Can the Army sell Congress on modernization?

Why the Army needs to solve its communication problem with Congress if it hopes to secure more funding.

Shutterstock image (by alienant): An aerial view of the pentagon rendered as a vector.
 

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announced plans on Oct. 10 to stand up a "modernization command" by summer of 2018, but it might take more than that to improve the Army's readiness and warfighting capabilities.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a defense industry think tank, said the Army needs a full rebrand if it wants to establish itself as a priority for congressional funders. "The Army is never going to get the money it needs to modernize if it doesn’t present materiel requirements to the political system in a more compelling fashion," Thompson said at a panel at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

"You've heard a lot in recent years about how tight budgets are starving military modernization," he continued. "But somehow the Air Force is managing to buy a new fighter … a new tanker, and a new trainer all at the same time. Not to mention a replacement for the Minuteman ICBM. The problem with Army modernization isn't lack of money, it's the low priority our political system assigns to the materiel readiness ventures.

Rebranding its modernization effort as equally essential as weapons or aircraft capabilities is key, Thompson said, because the current story is "pretty hard to follow."

"The Army apparently wants to kill increment II of the WIN-T network, even though that would mean commanders in Europe without communications on the move for many years to come," Thompson said. "What is Congress supposed to make of the proposal to kill the elite [communications] on the move option we have?"

In a separate meeting with reporters following the panel, Maj. Gen. Robert Dyess, Jr., who leads force development for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, said Thompson was "spot on."

"The Army has to have a compelling narrative," he said. "And I found that a lot of times we have a lot of support on Capitol Hill, but it's getting through the priorities of the Department of Defense, where actually the Army doesn't grate out as well."

The Army is often criticized for wasting money on failed programs, said Maj. Gen. Cedric Wins, the commanding general for the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. But what is often overlooked, he said, is how the programs flopped.

Wins told reporters that when it comes to failed programs -- some $32 billion wasted over 16 years -- "there's a certain aspect of what led to the failure of those programs that a lot of times doesn't get investigated. We need to be investigating in the Army to figure out was it something that is affected by a system that doesn't allow us to actually deliver on capability or was it something else."

Wins said it's clear that the flaw is in the process that "was framed around an industrial-age model" and through tweaks and additions over the years became "piecemealed."

But the budget is still a major obstacle, Dyess said and congressional mandates to reduce the national debt have contributed to stymied modernization efforts, noting the mandate to reduce defense spending under the Budget Control Act.

Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) said "in light of the Army's troubled history of costly failures," the Army can expect to stay in the Congressional spotlight when it comes to its modernization and acquisition efforts. In a statement supporting the Army's decision to streamline those efforts, McCain said, "We must ensure that our soldiers are receiving the equipment and capabilities they need to address current and emerging threats -- especially as our near-peer competitors invest heavily in modernization specifically targeted to erode our technological edge -- and those resources must be delivered on time, at cost, and up to expectations."

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