The Takeaway From AUSA

The annual exposition hosted at Washington’s convention center by the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) is widely considered to be the best run conference of any military service or defense association. It’s not just that AUSA does such a good job of managing the affair, and that everybody who’s anybody in the Army leadership shows up; it’s also that you can learn so much from simply walking the floor. The main thing that I learned this year — the exposition wrapped up on Wednesday — is that Army modernization is in deep trouble.

It looks like the most important new start for the Army’s aviation community — the Armed Aerial Scout — will be deferred indefinitely, meaning the mission will either have to continue being executed by aging OH-58 Kiowas or shifted to some other airframe. The premier new armored system, known as the Ground Combat Vehicle, also is facing trouble: respected sector analyst Byron Callan came away from AUSA saying “GCV appears dead.” The only place where rapid progress is being made in improving Army capabilities (as I wrote earlier this week) is the installation of a new battlefield network, and even there Army money problems threaten to slow the delivery of revolutionary communications equipment.

Further trouble lies ahead. The Marine Corps is contemplating dropping out of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, a much-needed replacement of the under-armored and aging Humvee successor to Cold War jeeps. The Marines only represent about a tenth of the expected domestic production run for JLTV, but they are upwards of 30% in the early years, so pulling out would burden the Army with big bills it is ill-prepared to pay. And delays in foreign military sales such as the recent cutoff of aid to Egypt are endangering the dwindling industrial base for legacy armored vehicles like the Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle — which the Army had planned to turn to later in the decade for fleet upgrades.

Everywhere you look in the Army’s modernization plan, you find evidence that the service simply doesn’t have enough money to keep up with current trends in warfighting technology. This is a tragedy in the making, because the next time America feels compelled to respond to some overseas crisis in Korea or Israel or the Horn of Africa, it won’t be sailors or airmen who are getting shot at, it will be soldiers. The political system is inventing all sorts of excuses for why under-funding the Army isn’t dangerous — we won’t do protracted stability operations any more, we’re shifting focus to the Pacific, etc. — but this is a business where the enemy always has the final say. If Saudi Arabia explodes tomorrow the Army will have to deploy, ready or not.

I voted for President Obama twice, and after the Tea Party-engineered shutdown of the government earlier this month, I’m feeling pretty good about those votes. But if this administration wants to be remembered well by history, it has to do more to arrest the atrophy of capabilities in the military service that does most of the fighting. No matter how much Washington hates the idea of new conflicts in places like the Middle East, we must proceed on the assumption that enemies will challenge us where we are weakest. Right now, the place where the joint force is looking likely to be most debilitated in the future is ground forces with staying power, because the twin pillars of technology and training are being eroded by a political system too distracted to notice the damage it is doing.