After spending 11 years focused almost exclusively on large counterinsurgency and stability operations in Afghanistan, the Army is thinking hard about what’s next. Service leaders tasked with modernization and acquisition say that means they’re now focused on the next few decades — not just the next few years.
Despite some serious criticism of Army procurement over the past couple of decades, the service’s top acquisition official, Heidi Shyu, says by necessity, the intense tempo of war has led to huge achievements in rapidly deploying equipment and technology to the battlefield: everything from mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicles to state-of-the-art digital communications systems that replaced analog ones. But she argues just because the wars are winding down doesn’t mean it’s time to step back from acquisition. “We’re facing fiscally-constrained budgets as we undertake this transition, however, there can be no procurement holiday,” she said. “Unlike in the 1990s, the threats we face have not receeded. As a matter of fact, they’ve grown more sophisticated. Then you add our reliance on a healthy industrial base for critical scientific, engineering and manufacturing skills that’s essential to our modernization efforts. We recognize that maintaining the Army’s leading edge in the future depends on this healthy industrial base.”
Shyu told an audience at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual Washington conference this week that as the Army transitions out of a wartime environment, it’s also transitioning to a new acquisition planning process. Rather than looking at the next five years involved in the typical Pentagon budget planning process, the Army is looking at the next 30 years.
The process, which the Army has dubbed “strategic modernization planning,” aims to do a better job of integrating the Army’s procedures for buying major systems with how it prioritizes science and technology investments and how it trains its soldiers.
Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, refers to that 30-year time horizon as the “deep future.” It’s something the Army hasn’t looked at in quite a while.
“And honestly, that’s with good reason. Our warfight and our focus has been very short in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “But some of the consequences of that, when you look at the capabilities required to execute those concepts, it’s a very short-term time horizon. So when the department has to plan and prepare a science and technology program, we’re not properly informing that effort because we’re so short. So we will step back and make a very deliberate effort to gather people from academia, industry and our own research and development communities and operators to get an understanding of what may physically be possible in the year 2030 or so, because honestly I don’t know. But once I understand what’s physically possible from the threat and what our own country can do, then we can talk about some concepts that are out there and we can better inform our science and technology effort.”
Shyu said the 30 year modernization plan will be tied tightly to DoD’s broader strategic guidance, which plans for a shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region, more engagement by smaller Army units with nations who are trying to build their military capabilities, and less emphasis on large-scale stability operations like Iraq and Afghanistan. She said the national military strategy is informing the way the Army’s requirements community decides precisely what the service will need for the future.
“Using this guidance, the Army’s requirements community is assessing present and emerging threats to identify capability gaps and equipping priorities across near, mid and far-term,” she said. “Our (program executive officers) are working to lay out our current and planned capabilities across a 30-year horizon, spanning from concept development to technology development to (engineering and manufacturing development) to sustainment.”
Thirty years is a long time, but the Army is already outlining several priorities for the future. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff has already put modernization of the network at the top of the list, but Shyu says there are several other clear priorities, like finding technologies that can lighten the crushing loads individual soldiers carry on their backs, protecting them from injury, coming up with countermeasures to chemical and biological weapons, and making sure the U.S. still has offensive weapons that overmatch any potential adversary.
Across all those pursuits, Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army’s top uniformed official in charge of planning financial resources, said the service is committed to buying new capabilities at the best cost it can find, trading off technical requirements along the way if necessary to make programs affordable.
“We’re also structuring programs to take care of American technology, competition and commercial options,” he said. “Part of that is in incremental buys, allowing us to buy those enhancements over time. We’re also looking for solutions that are scalable, both in production and in capability, and can fit across multiple platforms. Wherever we can find solution sets that can fit across multiple platforms, that’s where we want to go in the future. And at the same time, as we move forward, we have to have a fork in the road for our programs because we’re not very good at predicting the future. We’ve got to make changes at times, and we have to have the flexibility to make those changes.”
As the Army plans its future investments, Walker, the Army’s capabilities chief, says it needs to make sure it retains the ability to spend money on systems that do more than just counter the next known threat.
“Yes, the threat is extremely important, but we have to look beyond that,” he said. “We have to recognize strengths, we have to look for weaknesses and we have to look for opportunities. For example, because of threats we came up with some tremendous adaptive counter-IED solutions and unmanned air systems, but we also developed a network because we had an opportunity. We started working at operational energy because that’s a weakness we have and it accounts for a huge logisitics tail. And in terms of opportunities, the entire night vision capability we have is because an opportunity presented itself and some really bright operators and acquisition folks took advantage of those opportunities.”
Walker said the Army also wants to retain some of the lessons it learned about rapid acquisition from the counterinsurgency fights, but create a more institutionalized process that accounts for the need to train soldiers on new systems before they’re fielded.
“We have to look at the best of rapid acquisition. Rapid acquisition has been great, yes for mission, yes for saving lives, but it’s had some shortcomings in the sense that we haven’t had our soldiers and formations trained as well as we’d have liked to with a standard program of record,” he said. “The other thing about our rapid acquisition is we have not accounted for our lifecycle sustainment costs. So somehow as we do our transition, we need our capability to maintain the best of rapid acquisition but accounting for that shortfall we’ve had in training and lifecycle sustainment. I think we can do that.”