Army Modernization Woes, The Big Five, and AirLand Battle Doctrine

Much of the Army’s critical combat systems are quite old. And Army plans for modernization have resulted in a series of bloated programs that have subsequently collapsed under their own bureaucratic weight.

But in the eight months since the equipment plan was released, so many of its programs have been called into question that a casual observer might easily conclude Army modernization is collapsing.  A new armored troop carrier that the Army Chief of Staff said “we have to have” as recently as last summer is effectively dead.  Both parts of a plan to upgrade armed scout helicopters already in the force while developing a more agile successor look doomed.  The service has begun to back away from elements of a new battlefield communications network previously described as its top modernization priority.

And that’s just what has happened in the last several months.  Since the Obama years began, the Army has dropped plans for a new family of networked combat vehicles, canceled both of its next-generation air defense systems, killed a key development effort in its artillery portfolio and starved its armored-vehicle industrial base to a point where both of the plants still assembling such vehicles look headed for shutdown later in this decade.  The other military services are trimming modernization plans too, but the Army has the worst record of bringing new programs to fruition.  Although its weapon budget is less than half the size of the Air Force’s or the Navy’s, it manages to waste more money through cancellations and restructures.

Thompson cites a couple issues the greatly influenced challenges to Army modernization. As noted, the end of the Cold War led to a procurement holiday. To be sure, some small programs went forward, but few major systems were slated for replacement. The success of the force structure and major systems in Desert Storm further argued against large sums being spent on replacing tanks and other combat vehicles. Indeed, the only major vehicle program to go forward was the decidedly unsexy Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles to replace existing 2-1/2 ton and 5 ton trucks.

The logistical challenges of moving large numbers of heavy forces to Desert Storm, combined with the profusion of networking capabilities led the Army to look to lighter, easier to deploy forces that could use information and agility to compensate for weight of metal. The (overly) ambitious Future Combat System family of vehicles and systems was to be the fruit of this plan, with the Stryker family of vehicles as the interim substitute.

The shift to Counter Insurgency (COIN) in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and operations in Afghanistan also prompted the procurement of massive numbers of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) on an (expensive) emergency basis, after the vulnerabilities of Humvees to large Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Explosively Forged Penetrators (EFPs). Money spent on MRAPs was money not available for normal procurement program development.

Indeed, the effects of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly made the thought of lighter, more rapidly deployable vehicles far less appealing. Any lighter vehicle is more vulnerable to IEDs, mines and other low cost anti-armor systems. This had led the Army to go from looking at a 40 ton replacement for the Bradley carrying a nine-man squad, to a conceptual 70 ton behemoth infantry vehicle that carries as few at 5 or 6 infantrymen.

The repeated flailing in Army combat system procurement means that for at least the next decade, we’ll soldier on with the legacy systems of the Cold War, popularly known at the time as the Big Five.

In the immediate post-Vietnam War era, the Army faced a modernization challenge that makes our current problems look trifling. Given the austere fiscal environment, and the lack of popular public support for military spending meant that for any program to succeed, it would have to be tightly managed.

Senior leadership in the Army, with support from the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and eventually the Reagan administrations, came up with a plan to focus on five procurement programs:

  1. The M1 Abrams tank
  2. The M2/M3 Bradley Infantry/Cavalry vehicle
  3. The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter
  4. The UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopter
  5. The MIM-104 Patriot surface to air missile system.

All five programs, in spite of being heavily criticized during development and fielding, were successful, and serve still as the backbone of the Army’s combat systems.  Why?

With the end of the war in Vietnam, the Army faced a Soviet Union that was increasingly aggressive and the specter of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe loomed large.

That well defined threat actually gave the Army the chance to revisit its doctrine. There was simply no possibility the Army could grow to the sized needed to counter the Soviet force with conventional doctrine, nor with existing weapon systems.  The Army’s doctrinal evolution, through Active Defense into AirLand Battle, while describing the shared view of the nature of warfare universally, was tailored closely to the environment the Army faced in NATO.

That same focus allowed the Army to closely define what they wanted from the Big Five. The requirements for each program could be optimized for Western Europe, in terms of performance, and the infrastructure and logistics anticipated to be available.

That ability to focus on the largest, most capable threat, and accept less than optimal suitability for less threatening theaters. That meant the program manager could suppress calls for features on each platform that were in the “nice but not really needed” category. Keeping down the bloat of added features speeded development and kept costs down, both for development and unit costs. The programs were all built with plenty of room for growth, so those “nice” features could be added as budgets allowed.

That we never had to fight the Soviets in Western Europe didn’t mean our doctrine and procurement was flawed. As seen, both the equipment of the Big Five and the doctrine of AirLand Battle was adaptable enough to serve in Desert Storm, and serve as the kernel of further doctrine as the security environment changed.

Today, Army planners are faced with a world where we really don’t know where our next fight will be. That leads to arguments over what features are most critical in any procurement. Given the American propensity for being very bad at predicting their next fight, planners should think hard about a worst case scenario, and focus on that.

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