The US Army is pursuing bleeding-edge weapon systems at breakneck pace in the name of modernization. But in the op-ed below, the Lexington Institute’s Dr. Dan Goure asks whether the service is confusing technological advancement with a real modern warfighting strategy.
When the US Army talks about transforming itself, it focuses primarily on new, advanced capabilities, and on streamlining the acquisition system. And there is a lot to be positive about in Army’s success in accelerating development of an array of new and hopefully significantly more capable weapons systems, platforms, and enablers.
But the Army’s effort to transform itself is, at best, an uneven success. While it may soon have a lot of new capabilities to deploy, and despite the optimism surrounding its Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concept, it is still unclear how it intends to exploit this advantage to defeat adversaries who are technologically its equals and have the advantage of being close to where the conflicts will occur.
The Army is proceeding full speed ahead with its modernization efforts, the so-called 31+4 programs. Over the next few years, the Army claims it will achieve initial fielding of capabilities from at least 22 of the 35 programs. These include a hypersonic missile, several long-range precision strike weapons, enhanced soldier vision systems, tactical lasers, and artificial intelligence. By the end of the decade, the Army expects to begin deploying a rich array of land, air, space, and cyber capabilities from its 31+4 modernization programs.
In support of its efforts to produce transformational capabilities, Army leadership harvested some $35 billion dollars from existing acquisition and R&D activities in a series of budget reviews, labeled “Night Courts.” In doing so, the Army successfully protected its highest priority, the development of new capabilities. It also maintained funding for critical enablers, including sensors and communications systems necessary to the ability to employ its modernized capabilities to full effect.
But at the same time, the Army chose to cut back its investments in other, less transformative systems, such as the advanced SEPV3 version of the Abrams tank and the Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTVs), even though these will be critical to its ability to wage high-end land warfare. Therefore, even with the most successful modernization program in its history, the Army will continue to depend on variants of existing capabilities for many decades to come.
The pursuit of new tech over a more holistic modernization is evidenced by new Army offices as well.
Even after establishing the Army Futures Command to oversee rapid modernization, the Army stood up an additional organization, the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO), to focus on making rapid advances in the most difficult but potentially impactful areas such as hypersonics, directed energy, artificial intelligence, and space. Recently, the director of the RCCTO, Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood cited his organization’s success in changing the way his service’s acquisition culture in order to deliver the first battery of a hypersonic missile in about four years as an example of successful modernization.
When did the Army come to believe that acquiring new stuff fast equals modernization? Military history would suggest that while better equipment can make a difference in a future conflict, it is much more important to develop an operational concept and, eventually, a doctrine that can defeat the way an adversary intends to fight.
In 1940, the French military had, on balance, better tanks and fighters than Germany’s Wehrmacht. France was defeated because they didn’t know how to fight a mechanized war. Its new equipment was employed in service of a strategy based on static, positional defenses. Germany, with inferior tanks and an army only 10% mechanized, developed new ways of employing its forces and a novel approach to air-ground cooperation that proved successful in battle with multiple adversaries for the first years of the war.
The last time the US Army successfully transformed itself was in the 1980s, when it had the good fortune to be able to capitalize on the timely intersection of two developments. The first was a long-term, multi-pronged modernization effort that produced the so-called Big Five weapons systems that still constitute the core of Army land warfare capabilities: the M1 Abrams tank, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Patriot air defense system, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter and the UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter.
The second development was the articulation of a new operational concept called AirLand Battle. It was designed to exploit penetrating airpower and offensive ground maneuver to take advantage of the highly structured and relatively predictable operating style of the Soviet army. The Big Five fit closely with the needs of AirLand battle by enhancing the Army’s ability to exploit seams in Soviet ground force deployments.
At present, the Army is developing what it describes as a new operating concept, called Multi-Domain Operations (MDO). It is not a way of fighting but an attempt to exploit opportunities created by the development of offensive “fire” systems across multiple environments or domains; land, sea, air, space and cyber. MDO documents speak of creating dilemmas for an adversary by being able to manage diverse distributed offensive capabilities across the Joint Force in a coordinated manner. In doing so, the Army will be able to penetrate and disintegrate enemy anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, thereby creating opportunities for the Joint Force to conduct strategic maneuvers.
While the Army has invested heavily in acquiring new means for conducting battle, it has done much less to develop a fully fleshed-out operational concept with which to fight a future high-end conflict. What good is a battery, or even entire battalions of hypersonic weapons, when it is not clear what there are supposed to shoot at or why? The six modernization priorities provide new toys for every tribe in the Army, but firing farther and flying faster is not an operational concept.
MDO is not an operational concept. It is unclear if it will ever be one. It is more of a fires doctrine or target servicing plan. This is particularly the case in the Indo-Pacific theater, where there is precious little room for offensive maneuver warfare except maybe on the Korean Peninsula. As described in a recently published strategy paper, the Army’s approach to fighting in the Indo-Pacific is to disperse formations across various islands to make them hard to detect while taking pot shots at Chinese air and naval forces.
In addition, the weapons may be getting better, but the required intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, and logistics to make them effective are not there. Moreover, US forces are not deployed where they can effectively conduct MDO activities, either in Europe or the Indo-Pacific.
How will the US Army counter a fast-moving Russian ground offensive against the Baltic States, Poland, or Ukraine? It may be much more important to have large, heavy armored ground forces deployed forward along NATO’s Eastern flank than to deploy batteries of long-range fire systems located well to the rear.
What the Army needs is a transformative way of conducting theater-scale, high-end combat against equally well-equipped adversaries with the advantages of proximity to the likely battlefield and the ability to choose the time and place to initiate hostilities.
Dr. Daniel Goure is a Senior Vice President at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research organization in Northern Virginia. Dr. Goure served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1991-1993 as Director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness.
Can the US Army Transform Without a New Approach to Warfare? – Breaking Defense Breaking Defense is written by Daniel Goure for breakingdefense.com