Unlike the other services, the U.S. Army’s modernization strategy is in disarray. There is virtually nothing new in the pipeline with respect to combat vehicles, aircraft, indirect fire, air and missile defense or even small arms, as far as the eye can see. The blame for this must fall squarely on the Army’s acquisition system, the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) through Army Materiel Command, various developmental organizations, and the Centers of Excellence down to individual program offices. The Army’s acquisition behemoth takes too long, tries too hard, spends too much, and produces too little.
In 2015, it is ironic that Army acquisition is in such bad shape. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army pioneered an accelerated approach to articulating requirements, identifying and testing candidate technologies and deploying responsive capabilities. It stood up organizations focused on the idea of rapid deployment of 80 percent solutions to urgent operational needs. The efforts by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization and the Rapid Equipping Force were phenomenal. The Army deployed tens of thousands of items, everything from cold weather gear to robots, Unmanned Aircraft Systems, aerostats, counter IED devices, remote weapons stations and even armored vehicles, through an accelerated acquisition process based on operational requirements generated in the field. Many of these capabilities are retained by the post-Iraq Army because they work.
Today, the Army is evolving how it formulates requirements and pursues acquisitions. In particular, there is the trend towards allowing commanders in the field to drive the processes through the generation of operational needs statements (ONS). This approach will not work for everything, most notably major new weapons systems and combat vehicles. But it is particularly relevant and useful at this stage in the Army’s evolution where there is little money for new starts, transformational technologies are fairly far out on the horizon, and there is substantial uncertainty regarding where the Army will be deployed and how it will be required to fight. By focusing on the operational needs generated by field commanders, the Army can promote relevance, shorten acquisition timelines, constrain costs, limit the potential for mischief by a distant acquisition bureaucracy and, perhaps most importantly, gets new capabilities into the hands of operators to see if they work. This takes the idea of prototyping, a focus of the acquisition reform proposals laid out in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act, in an interesting direction.
In addition, the Army has figured out how to use experimentation, notably the Network Integration Evaluations (NIEs), to test and assess hardware and systems. An example is the so-called Capability Set 13, a mix of new and tried, but very capable, equipment that will be provided to deploying Brigade Combat Teams. The creation of the Army Warfighting Assessments in lieu of one of the twice a year NIEs will provide the Service with another useful venue for realistic experimentation involving new capabilities and concepts.
The demand pull generated by field commanders through the ONS process can be matched by a focused supply push provided by TRADOC, the Centers of Excellence and Army Materiel Command and its subordinates. These organizations should look across theaters, commands, conflicts and adversaries to identify significant near-term, real world capability gaps that should be addressed. These gaps reflect not only our own experiences, but those of friends and allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The Army should focus on its near-term capability gaps and move forward to test and then deploy the best breed of existing capabilities in a relatively small number. This is exactly how the Army is responding to an ONS from U.S. European Command for enhanced lethality in the Stryker fleet: the Army identified an existing 30mm gun and turret and is retrofitting it on a portion of the Stryker fleet.
Here is a modest proposal. The Army has an urgent need for an active protection capability for its combat vehicles. The growing lethality of hostile anti-armor/anti-vehicle systems has intersected with the physical limits of passive protection. There is a clear need to equip, at a minimum, forward deployed and early arriving units with active protection.
The Army needs to conduct a demo/test of worldwide active protection systems to see what is on the market. Russia is said to have such a system. So are France and Israel. There are U.S. companies that have worked with the army in the past on active protection concepts. Such an effort is similar to what is currently done in the Network Integration Evaluations. The experience and performance of these systems will be invaluable to the Army as it determines the current state-of-the-art as well as potential deficiencies that will need to be researched, developed, tested, and integrated.
Assuming there is a system, or possibly several, capable of providing a minimum level of performance (the 80 percent solution), rapidly procure a number of them, equip a small fleet of vehicles with one or two of the most promising solutions, and provide them to forward deployed U.S. forces. There they can serve as a live test bed while providing protection to troops where none currently exists.
For the foreseeable future, the Army needs to sideline its traditional acquisition system and the associated bureaucracy. Instead, it should focus on rapid identification and insertion of new capabilities and systems to address urgent operational needs. The new system should be to test a little, buy a little and repeat.
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