Budget constraints force Army to make tough choices about modernization

Monday - 1/27/2014, 4:16am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

Download mp3

The Army's top officer said affording all the pieces and parts of the service he is currently charged with manning, training and equipping can no longer be done over the long term. So Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said it's time to cut back on not just people, but platforms too.

Because of the budget levels mandated by the Budget Control Act over the next decade, the Army plans to bring down the size of its force as quickly as it can without doing so in a way that would actually cost more money than it saves. It is in the midst of accelerated plans to trim its ranks from 560,000 soldiers to 490,000, and that second figure may well decline in the next five years.

Even if personnel make up the lion's share of the Army's budget, Odierno said it's also clear that his service won't be able to afford all the new military hardware it thinks it needs. In some cases, the service won't be able to maintain the weapons systems it already owns.

For example, the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), which the Army already has spent more than $1 billion developing, will need to be shelved, at least for the time being.

"Do we need a new infantry fighting vehicle? Yes. Can we afford a new infantry fighting vehicle right now? No," Odierno said at an Institute of Land Warfare breakfast in Arlington, Va., late last week.

While the GCV program had a somewhat troubled history in its earlier years, Odierno said the reasons for the Army's pullback were purely budgetary, and not because of poor execution.

"I was very pleased with its progress," he said. "I think we had the requirements right, we were starting to see really good development from the contractors, and it's important we carry that forward. We're trying to figure out how we do that."

Upgrades to existing systems only

It's a similar story in the Army's aviation inventory. For example, the service very much would like to design and build a new armed scout helicopter, but it will now have to wait a few years.

"We're going to continue to modernize our fleet, but we can't afford the fleet we have today," Odierno said. "We're going to have to make some difficult decisions and reduce the number of systems we have. Is that what I want? No. But we have to do the best we can to mitigate our risks as we go forward and make sure the systems we have are the best systems possible."

For the next few years, the Army will lean heavily on upgrades to existing, technologically-mature systems.

Odierno said the service must spend money to modernize existing helicopters such as the Chinook and Apache, and ground platforms such as the Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle, in order to stay ahead of potential adversaries.

But it will only build new systems when they're deemed completely essential. He offered the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a replacement for the Humvee, as one example.

While the Army waits for its budget picture to brighten up a bit, Odierno said the Army will do its best to ensure it doesn't pull back on science and technology investments — the rationale being that research and development done today can be plowed into new weapons systems once the Army has the money to buy them, perhaps at lower cost or greater capability because of advances in the current state-of-the-art.

"We have to find leap-ahead technologies," he said. "What's that technology that can make a real difference for our soldiers on the ground?"

One example Army officials often cite is the potential for new, lighter materials that could replace or augment old fashioned metals as a way to protect tanks and other vehicles from projectiles and improvised explosives. Frequent IED attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan pushed the military to harden its vehicles by strapping on extra layers of steel. It made them much safer, but it also weighed them down so that they are generally slower, more energy-hungry and more difficult to transport.

Budget relief in 2014

Going forward, Odierno said he wants the Army's investments and its overall strategy to be focused predominantly on technologies that enable small units of soldiers to rapidly deploy around the world. He said he would rather have a large number of small formations in the service than a small number of large ones, so the Army will place a premium on investments such as information and communications technology that let soldiers operate from distant locations without a huge logistics tail behind them.