For the last six months, the Army has been telegraphing that it will need to take money from its equipment programs to fund its new modernization priorities. Army chief of staff General Mark Milley said that in order to free up $30 billion over five years for modernization, the branch will have to “kill" 93 equipment programs and reduce 93 others. Army leaders made those hard decisions during its extended “night court” sessions last year.
As the saying goes, “To make an omelet, you have to break some eggs.” The Army is about to crack open plenty of funding eggs, and Congress should let it get cooking. Modernization has been slow tracked for most of this century. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan forced the Army to focus on equipment needed immediately to wage counterinsurgency operations. Investing in items such as mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, slow flying drones, and jammers, were appropriate and lifesaving decisions. But it cost the Army a decade and a half of the kind of modernization effort needed to counter great power adversaries like Russia and China.
The problem worsened in 2012 as the Budget Control Act started to slice money out of the Army budget. Pinched by both the demands of war and corrosive spending caps, the Army now finds itself in a position where its leaders acknowledge it is “outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned.” In 2017, leaders set out to revitalize the modernization effort. Last year, they activated the Army Futures Command, a new four star headquarters to manage the programs. Eight cross functional teams were also put in place to oversee development and execution of the programs.
Most significantly, leaders committed to modernizing with funds largely already inside Army programs. They were unwilling to ask Congress for more money before first looking inward. The brass quickly realized there was not enough money to both upgrade legacy equipment and develop weapons needed for future combat, such as long range precision fires and next generation combat vehicles. That is when they decided to squeeze $30 billion out of the existing Army programs and invest it in the future.
Everyone thus far, including members of Congress, seems okay with that strategy. But it is about to get more difficult because what seems okay in the abstract often gets difficult in the specific. The Army will have had to target its biggest programs to find $30 billion. In fiscal 2019, the Army has devoted a majority of equipment funds to upgrading legacy helicopters such as the Apache, Blackhawk, and Chinook, along with legacy combat platforms such as the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, and Paladin howitzer. In the Defense Department budget set to be unveiled next week, those large programs are likely unfunded or sharply reduced, and there is little doubt many other programs will be zeroed out or sharply reduced.
Here is the rub. All of these Army programs have strong constituencies in the industry, at think tanks, and consequently in Congress. Knowing that their programs are quite likely in the crosshairs, many of these interested parties have already begun to make their arguments that, while they agree in general that Army modernization must change, in the case of their own particular programs, the Army has gotten it wrong. It is at this point where Congress must demonstrate leadership and support the tough decisions of the Army. The pain in the near term will be enormous because these programs are in production with associated jobs and economic impacts.
To make the needed investments in the next generation of equipment, the Army has no choice but to pivot from incrementally improving its legacy equipment to focusing on a vision for the future. It is far from a remote choice. American lives depend on having the decisive edge in combat equipment. Today, that advantage is at grave risk. To regain it, Congress must underwrite these informed modernization decisions of the Army.
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 3/4/19