The Army Needs to Buy Capability Today to Be Modern Tomorrow

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Processes are no substitute for production. The U.S. Army’s effort to reform the processes associated with its acquisition system, from requirements definition through investments in technology to engineering development and production, is moving forward. Army leaders, particularly Under Secretary Ryan McCarthy and the Vice Chief of Staff, General James McConville, appear to be working full time on the reform project.

However, it is not clear that the Army has the luxury of time to first reorganize the acquisition system and then develop an array of new platforms and systems. As General McConville recently observed: “We are at an inflection point where we can no longer afford to defer modernizing our capabilities and developing new ones without eroding competitive advantages of our technology and weapon systems.”

It will take years to determine whether the new processes and organizations can speed up the Army’s acquisition system. Moreover, the Army’s reform effort is focused primarily on shortening the front end of the acquisition process. It wants to reduce the time to develop requirements from five or more years to two or less. This is an improvement.

But even more, time is consumed by the complex and cumbersome processes of designing, developing and testing new capabilities. Moreover, because the Army acquires platforms and systems in relatively small quantities per year, continuing the current approach means that it will take decades to modernize the force even once new capabilities are developed.

Although the Army talks about having reached an inflection point and needing to rapidly counter the loss of overmatch vis-à-vis great power competitors, recent programmatic and budgetary decisions suggest that when it comes to actually putting new capabilities in the field, not much has changed. In fact, some priority modernization programs actually appear to be moving more slowly.

According to documents submitted in support of its fiscal year (FY) 2019 budget request, the Army appears to be increasing the time it will take to field the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) replacement for current rotary wing systems. Despite having spent years conducting research and producing prototypes in FVL’s precursor program, the Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator, the Army still doesn’t plan to field the system before 2030. By adding more time to the program, the Army virtually guarantees it will overshoot General McConville’s inflection point.

Similarly, a year appears to have been added to the development phase of the Long Range Precision Fires (LPRF) program. One reason for this delay is to assess the current state of technology. Another reason is to conduct analyses of key price drivers that could impact life-cycle cost estimates and force the program down an alternative path. Both these factors suggest that further delays in the LRPF program could be coming.

When it comes to the new and improved tactical communications network, the funding provided in the FY2018/2019 budgets are essentially placeholders. When the decision was taken to terminate the program of record, WIN-T Increment 2, Under Secretary McCarthy said that it would take at least two years to define a new network. What emerges from this process and how long it will take to implement is anyone’s guess.

The one modernization priority that the Army is attempting to speed up, according to FY2019 budget documents, is the Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV). The Army wants to cut a year off the development schedule for prototype vehicles. Given that the plan was to begin fielding the NGCV in 2035, a one-year acceleration is a good start, but only that.

The reality is if the Army wants to have a more capable force before the middle of the century, it needs to prioritize production over processes. This means buying what is available today and doing so in large quantities. Increasing production of upgraded versions has additional benefit: hot production lines, a large and capable workforce and companies willing to commit more of their resources to research and production improvements.

The FY2018/2019 budgets provide funding for increased production of Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. The current plan is to produce about 1.25 brigade sets of each vehicle a year. In addition, the Army has announced that it will deploy an interim maneuver short-range air defense capability, essentially the venerable Avenger turret on a Stryker vehicle.

Because the Army does not have the luxury of time, it needs to accelerate current efforts to upgrade existing capabilities beyond the levels in the current Pentagon budgets. For example, there is still capacity at the General Dynamics tank facility at Lima, Ohio. The Army should max out the capacity at Lima, around 325 tanks a year, which would result in the entire Abrams fleet being modernized in around five years.

There may be a possibility for expanding production of upgraded Bradleys, although the main BAE facility at York, Pennsylvania is quite busy with both Bradley upgrades and production of the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. The Army should consider committing to multiyear procurements for both platforms.

The Army also needs to continue the Stryker Lethality upgrade program. The service’s unfunded priorities list, formulated before the decision to raise the defense budget, included a second lethality upgrade. It makes no sense to produce one enhanced brigade and then wait several years. The Army should do a Stryker brigade a year for the rest of the Future Years Defense Program.

If FVL is being slowed, the Army might want to think about accelerating the Improved Turbine Engine Program which will provide a more powerful and fuel-efficient engine for Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. This would provide near-term capability improvement for Army aviation.

It is possible that the Army’s reform efforts will substantially shorten the time it takes to develop and field new weapons systems. Only time will tell. But because the Army cannot count on having much time before a military confrontation with a great power competitor, it needs to buy all it can in the near-term.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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