Even as the Army’s senior leaders, active and retired, are agonizing yet again over the question of what kind of Army the American people want, the nation is beginning to get the Army it needs. What the United States needs is an Army of sufficient capacity and capability that can deter a resurgent Russian military, counter advanced threats in the hands of nations and non-state actors in the Middle East and support the Joint Force in countering expansionist efforts by China. There will be time for the Army to develop a grand strategy for the world we are facing, one that includes advanced vehicles, helicopters and weapons. The challenge for the Army is to maintain a credible force structure while rapidly and relatively cheaply deploying systems to counter the emerging threat.
Operations in Crimea and the Ukraine show that the Russian army is back. It is demonstrating improved capabilities in tactical mobility, operational communications and even logistics. Ukrainian forces were confronted by an array of new Russian systems and tactics. These included extensive use of cyber weapons and electronic warfare against command and control, massed artillery and mortar barrages directed by targeting drones, airmobile operations involving new generations of helicopters, advanced armored fighting vehicles, highly lethal and mobile air defense systems and even improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Unlike past transformations of the Army such as the Pentomic division or the “Big Five,” this one is not being driven by headquarters and the massive acquisition commands. Instead, it is being driven by urgent operational needs flowing out of the combatant commands. The Army is applying the lessons learned from more than a decade of dealing with thousands of urgent operational needs. It is seeking to get new capabilities that provide some level of improved performance over existing systems – the so-called 80-percent solution – at low cost while working on something better in the future.
For example, assessing the new Russian threat, the U.S. Army Europe asked for a way of enhancing the lethality of its Stryker Brigade. The first answer was a new 30mm cannon. Rather than a massive new start program that might take a decade to reach fruition, the Army plans to have the new cannons deployed by 2018. Now the Army is considering expanding this capability to a larger portion of the overall Stryker fleet. The Army also is looking at equipping the Stryker with an existing anti-tank missile, the Javelin.
The Army recognizes that it needs to counter the growing threat from advanced anti-tank guided missiles. These are deployed not only by the Russians but virtually all other potential U.S. adversaries. As I have written elsewhere, the Army has plans to test a number of existing U.S. and international systems that provide active protection for vehicles. At least one of these, the Trophy system, has actually been proven in combat with the Israeli Defense Forces in its 2014 conflict with Gaza.
A high priority for the Army, as identified in its 2017 unfunded priorities list, is to improve its ability to counter Russian artillery and rocket barrages. Not only does the Army need to acquire additional counter-fire radars, it needs to couple these with a relatively low-cost active defense against rockets, artillery, mortars and drones. One obvious near-term option is to acquire the Israeli Iron Dome system which has a proven capability to deal with massed salvoes of rockets, artillery and mortars. Iron Dome can also address the Army’s gap in short-range air defense, particularly with respect to drones.
The Army has applied the lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to its new strategy for acquiring tactical radios. For years the Army struggled with its massive, complex and very expensive JTRS program while commercial technology advanced and tens of thousands of existing radios were acquired to meet the urgent operational need. Now the Army intends to acquire tactical radios from multiple vendors in lots, leaving the way open for new technologies and lower cost solutions to emerge that can be rapidly fielded.
One area where the Army desperately needs to field near-term capabilities is offensive and defensive electronic warfare (EW). The Army’s current offensive EW program will not be fully operational until 2027, and then only if everything goes well. At present, the Army is devoting some attention and resources, but certainly not enough of either, to adapting capabilities developed for the counter IED fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is one overriding issue for the Army and the nation. The Army can no longer use force structure to pay its readiness and modernization bills. It is time to accept the reality that the Army needs to be both bigger and more capable. Some money can be saved by focusing on acquiring non-developmental capabilities, including products of the global defense industry. But in the end, the Army needs a larger budget.
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