Times are tough for the U.S. Army. After twelve years of fighting — the longest stretch of continuous combat in the Army’s history — its plans to rebuild are being shredded by across-the-board funding cuts. Desperate to protect soldiers in Afghanistan, it is ransacking its budget for savings that can be used to cover a shortfall in operational funds. In the process, though, it seems to be abandoning any semblance of stability in its investment agenda, slashing programs critical to protecting tomorrow’s soldiers from the dangers those in Afghanistan face today.
A case in point is the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T. Up until a month ago, Army leaders were describing that battlefield networking program as their top investment priority, the “backbone” of the future tactical communications system. The reason WIN-T is so important is that the latest version delivers secure voice, data and video communications to command vehicles on the move in the heat of battle. Previous tactical communications systems required unit commanders to stop their vehicles and set up communications gear, which meant they couldn’t keep up with fast-moving maneuver units and sometimes became sitting ducks. When the U.S. invaded Iraq ten years ago, some commanders had to choose between keeping in touch with headquarters and keeping up with advancing troops.
With WIN-T, commanders no longer need to make that choice, because they have both the connectivity and the mobility to command effectively no matter where the fight is. Without WIN-T, they might not know where friendly troops are, where enemy troops are, or how joint war plans have changed. In other words, they might not know information critical to minimizing casualties. So of course WIN-T is a top priority. In fact, it is the top priority for protecting tomorrow’s force, every bit as important as body armor in giving soldiers what they need to stay alive.
It tells you a lot about the fiscal and operational pressures the Army faces that even this high-priority program is being targeted for reduced funding. The service wants to stretch out fielding of the new network, which is already deployed with some units, so it could take a decade or longer before the full force is equipped with the core of its next-generation communications system. Unfortunately, that means soldiers caught in a fight between now and then who haven’t yet received the new equipment are more likely to die, or to be defeated. It also means that by the time WIN-T is fully fielded, it is likely to look antiquated even though it is state-of-the-art today, because ten years is an eternity in digital communications technology.
There’s a simple solution to this dilemma: the funding to cover war costs needs to come from somewhere else. There are plenty of other funding sources from which to choose, and in fact the reprogramming request in which the latest proposed cuts to WIN-T are contained identifies dozens of them. But if the Army yet again takes money from a program that is supposed to be its top priority, then the signal the service sends is that it doesn’t really have any investment priorities. When something is identified as a top priority, that means it is supposed to be the last thing cut — and in this case there’s good reason to believe that slowing the effort down could have tragic consequences for future warfighters.
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