that would intercept antitank missiles.

  • Future vertical lift. The Army is exploring a variety of technologies—Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) for transport and the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) for improved armed reconnaissance capabilities—but none are yet ready for fielding.

  • Soldier lethality. This covers enhancements, such as enhanced night vision goggles and new individual weapons and is linked to the department-wide Close Combat Lethality Task Force. The goal is to fund specialized equipment for “the close combat 100,000,”—those soldiers who actually close with the enemy—not the million-strong army.

  • Network. A variety of programs will upgrade and safeguard networks, particularly constructing them so they can operate in a hostile cyber environment.

Mark Cancian (Colonel, USMCR, ret.) is a senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax- exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

1Mark Milley, “Speech to the National Press Club,” National Press Club, Washington, DC, July 27, 2017, http://www.press.org/sites/default/files/20170727_milley.pdf.
2Meghann Myers, “After 2018’s Recruiting Shortfall, It Will Take A Lot Longer To Build The Army To 500k,” Army Times, March 14, 2019, https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2019/03/14/after-2018s-recruiting-shortfall-it-will-take-a-lot-longer-to-build- the-army-to-500k/.
3Amy Bushatz, “Questions Remain As DOD Gets Ready to Cut 18,000 Medical Personnel,” Military.com, July 10, 2019, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/07/10/questions-remain-dod-gets-ready-cut-18000-medical-personnel.html.
4Mark Milley, “On the Posture of the United States Army,” Testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, 116th Cong., 1st sess., March 26, 2019, https://www.army.mil/e2/downloads/rv7/aps/aps_2019.pdf?st.
5Mark Milley, “On the Posture of the United States Army.”
6David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics (Arling- ton, VA: RAND Corporation, 2016), http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.
7Jen Judson, “Multi-Domain Operations Task Force Cuts Teeth in the Pacific,” Defense News, August 28, 2018, https://www.defense- news.com/land/2018/08/28/multidomain-operations-task-force-cuts-teeth-in-pacific/.
8Sydney Freedberg, “Army Struggles To Man New Cyber/EW Units: GAO,” Breaking Defense, August 16, 2019, https://breakingdefense. com/2019/08/army-struggles-to-man-new-cyber-ew-units-gao/.
9“Multi-Domain Operations,” U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Oct 4, 2018, https://www.army.mil/standto/2018-10-04.
10National Commission on the Future of the Army, Report to the President and Congress of the United States (Washington, DC: January 2016), https://fas.org/man/eprint/ncfa.pdf.
11Military Manpower Data Center, Weekly Reserve Activation Reports [limited distribution, not publicly available].
12Rhys McCormick and Andrew Hunter, “The U.S. Army’s Next Big 5 Must Be Capabilities, Not New Platforms,” Defense One, July 25, 2017, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2017/07/us-armys-next-big-5-must-be-capabilities-not-new-platforms/139714/?oref=d-river.
13Congressional Budget Office, Cost of Replacing Today’s Army Aviation Fleet (Washington, DC: May 2019), Table A-1, https://www.cbo. gov/system/files/2019-05/55180-ArmyAviation.pdf.
14Rhys McCormick, “The Army Modernization Challenge: A Historical Perspective,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 31, 2016, http://fysa.csis.org/2016/03/31/the-army-modernization-challenge-a-historical-perspective. For description of Army acquisition failures, see John M. McHugh, Army Strong: Equipped, Trained, and Ready, Final Report of the 2010 Army Acquisition Review (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, January 2011), http://www.rdecom.army.mil/EDCG%20Telecoms/Final%20Report_ Army%20Acq%20Review.pdf.
15Mark Esper, “Building the Army We Need,” Hill, March 15, 2019, https://thehill.com/opinion/national-security/433753-build-ing-the-army-we-need; Connie Lee, “News from AUSA Global: Army Seeks to Realign Additional $10 Billion in Budget,” National Defense Magazine, March 26, 2019, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2019/3/26/news-from-ausa-global-army-seeks-to-re-align-additional-10-billion-in-budget.
16These charts from Breaking Defense show the increase and distribution of the Army’s modernization efforts in the FY2020 budget following the “night court” process. As Freedberg highlights in the first chart, “The Army is requesting $8.6 billion in 2020—a $3.6 billion increase over previous long-term plans—for its modernization priorities.” Further, as Freedberg highlights in the second chart, most of the increased funding will come in the years between 2021 and 2024, where “the priority programs will get $57 billion. That’s a whopping $33 billion increase—74 percent—over prior plans” and includes $5 billion that is not yet allocated to specific programs.
17Sydney Freedberg, “Can Army Control Costs of Its New Weapons?”, Breaking Defense, Sept. 19, 2019, https://breakingde- fense.com/2019/09/can-army-control-costs-of-its-new-weapons/