Enjoy what is left of the peace of the post-Cold War. We are entering a new era of great power conflict and, potentially, one of major wars. As the Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Work, recently observed:
“The most significant shift in the future security environment – and that is a return to an era of great power competition. Today, we are faced with a resurgent Russia and a rising China. Both are nuclear-armed powers. Both are fielding advanced capabilities at a rapid rate. Both are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and both are raising issues with some aspects of the principled international order that has preserved stability and enabled the peaceful pursuit of prosperity for decades.”
Deputy Secretary Work is hardly alone in holding these views. The Secretary of Defense has identified his five major security concerns as: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and terrorism. In his confirmation hearings, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, identified Russia as the leading existential threat to the United States. The Vice Chairman has made similar comments. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Philip Breedlove, and the Commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Benjamin Hodges, have publicly warned of the growing Russian threat to the Alliance. The only people who don’t seem to get what is going on are some fiscal conservatives in Congress and a thin slice of think tank experts, academics and media pundits.
It is the absence of great power competition, not its presence, which has been the unusual state of affairs in the world for the past 25 years. Were Russia, China and the others willing to work within the norms and rules of the current international order even as they sought greater influence in it, that would not be a problem. But as Deputy Secretary Work noted, these two major powers, as well as North Korea, Iran and some others, want to rewrite the rules in ways congenial to their interests but not to America’s or that of any free and democratic country.
What makes this emerging competition all the more worrisome is that behind it is the rapid growth in Russian and Chinese conventional and nuclear capabilities. These investments have resulted in a loss of U.S. conventional military superiority in a number of areas. The U.S. Air Force isn’t certain it can successfully penetrate advanced air defenses with acceptable losses. The U.S. Army doesn’t have the means to effectively counter Russian long-range fire systems. These countries are selling advanced military capabilities to others, meaning that even if we never have to fight Russia or China we will face their weapons systems, possibly in large numbers.
The Big 8 Initiative is meant to focus the attention of the senior leadership of the Army, all the way to the Chief of Staff, on restoring that service’s ability to overmatch any adversary and to do so by systematically and logically investing in specific capabilities, largely but not exclusively platforms and systems. The capability areas that make up the Big 8 are: combat vehicles, soldier/team performance and overmatch, expeditionary mission command, cross domain fires, cyber/electromagnetic, future vertical lift, robotics and autonomous systems and advanced protection. These capabilities will be central to future high-end conventional conflict.
One of the Army’s main planning challenges is uncertainty regarding where, when and against whom they will fight. Another is that it has too many identified capabilities gaps with some stakeholder clamoring for attention to each one. A third is a relative scarcity of modernization funds. It is hoped that by developing a Big 8 Initiative and associated management process, the Army leadership can more effectively focus its modernization efforts and resources on the most critical of those gaps.
The Army leadership could enhance the value, credibility and relevance of the Big 8 Initiative by pursuing in the near-term what I would call a “small 8” initiative. The reality is that the Army lacks the resources to push a new set of major platforms as it did in the 1970s. Moreover, it is not clear in a number of the areas what would be the next “big thing.” Finally, even where there are major programs currently underway such as in advanced protection and future vertical lift (FVL), it will be years before they bear any fruit. And the Army may not have that kind of time.
A “small 8” initiative would focus on closing a recognized, serious capability gap in each of the eight areas for at least a portion of the force in the next couple of years. That is what the Army did with its effort to up gun a portion of the Strykers in the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment with a new, more lethal 30mm cannon. Similarly, the Army could take an important step forward in advanced protection by deploying active protection systems on a subset of its Heavy and Stryker Brigade Combat Teams. The Army needs to run an evaluation no later than next year and pick a few available systems for deployment. Also, it could acquire several squadrons’ worth of existing advanced rotorcraft, like Sikorsky’s Raider, as a way of informing the FVL effort and making something of a down payment on its vision of a new scout/light attack helicopter.
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