A US Army soldier assembles a Raven UAV at Fort Bragg, N.C. Army leaders are turning their attention to unmanned air and ground vehicles as the service prepares for future conflicts. (Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod / Army)
HUNTSVILLE, ALA. — At this year’s annual Army symposium, the doom and gloom of last year has been replaced by a new message.
“We have transitioned from an Army at war to an Army preparing for war,” Lt. Gen Keith Walker, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), bluntly stated on the opening day of the Association of the United States Army’s (AUSA’s) symposium here.
That potential war is something Army leadership has been discussing with increasing confidence over the past year. And despite the generals never missing an opportunity to boast of how well situated their service is in the Pacific region, the war they’ve described doesn’t have any particular flavor.
Instead, the fight they envision involves a complex mix of state and non-state actors mingling on the battlefield, where opponents will be able to close some of the technological advantages the US Army has brought to the battlefield in recent decades.
“We believe, absent some changes in science and technology and how we fight, we are at risk of seeing many of the operational advantages that we have enjoyed being contested” in the coming decade, said Maj. Gen. William Hix, deputy director of ARCIC.
Some of the areas in which potential opponents are gaining: night vision, unmanned systems and standoff weapons that would make it more difficult for American forces to enter contested space, or deploy rapidly.
Hix also warned that as the Army’s end strength drops from a wartime high of 570,000 to 490,000 by the end of 2015 — and as low as 420,000 by 2019, “our combat power will decrease at a rapid rate.
“The combat punch of the Army at 490,000 is about the same as 570,000,” he said, warning that if it goes any lower than that, the Army will begin to lose some of its war-fighting capability.
With potential threats in mind, the service wants to restructure its brigade combat teams to add a third maneuver battalion. The Army also wants to increase its investment in unmanned ground systems and robotics to make up for some of that lost manpower, while making its expeditionary logistics systems leaner.
“A leaner force that is of equal or greater capability” as the current force is the coin of the realm, Hix said.
The tone was markedly different than last year’s symposium which, despite being held in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was a dreary, sparsely attended affair.
The Pentagon had recently placed a hold on conference attendance by military and civilian staffers, allowing only a few dozen soldiers to attend, and industry support had dropped so much that the trade show floor was shrunk to better fit the decreased industry presence. Of those generals who could attend, there was little positive they could offer in their speeches and Q&A sessions with concerned members of the defense industrial base.
This year’s symposium was moved to the Alabama home of the Redstone Arsenal and Army Materiel Command, the Army’s Space & Missile Defense Command and its Aviation and Missile Command, thus ensuring a healthy uniformed and industry turnout.
And over the past several months, the generals have begun to map out a strategy to move forward into an uncertain postwar future, a theme of last week’s event.
Still, even as Army leadership has internalized the fact that the force will shrink, some remain unhappy at the prospect.
“Smaller is not better, better is better,” said AUSA head Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff.
New vehicle's cloudy future
As the Army works though end-strength issues and restructures to meet potential enemies, there remains the equipping side, which also has been in flux.
In separate interviews during the symposium, defense industry officials and Army procurement brass sang the same tune on some critical issues.
The first is the uncertain future of the next infantry carrier to replace the Bradley fighting vehicle.
Mark Signorelli, BAE Systems’ general manager for combat vehicles, and the Army’s head of Ground Combat Systems, Brig. Gen. David Bassett, echoed each other’s comments on the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program. It recently saw its fiscal 2014 funding slashed from $580 million to $100 million.
The cut has changed the focus of the program into more of a research-and-technology harvesting effort than an acquisition, something that competitors BAE and General Dynamics are still trying to figure out, along with their Army customer.
“We’re still making adjustments that will allow us to complete the [technology development] phase the way we originally envisioned it,” Bassett said. “So we’re looking at downscoping.”
That said, Bassett was quick to point out that “the kinds of investments that the Army has made in GCV, I think, really could be an enduring investment that could go on any [future] combat vehicle.
“When you look at what the Army was trying to achieve with GCV, the focus was on buying back a number of things that the Bradley doesn’t have,” such as the ability to carry a nine-man squad, increased force protection, an upgraded 25mm cannon and a network infrastructure, he said.
“All of those capabilities are still things that are important to the Army.”
Signorelli said that narrowing the program will force the company to slash the number of engineers working on it from 350 to 50.
Since the $100 million that the two companies will split doesn’t pay for the technology demonstration extension program that the companies negotiated last year, “we are in discussion with the Army about potentially stretching the period of performance for that extension, so that there’s a chance that it can match up with some [fiscal 2015] funding,” he said.
“I think the Army is interested in identifying what are the key technologies and capabilities that we can continue, and how can we demonstrate those technologies and capabilities on an integrated platform,” Signorelli added.
The pause on the GCV program means that upgrades and modernization of the Bradley are assuming new significance, something that both Bassett and Signorelli said is being worked on.
“We’ve laid out a program for the Army that we think will allow us to sustain that capability,” Signorelli said.
But he added that after the GCV — or whatever it becomes — “we’re largely exiting the wheeled-vehicle business. When you look at the wheeled-vehicle market, it’s starting to look more like the commercial vehicle market” than a military market.
Heidi Shyu, the Army’s procurement chief, also made an effort to strike a measured tone in her comments, saying the Army has already provided funding to help the US industrial base. In particular, she said, it has offered help to second-tier suppliers to make up for funding breaks.
Pentagon leaders also have undertaken a new Joint Acquisition and Sustainment Review “to highlight the problems faced by [program executive officers] and depots ... and to truly understand the challenges they are facing,” Shyu said.
As the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, and the Army’s capabilities head, Gen. Keith Walker, have pointed out in recent months, the ground force that rolled over Iraqi forces in 1991 and 2003 was actually designed and built in the similarly cash-strapped 1970s and 1980s.
The Army “planted the seeds” for the current Army in those years, Shyu said. Now it must do the hard work of designing new infantry carriers, helicopters and weapons at a time of reduced funding, and as personnel costs eat up about half of its yearly budget.
“Our predecessors faced similar challenges” Shyu said. “It is now our time.”