Why is the U.S. Army so bad at delivering new weapon systems? Is this merely a function of excessive ambition, budgetary friction, or changes to the operational environment? The likely culprit is a system designed to minimize risk to users, risk to mission, risk to budget, and risk to industry. General Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently described the acquisition system in similar terms. This desire to minimize all forms of risk could potentially derail the Army’s modernization plan.
Should anyone doubt the notion that the Army struggles to build new weapons, consider this: the U.S. Army has not successfully delivered a major developmental weapon system since the AH-64 Apache in 1986. Although the Army has fielded smaller weapon systems since the 1980s (such as the Javelin), the Apache was the last major weapon system developed from the ground up. The Army assembled other systems such as Avenger, HIMARS, and C-RAM from existing capabilities, but these are not developmental programs and often began as experiments. In other cases, like the Stryker, the Army purchased existing systems and modified them as needed. The Missile Defense Agency took over the Army’s upper-tier and strategic missile defense programs in the early 2000s before the service could cancel them as costly failures or unproductive experiments.
While I was a resident student at the U.S. Army War College, a visiting SES (Senior Executive Service) on the Army Staff involved in budget programming discussed acquisition requirements with one of my classes. He described three necessary conditions for any successful acquisition program. The first condition is steady funding over many years. The second condition is advocacy by senior leaders. The third condition is a technically achievable requirement. In his experience, any program that does not meet all three conditions will fail.
How does the Army’s current modernization strategy look in light of these three requirements? The first requirement of steady funding is possibly the most difficult to predict and sustain over time. Budgets change with national priorities and shifts in the operating environment. A long-term strategy is a start, but having the endurance to sustain that strategy will remain an enduring challenge.
Funding uncertainty reinforces the importance of advocacy by senior leaders, the second condition. In this case the Army appears to be making headway here by creating Army Futures Command, Cross-Functional Teams, and a modernization strategy that has already survived a change in both the Secretary of the Army and Chief of Staff of the Army. Assuming these innovations endure, combined with efforts to align all modernization within this strategy (such as “Night Court,” where Army leadership reviewed every program of record and reallocated funding from those not aligned with modernization priorities), the service may have found a way to institutionalize advocacy.
This leads to the third requirement of defining technically achievable requirements. The Army’s record here is not great, as demonstrated by a quick review of failed or cancelled systems, such as Crusader, Comanche, MEADS, NLOS cannon, Future Combat System, and most recently the Multi-mission launcher (part of the Indirect Fire Protection Capability). Although the Army harvested some of these capabilities into other programs, such as the MEADS missile into the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhanced (MSE) interceptor and parts of the NLOS cannon into the M1097, the overall record is poor. Causes for cancellation vary, but spiraling costs in light of significant technical challenges in meeting requirements (which may or may not have remained steady) is a common theme in most of these programs.
All of this points to a need for the Army to accept risk in capability. Scaling down ambitious requirements is an acquisition form of the old staff motto that “perfect is the enemy of good enough.” Reviewing the Army’s most recent successes in large weapon system acquisition is instructive on this point, even if these successes were 35-40 years in the past. These successes were, of course, the Big Five. The Big Five systems were the M1 Abrams (delivered in 1980), the M2 Bradley (1981), the UH-60 Blackhawk (first delivered in 1979), the Patriot air defense system (1984), and the AH-64 Apache (1986).
David C. Trybula’s 2012 analysis of the Big Five should be required reading for every Cross-Functional Team and requirements developer. He points out that although each of the Big Five systems were significant steps forward, they achieved this primarily through the integration of available technology instead of revolutionary technical advances. Contrary to some popular mythology, they were not designed as optimal systems, and each entered full-rate production with planned upgrades. Some of those planned upgrades and later modifications turned out to be more significant than the original systems.
Trybula’s analysis also points to the Army’s genuine strength in modernizing existing platforms. While the Army has struggled to build new platforms, it demonstrates routine ingenuity in adapting existing systems in order to handle evolving threats and challenges. One only needs to walk through the motorpool of a brigade combat team to see the systems built upon the Bradley chassis. Although this approach has an upper limit of utility when the original system no longer suits the operational environment (and hence the drive for new systems), it also points to the future of Army modernization. Whatever the Army selects to replace the Bradley will undoubtably serve as the foundation for a new generation of capabilities, just like the M2 and its many variants. In this light, a Milestone “C” decision establishes the foundation for capability and not the end state.
The Army has also demonstrated a distinct willingness to accept risk to capability under certain conditions. In 1990, the Army deployed 100% of its inventory of anti-ballistic missile interceptors, which were still experimental. The entire inventory sent to Saudi Arabia with the first battery consisted of exactly two missiles with the words “FOR EXPERIMENTAL USE ONLY” painted on the cannisters (the unit painted over this caveat). More recent examples of accepting capability risk include C-RAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar), nearly every system designed to defeat improvised explosive devices, and the emerging counter-unmanned aerial systems portfolio. In each case, combat requirements drove this risk acceptance.
The Army has described modernization as future readiness, and few can argue that the service is not serious about creating new capabilities for future fights. Framing modernization as future readiness is useful, but it cannot be viewed in a linear fashion. Current readiness is built upon known capabilities combined with training and resources. Future readiness is speculative and requires a long-term investment outlook. Investment requires risk acceptance. This points to the central tension between the Army’s strength in adapting older systems to respond to extant operational requirements and the Army’s weakness in developing new systems based on anticipated operational requirements. It’s easy to accept risk against something specific, but accepting risk against the unknown future is much harder, particularly when users define requirements that require revolutionary advances.
If the Army needs new systems to compete with China and Russia, then it will have to accept risk to optimal capability. This can be a hard sell with Congress and other stakeholders when justifying the cost of a new system. The recent decision to field an interim maneuver short range air defense system by FY22 and ongoing hypersonic strike development efforts are positive indications the Army understands this. However, the recent decision to restart competition for the Bradley replacement due to industry’s inability to deliver could be a warning that the Army has not learned this lesson entirely and is still asking for capabilities that are not technically or fiscally achievable.
Returning to the example of the Big Five, perhaps the Army would do well to look at Milestone “C” decisions as a cyclical process of upgrades on a baseline capability. This spiral form of capability development has drawbacks, but it has historical success and plays to the Army’s modernization strengths. Instead of working towards the revolutionary system, the Army could develop a baseline system to “get a foot in the door” on a new capability and then build upon that system, like the Army did with the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley. If the Army continues to pursue only revolutionary systems, we should expect more additions to the Army’s collection of failed weapons systems.
About the author: Colonel Glenn A. Henke is a U.S. Army Officer.