Adapt or die: US Army looks to modernise

In the words of US Army chief of staff, Gen Mark Milley, the army he is responsible for is at an inflection point; it must adapt, or it dies.

With this in mind, the service used this year’s Association of the US Army (AUSA) annual conference in Washington DC to outline how it will adapt in an uncertain world, especially as the West’s political, economic and technological advantage slowly declines.

For several decades the US Army has enjoyed technological superiority against its adversaries, which was especially the case during both Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet however brutal and bloody those conflicts were, the army was not challenged by an enemy with high-end capabilities.

The worry now is that the US has taken its eye off the ball and lost its ability to effectively counter a so-called ‘near-peer adversary’ – army speak for Russia and China.

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At AUSA, Milley and the acting secretary of the army Ryan McCarthy outlined how it would attempt to regain what is known as ‘overmatch’, or the capability to defeat a near-peer enemy by overwhelming force.

This will start at home, with the acquisition process, which army leaders want sped up and be made less risk-averse, including reducing the amount of bureaucratic layers with the formation of a new command that brings ‘modernisation under one roof’.

‘It has more to do with streamlining processes,’ said Milley. ‘It’s a significant restructure, probably the biggest in the last 40 years or so. Remember, Army Materiel Command, Forces Command and TRADOC were all formed in the 1970 in the wake of Vietnam.’

In addition to the restructure, the army service chiefs outlined six key areas that modernisation would focus on including; long-range fires, mobility, networking, protection, sustainment and soldier lethality.

As you read this blog, and a more detailed report available on Shephard’s website, it’s important to understand this new thinking of the US Army and how it is influencing existing programmes, new acquisitions and relationships with industry.

Programmes that are considered too burdensome, and not adaptive to current technology trends are being tossed aside in favour of new initiatives. Just before AUSA, the army announced that acquisition of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) would finish early in 2018 due to a myriad of shortcomings.

That’s significant as WIN-T was considered to be one of the army’s top modernisation initiatives but instead has joined the long list of billion dollar boondoggles, along with the army’s Future Combat System in the 2000s as well as the search for a replacement scout helicopter.

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Ultimately, the US Army wants capability, and it wants it quick to address the growing gaps mentioned above.

One area that was clearly a priority at AUSA was short-range air defence, or SHORAD – which falls under ‘protection’ of the six key priorities. As visitors explored the exhibition hall, it was not difficult to see that industry was preparing potential options for an upcoming army requirement, with several companies using AUSA to show off its SHORAD technologies.

Those companies included BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) and Oshkosh, which all demonstrated some kind vehicle-borne SHORAD integration using existing systems that would likely require little developmental efforts.

As well as SHORAD, the US Army is also looking at how it can beef up its lower-tier air defences. Raytheon – partnering with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – displayed a full Iron Dome system on the exhibition floor at this year’s AUSA.

The system, which is marketed in the US by Raytheon as ‘Skyhunter’, was tested by the US Army earlier this year where it achieved a successful intercept. The company is now pursuing potential options that could see Skyhunter used to protect forward-deployed forces.

Another big push for the US Army, and an initiative that is likely to be held up as an example of how acquisition could be carried out in the future, is active protection systems (APS).

This technology is still in its relative infancy, but is seen as an opportunity to add additional protection for vehicle crews when it comes to the threat from new-generation anti-tank munitions.

According to Maj Gen David Bassett, program executive officer for ground combat systems, this could be the new way that the US Army does acquisition for much-needed technologies on the battlefield.

The US Army’s approach to fielding an APS capability has been significantly different from its usual strategy of setting out a detailed requirements document and trialling industry submissions against an extensive set of test points. This was testing an established capability first and foremost.

The last few years has seen the army take a less ambitious approach to vehicle modernisation, especially after the cancellation of FCS and GCV.

Priority has instead been given to the modernisation of legacy vehicles such as the Abrams and the Bradley, as well as relatively low risk vehicles such as the armoured multi-purpose vehicle (AMPV) – which is essentially a Bradley without a turret, and the Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, which will effectively be a COTS purchase.

For the moment at least, the army can boast a vehicle programme that is on schedule and meeting its cost projections, which is a unique position considering past projects.

The question is how long this will last and whether the incremental upgrades of 80s-era platforms is giving the army the overmatch capabilities it so desperately needs to keep hold of.

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Looking to the future, beyond manned vehicles, the army is also looking to replicate the success it has had with aerial unmanned vehicles but this time on the ground. One of its biggest initiatives is the squad multipurpose equipment transport programme, which aims to acquire small robots that can carry equipment for soldiers.

Overall, AUSA was an opportunity for US Army leaders to set out their strategic aims and priorities for the future, especially when it comes to retaining its technological superiority and battle winning capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether the service can overcome challenges – including budgetary – and achieve its goals of modernisation. Industry will also have to respond with innovative solutions that do not end in cost overturns, delays and eventual cancellations.

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