The impetus for the creation of the National Commission on the Future of the Army (NCFA) was the proposal by that Service’s leadership to move all Apache attack helicopters from the National Guard into the Active Component and replace them with some 110 new Black Hawk utility helicopters. Because of the political storm that ensued it was decided to create the NCFA to address the proposed transfer of the Apaches but also, and more important, to make an assessment of the size and force mixture of the Active and Reserve (the National Guard and Army Reserve) Components of the Army and make recommendations on changes to the structure of the Army.
I testified before the NCFA on the subject of Army equipping and modernization (transcript can be found here). Unfortunately, the future of Army modernization is already largely determined, a function of factors over which the Army itself has little control. These include: flat or even declining defense budgets (in real terms), competition between the Services which limits the share of the defense budget available to the Army, the rising cost of Operations and Support which eats away at resources available for procurement, the dearth of major new procurement programs around which Army modernization planning can coalesce, the enormous burden on the Army of its large installed base of equipment and platforms, the need to maintain and even modernize the training base, the uncertainties surrounding the identification and exploitation of so-called breakthrough technologies, the fragile state of the defense industrial base and, finally, the cost and availability of people to man the force.
Given the overly constrained environment in which it is operating, the Army has chosen a prudent course. It is eschewing major new starts, focusing in the near-term on what it calls innovations to existing platforms, moving from there to investing in major improvements in the medium-term and pursuing breakthrough capabilities over the long-term through a focused RDT&E investment program. In addition, the current plan is to field many of the identified capability enhancements – Stryker double-V hull and 30mm turret, and ultralight vehicles, etc. – slowly or in limited numbers.
The Army’s modernization strategy – innovate, improve, invent – would make great sense if time were on its side, future contingencies were reasonably predictable and budgets were stable. Unfortunately, the Army cannot really count on any of these factors to break its way. The way forward would be much easier to chart if the military, in general, and the Army, in particular, had not been focused on the conflicts in Southwest Asia and the global war on terror, and had not overreached on a number of major weapons programs. Unfortunately, potential adversaries not only have gone to school on the so-called American way of war, but have spent much of the past decade investing in an array of weapons systems and platforms that have allowed them to counter or narrow erstwhile U.S. advantages and even, in some cases, forge a lead. As a result, the Army’s path forward entails significant risk.
The reality is that the Army is on the horns of a dilemma. Given likely budget scenarios, the Army more than any of the other Services is confronted by the need to choose between capacity and capability. Or put another way, people or things. Based on likely defense budget scenarios, the Army cannot be large, ready and modern. The Army of 2025 will be either large, only modestly ready or with tiered readiness and saddled with increasingly obsolescent equipment or it will be smaller, possibly substantially so, but be highly ready and reasonably modern.
I would observe parenthetically that the choices I just defined have major implications for the structure of the Total Force and the balance between the Active and Reserve Components. Taking the first path means that the Guard will inevitably return to the role of a strategic reserve. The costs associated with maintaining the manpower and equipment associated with this larger force inevitably means a scarcity of resources for training and modernization. The hard won skills and experience the Guard earned through two wars will inevitably dissipate over time or simply become irrelevant to the conflicts of the decades to come. This problem will be compounded by a dearth of unit training opportunities. Shrinking procurement budgets mean that improvements and upgrades will be procured in relatively small numbers and inevitably husbanded for use by the Active Component. Finally, demographics will work against the Army on this path. It is likely to be increasingly difficult and expensive to recruit the size cohort required, further negatively impacting training and modernization.
The second path, reducing end-strength and “harvesting” manpower, if properly managed, holds out the prospect for the Guard retaining its hard won role as an operational reserve. In fact, given the pattern of demands on the Army for deployable forces, it would be all but inevitable that as the Total Force shrinks further, both in the Active and Reserve Components, that there will be demand for the latter to work side-by-side with the former.
So, in the end, the NCFA needs to answer two deceptively simple questions about the Total Force. How big? How modern?
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