Soldier in glasses of virtual reality. The concept of the future.

The pace of change wrought by the digitization of warfare is startling for the US army. Given its tacit relation to commanding the ground, it must favorably harness sociopolitical components that elude other combatant commands. This challenge remains intrinsically difficult given how autonomy is elevated from engagement with digital mediums; the army’s task is to integrate disparate spheres while maintaining a favorable balance of power on the ground.

The opportunity created by the election of President Donald Trump provided the army with money to modernize but money alone is failing the army. It is headed for another false start in a dangerous security environment. Mark Esper, the secretary of the army, revealed that the service is planning to prioritize readiness until 2022, at which point it intends to assign a new generation of combat systems. This is bound to fail. Here’s why.

The problem is stark: by 2022, the defense build-up will be over and new monies for defense combat systems will not exist as congressional priorities. Fiscally, defense spending will flatline after 2018 and trillion-dollar deficits continue to eat the federal budget. Global cross-border capital inflows continue to appreciate the dollar, making both interest payments on debt higher as well as aggravating unfunded entitlements and social security. What this means is that army modernization plans won’t be realized in the immediate future. Our enemies will not be as constrained as we will be in the future.

Past military buildups have rarely lasted more than five years, yet the army’s schedule for new procurement platforms requires a much longer time frame. Current revitalization efforts look identical to past failures like Force XXI, the Army After Next and the Objective Force. What’s required is a new scale of effort.

Past military buildups have rarely lasted more than five years, yet the army’s schedule for new procurement platforms requires a much longer time frame

How does this get fixed? It means buying new and buying fast while the opportunity lasts. It also means that the army leadership must acknowledge a simple stark truth: not one of the Pentagon’s top 10 weapon programs is from the army. The air force is working to procure new intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new tanker, bomber and fighters while the army works to maintain upgrades to existing combat systems.

The army leadership has acknowledged capability deficits in artillery; rotorcraft, air defenses and future combat vehicles that deliver mobility, speed, firepower and protection. Accelerating the purchase of new combat systems is the solution because past failures in modernization reveal that the army’s fundamental approach to warfighting hasn’t changed. What’s required is easy to accept and acknowledge but difficult to implement, namely an evolutionary approach to fielding new platforms.

To continue dominating in close fights, the army should continue to field enhancements to its self-propelled Paladin howitzer along with new precision-based larger calibers and upgrades with existing air defenses. That means immediate fielding of its tactical missile system (the Precision Strike Missile ATacMS). This will impact the evolutionary approach witnessed in Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense systems. These are already operational. What’s required is to acknowledge the practical advances of deploying evolutionary approaches; it means ditching excessively complicated efforts in netting legacy platforms. Mobility, speed and adaption matter on the ground, not adherence to fixed communication nodes.

Regarding rotorcraft, the army leadership must decide between an Apache, Black Hawk or a new scout helicopter replacing the Kiowa. Its largest gap remains in armed recon, but it can recover this lacuna by talking to the marines. It doesn’t need a redo of the failed Joint Multirole Rotorcraft or extensive programs like the Future Vertical Lift Effort.

Regarding armored vehicles, the army cannot overcome technical constraints that force tradeoffs between protection, mobility and firepower. Absent major breakthroughs, we need to modify existing platforms with evolutionary approaches to the Abrams and Bradley fighting vehicles.

What can the army accomplish in a compressed timescale? It can prioritize an approach. That means continuing hypervelocity missiles and autonomous vehicles while fielding changes to communication networks. If the grunt in the field has to adapt, then so does the leadership. The defense build up is a gift, but it will not last. Modernization means winning with what you have now while evolving.

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William Holland

William Holland is North American recruiter for Wikistrat global consultancy monitoring Pakistan's nuclear program.

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