The U.S. Army has withstood a barrage of criticism from defense experts over the past ten years or even twenty years, including from me. The central thrust of these criticisms has been the Army’s difficulty in adapting to changes in the security environment and in technology. As a result, there is a meme that sees the Army as repeatedly playing catch-up with respect to emerging threats such as IEDs or new capabilities like mobile phone networks. As a result, Army acquisition has often shown signs of what might be characterized as “bureaucratic bipolar disorder,” on the one hand jumping from one trendy idea to another but, on the other hand at times moving so slowly on major acquisition programs that they were rendered obsolete by newer technologies or changing strategic circumstances.
The Army may be on the verge of changing this negative narrative. Facing uncertainty at every turn, the Army decided to reclaim its fate and chart a deliberate course to the future. For the past three years the Army leadership has been engaged in an intense analytic and intellectual effort designed to provide the basis for defining a long-range plan for a new Army. In so doing, the Army has shown a willingness to move out of its comfort zone, raising questions about its enduring roles and missions, the way it organizes, trains and equips forces and where it needs to invest in order to create future capabilities.
The most telling indicator of the Army’s new thinking is how it intends to deploy its scarce acquisition resources. In essence, the Army is betting on the future, seeking to protect R&D funds and to deploy available dollars in ways that could pay substantial dividends in terms of major advances in capability and/or reductions in cost. Because it is still fighting a war in Afghanistan while also drawing down the force, procurement must take a big hit in the near-term. This is why the Army reluctantly decided to scale back the Ground Combat Vehicle program and terminate the acquisition of a replacement for the Kiowa Warrior scout helicopter. It hopes to return to these and other program areas as new technologies emerge and resources become more available.
Betting on the future also means betting on soldiers. The Army came to the conclusion that its most important asset is its people. Therefore, anything that can be done to improve the physical and mental performance of individual service men and women, from the lowliest private to the Chief of Staff, will see tremendous returns. If it has one spare dollar to invest, it plans to put it on human performance. This means investing in everything from cognitive research, training simulations and decision aids to ways of improving muscle development and reducing the risks of TBI and PTSD.
Another area on which the Army is making a substantial wager is improving its acquisition and exploitation of information; in essence, this means creating knowledge from data. The kind of knowledge the Army wants to generate is not only the kind that falls under the heading of ISR but improved strategic wisdom, an appreciation of the social, political, cultural, economic and military environments in areas where the U.S. military is likely to find itself operating in the future. The potential synergy between improvements in the mental performance of officers and soldiers and in the quality of information provided to them could be more powerful than the deployment of any new weapon systems.
Yet a third area where the Army intends to spend its R&D dollars is material sciences. The development of lighter material with the strength and stopping power of current metals and ceramics would lead to a revolution not only in combat vehicles and body armor but also in logistics. A breakthrough in this area would be as significant for the future of the Army as stealth has become for the Air Force (and soon for naval and Marine Corps aviation). Such a breakthrough will not come soon. That is why this is the bravest bet of all of those the Army is making.
Having done the analyses, identified the options, made its decisions and committed its resources, the most important thing for the Army to do now is stay the course. Betting on the future entails risk. But as any poker player will tell you having gone all in, you just have to wait for the cards to be turned up.
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