Budget Shifts and Force Restructuring Reveal That US Army Modernization Is Ready

 In White Papers

After facing years of stagnation and failed visions of the future, the US Army has seen a resurgence over the past two years as relations with Russia have worsened and conventional land warfare has become a higher priority for the Department of Defense.

The Army has seemed rejuvenated by this solidified vision of what it needs to be, and the success of several major acquisition programs buoyed that hope as the Army looks to completely reinvent itself and recapitalize its conventional forces by 2030.

Such an elongated US Army modernization timeline reflected the significant amount of caution with which industry viewed the Army’s plans as well as the Army’s diminished confidence in successfully executing them.

The Army has long been constrained by a small, but deeply entrenched industrial base, and previously considered gun-shy when it came to creating a vision after the collapses of the Future Combat Systems program, the Commanche helicopter, and a litany of networking programs, while historically struggling with tradeoffs between existing programs and their replacements.

However, the past month has been marked by the Army making aggressive choices in budget and force structure that signal a seismic shift in how the US Army modernization plans to approach acquisition and herald an exciting AUSA.

Budget Shifts Signal Building the A Force for The Future, Not for Now

The single biggest obstacle to believing the Army was going to change was that it was unwilling to put its money behind its stated priorities. While the Generals spoke of increased lethality and generational technological leaps, budgets focused on iterative operational improvements of existing platforms and systems to sustain the force.

While Secretaries spoke of Armies of the Future, the comptroller would show a modernized Army of the 1980s. However, just six months after the FY 2019 budget release and as the 2020 POM process accelerates, the Army has showed that it is ready to back up what it has been saying with dollars.

The first movements were found within the final 2018 Appropriations bill where the equivalent of half of the Army’s procurement plus-up was allocated toward accelerating the Stryker Lethality Program’s expansion and nearly $1 billion was added to R&D. And those R&D programs, like the Stryker Lethality Program, are clearly focused on fighting a conventional land war in Europe or on the Korean Peninsula.

Nearly $400M was poured into the Weapons Technology budgets, increasing the Army’s ability to fund programs focusing on long range fires ($122M), 120mm cannon fired guided missiles ($50M), and other technologies better suited to armored conflict than COIN operations.

The Army slowed current Bradley modernization efforts and kneecapped the follow-on upgrade program to send a clear signal: The Next Generation Combat Vehicle is the priority.

Yet, the greatest indicator of a shift in US Army modernization acquisition strategy came from the fact that it clearly chose to significantly deprioritize a deeply entrenched program: the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. In both the Procurement and RDT&E accounts, Bradley modernization programs (specifically ECP A4 and A5 ) were the Army’s single largest cutbacks.

The Army slowed current Bradley modernization efforts and kneecapped the follow-on upgrade program to send a clear signal: The Next Generation Combat Vehicle is the priority.

The service is also taking steps to signal to industry that this was no fluke of the Congressional budget process. Last week, US Army officials “leaked” to Bloomberg Government that the FY2020 budget would see this not only continue but expand.

Reliable industrial base standbys like Bradley, Chinook, UH-60, and ATACMS would be scaled back to make room for major modernization programs like NGCV, FVL, Precision Strike Missile, and other modernization priorities. Whether this shift in priorities survives impact with Congressional prerogatives remains to be seen.

However, both the Stryker and the Abrams will actually see significant increases in the next budget (nearly $300M per year each) because they are both initiating major upgrade programs that promise revolutionary increases in capability.

The aforementioned Stryker Lethality Program and its 30mm cannon has been combined with the overall Stryker Upgrade program, in a modernization program that not only covers all Stryker Brigades, but also sees the Stryker evolve from an armored personnel carrier to a wheeled infantry fighting vehicle.

The Abrams meanwhile looks to benefit from the ongoing revolution in armored protection systems (APS) as proof-of-concept and lessons learned emerge from Israeli operations in Gaza and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Effective APS dislodges the supremacy that anti-tank missiles have held over the battlefield, and could mean that once again, the only effective way to kill a tank is with another tank.

US Army Modernization Form Fits Function

By switching its underlying force structure, the Army is also signaling its long-term commitment toward conventional operations and away from equipping a COIN force: because the Army procures to equip the force it has, not the Army it wants.

As the Army’s acquisition strategy has shifted, it has begun restructuring in anticipation of its future posture.

On September 20, the Army quietly announced a significant force structure change:

  • It would convert the 1st Stryker Brigade of the 1st Armored Division to an Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) in 2019, and
  • Convert the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division to a Stryker Brigade in 2020.

These conversions represent a continuation of a trend, begun by the recent conversion of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 3rd Division to an armored brigade, of restructuring the US Army from a COIN-centric force toward an offensive mechanized army.

While this could be cynically seen as an effort to keep Stryker and Abrams modernization spending high, it more likely has a root in how the US and NATO view how a likely conflict in Eastern Europe would play out.

Analysts currently project that Russia would be able to seize the Baltics within 2.5 days of a war breaking out and even the stationing of an armored division and rapid response forces would be insufficient to “the amounts required to deny Russia a quick overrun of the Baltics.”

Thus, NATO operations required to expel the Russian Army are similar in mission and composition to Desert Storm, and would thus be dominated by armored and mechanized assets while infantry and motorized forces would be relegated to defensive operations.

This shift foreshadows the existing budget shifts. While the choice of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division to return to an ABCT is likely primarily driven by the unit’s historical lineage in Europe and a desire to purify the 1st Armored into a straight armored division, it also benefits the readiness of the 2nd Brigade of the 4th Infantry Division and underpins the acceleration of the Stryker Lethality Program.

By freeing up the former 1st Armored Division Strykers for a year, it allows the program to be quickly accelerated, freeing up additional Strykers to be converted to the new standard without forcing a unit to be hamstrung, reclassified for a year, or requisition new Strykers.

By switching its underlying force structure, the Army is also signaling its long-term commitment toward conventional operations and away from equipping a COIN force: because the Army procures to equip the force it has, not the Army it wants.

Unveiling the Future Force

As we look to the Association of the US Army Conference this week in Washington, observers should pay particular attention to what US Army leaders have to say.

This will be their first time to face industry and the public since these budget and force structure shifts were announced and we will see the first hints of their strategies for selling what may be a revolutionary 2020 budget request for the Army.

So, while there will likely be several lively discussions about why $2 billion a year isn’t enough to staff an armored brigade to “Fort Trump” in Poland, much less an armored division, pay much more attention to what the Army Futures Command Teams are saying in briefings on the second and third days.

They are the purest distillation of the vision that the US Army modernization has for the future, and the Army has given every possible indication to show that they are now finally willing to make sacrifices, trade-offs, and changes to make that vision a reality.

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