SEI Senior Mentor John Ferrari asks five important questions that the Army needs to answer before committing to high-dollar procurements during its modernization push.
Pentagon leaders have prioritized redefining the way the military procures new weapon systems and equipment, to keep pace — or get ahead of — China and Russia. This is especially true with the Army, which publicized a laundry list of modernization priorities. But in the op-ed below, AEI’s John Ferrari, a retired Army major general, says some recent moves around Army Futures Command have raised concerns, and lawmakers need to take note.
The head of Army Futures Command, Gen. James Rainey, recently stated that the command was told to shift its main focus from modernizing the service for near-peer competition by 2030 to designing the Army of 2040. That’s the bureaucratic equivalent of being told to “sit in the corner and color” for the next 17 years — and is the direct result of service leadership deciding to bring acquisition back into the Pentagon, as opposed to trusting it to the purposefully-designed-to-bring-news-ideas-into-the-service Futures Command.
Given the Army’s many acquisition failures over the past several decades, it seems appropriate for Congress to exercise its constitutional power granted in Article I, Section 8, Clause 12: “To raise and support Armies.” The sidelining of Futures Command should raise real questions about the Army’s plans to modernize itself over the next decade — and Congress should start asking very real questions of Army leadership about whether the current strategic path is still the right one.
Here, then, are five questions Congress should bring up in the coming budget hearings.
1. Is Futures Command Worth Saving? The first question Congress should ask is a simple one: given the decision to sideline Futures Command, is it worth keeping around? In an era where some question the number of flag officers in the military, Futures Command is loaded with one four-star, three three-stars, one two-star, and a one-star. On top of these generals, the command also has numerous general officers leading cross-functional teams and other subordinate units. One has to wonder what impact any of these officers will have on designing an Army that will not take form for almost two decades.
Additionally, a chief reason for the existence of Futures Command was to rebel against and change the acquisition process through innovation and a sense of urgency. If this function is now gone, it may be time to disband the command, return the pieces back to where they came, and harvest savings from the headquarters’ closure.
2. Who Holds The Bag? The next question for Congress is who will be held accountable when modernization programs run aground. The Army has a long history of failed programs, from the Crusader self-propelled howitzer program to the Comanche helicopter, and every time a program fails, fingers get pointed across different Army organizations, preventing one person or entity from receiving the blame. Promises were made, buildings were leased, and housing was procured for Futures Command to be located not at yet another military base but in the tech hub and start-up capital that is Austin, Texas. That was done for the sole purpose of speeding up innovation within modernization and driving capability into the hands of the warfighter faster and more efficiently than anywhere else in the Army — or Pentagon, for that matter.
If the Army’s modernization was to fail, it was clear that the failure would have been with Futures Command. With responsibilities moved back to Washington, who in the Pentagon will be the single person to say “the buck stops here?”
3. Are The Big Programs Still The Right Programs? After addressing the future of the command and accountability for modernization, Congress should reassess and ask the Army whether the largest of the service’s modernization programs should move forward. New start programs which are costing billions to be developed, such as Future Vertical Lift and the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) should immediately be examined by Congress. For the OMFV, which is intended to replace the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, that’s all the more important given past failures to replace the platform, namely the Army’s Future Combat Systems program and the Ground Combat Vehicle [PDF].
If the Army is going back to the old way of doing business, centering innovation back in the Pentagon’s Washington bureaucracy, and if, as some say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, why should the Army be trusted to spend billions over the course of the next decade? And are we sure these programs, or other key modernization efforts, are still the right path forward given what we’ve learned about modern combat, including the vast consumption of munitions and weapons, over the last year in Ukraine?
4. Is There A Smarter Way To Do This? Instead of pouring taxpayer dollars into platforms that may never bear fruit, could Congress direct the Army to incrementally improve its current fleet of armored vehicles and helicopters with new technology? Not only for the sake of cost, but also to make current fleets the go-to solutions for the militaries of the free-world. For instance, rather than building an entirely new helicopter to replace the Blackhawk, and subsequently take on all of the risks, schedule delays, and cost overruns [PDF] likely to come with it, the Army can build off of what it knows. That means adding new capabilities, like autonomous flight onto the Blackhawk, a tested platform that has been upgraded at multiple points over the course of its time in service.
Or, instead of purchasing an entirely new platform as a future replacement for the tried-and true (not to mention in demand) Abrams tank, it can consider heading down a more iterative production route and purchasing the Abrams X. It can also look at upgrading its new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle with a gun instead of developing the OMFV.
The Blackhawk and the Abrams are just two of multiple franchise-like programs that can be sold across the globe and upgraded for minimal dollars, thereby gaining huge economies of scale within the supply chain.
As an added bonus, purchasing these two platforms will keep open and resilient the domestic production lines in Connecticut and Ohio that can support their production. Given the military’s habit of prematurely shutting down production of needed weapons and systems, this would be a welcome reversal of that trend.
5. Are We Spending Smartly? Finally, as the Army’s next budget is submitted, Congress should question the Army on whether it has the right mix of procurement and research and development dollars. The Army, like much of the Defense Department, is divesting today to invest for tomorrow. Given that the planning horizon for war with China has moved from 2035 to this decade, and that we have an actual war in Europe that has clearly demonstrated the lack of depth in basic munitions and weapons, Congress should ask the Army if it is building enough Abrams, Blackhawks, Apaches, and all types of munitions.
For fiscal 2024, the Army may submit a budget heavy on development and then expect that Congress will bail it out with more procurement funds as it has done in the past. Considering the recent discussions within Congress concerning spending, the clock may have run out on the Army expecting Congress to add funds for needed tanks, helicopters, and munitions, all of which were on its last unfunded priority list. Congress should be asking tough questions and consider reallocating funds to ensure we have the weapons we need this decade to win wars in Europe, the Middle East, and in the Pacific.
Several years ago, the Army made a bold step in trying to break its cycle of failure in developing new weapon systems. It convinced Congress that Futures Command was different and that the Army should be trusted with multi-billion dollar, decade-long new builds. As the service has sidelined the new command and is back to developing systems using the same old processes, Congress should question the Army on these areas and adjust the service’s programs accordingly.
Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, US Army (ret.), is a senior mentor with SEI and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is the former director of program analysis and evaluation for the US Army. Article originally published in Breaking Defense Here.