The U.S. Army is currently engaged in the herculean task of sustaining a military force at war on multiple fronts while simultaneously transforming that force into a more agile and networked organization. Amazingly enough, it seems to be succeeding. Not only is the service maintaining a high rate of readiness in its deployed units, but it is somehow managing to transform those units into standardized, “modular” brigades between combat rotations. Thus, despite all the reports of stress in the Army’s personnel system, its force in the field is actually becoming more capable over time.
However, the single-mindedness with which the Army has attacked the task of sustaining and transforming its fielded force has a downside. Reserve units not engaged in the fight are being stripped of equipment needed to win the war, while equipment deployed in the war zone is being driven at a furious pace — in some cases, at ten times the peacetime rate. That means it is going to wear out sooner than planned, and the service will need to step up plans to replace much of it.
The Army Materiel Command has a plan to do that, but in the near term it mostly involves upgrading and remanufacturing items already on hand. For example, the diverse inventory of Abrams main battle tanks that have proven their value so frequently in Iraq will be rationalized to two improved variants, both of which will probably remain in the force until 2045. A similar plan is contemplated for Bradley fighting vehicles. Apache AH-64A attack helicopters will be upgraded to a digitized “D” version, while the venerable CH-47D Chinook cargo helicopter will be remanufactured for a second time to the CH-47F configuration.
Remanufacturing is supposed to restore equipment to a like-new condition, but it’s hard to believe that a Cold War helicopter undergoing its second service-life extension will ride like a new one. It’s also hard to believe that an armored vehicle that debuted in the Reagan years is still going to be viable two generations from now. The Army recognizes that it eventually will need to buy new weapons, and has made a good start with the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and an off-the-shelf replacement of its Kiowa armed reconnaissance helicopter.
Beyond that, the crystal ball grows cloudy — especially with regard to networking initiatives begun on Rumsfeld’s watch. Last week the Army cancelled the contract to develop a sensor aircraft for finding hostile emitters, even though the electronic architecture was said to be impressive. The plane picked for the job supposedly was too small, but the real problem was that the Army couldn’t reconcile its needs with those of its Navy partner. Meanwhile, the Army’s portion of a future Joint Tactical Radio System is in disarray due to difficulties in developing a suitable architecture and supporting software.
Then there is the centerpiece of the Army investment vision, the $160 billion Future Combat System (FCS). The official line on FCS is that it is on budget and on schedule. But that may be more a reflection of its nebulous performance criteria than any real progress. Many observers inside and outside the program say its overgrown network won’t work, its vehicles aren’t survivable, and there are faster, cheaper ways to get new capabilities into the field. FCS isn’t a disaster yet — the “WIN-T” network providing its information backbone is a success — but you have to wonder where the Army thinks it’s going after Iraq.
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