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Think Small

Looking for the "vision thing" at the Association of the U.S. Army convention.

9:00 AM, Oct 22, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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Every October, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) holds its annual convention in Washington, DC, at which the Army's leadership outlines its plans and vision for the Army, and the Army's suppliers of everything from tanks and artillery to boots and beer nuts put their latest wares on display. This year's convention took place October 5 to 7 at the cavernous Washington Convention Center, at which I spent three days taking in the sights and sounds and getting very sore feet. What follows is a summary of my impressions of the Convention and its implications for the Army in the Age of Obama.

Because of the long lead times between conception and fielding (on the average, some 20 years for a major weapon system), there can be a real sense of déjà vu about these confabulations--minor changes to the displays, some new brochures, maybe an updated progress report--you can get a real feeling that you've seen it all before. This is particularly true whenever the defense budget is falling: new program starts are few and far between, so contractors focus on upgrades to existing systems (both funded and unfunded), new concepts (unfunded), and subsystems (particularly command, control, communications and intelligence, or C3I).

For the past several years, the convention has been marked by the absence of any new major weapon systems. No new tanks, no new armored vehicles, no new artillery systems, no new aircraft or helicopters. The focus has shifted to low intensity warfighting in order to meet the needs of soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no consideration of potential high intensity conflicts or of retaining U.S. supremacy (which is the reason we have to fight so many low intensity conflicts--who wants to be the next Saddam Hussein?). On the other hand, there was very little consideration of what the Army's role in support of U.S. grand strategy is likely to be for the next half century.

Rather, the focus is on the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review and its budget implications. As Edward Luttwak famously observed, the U.S. doesn't really have a defense strategy, it has a budget process. The budget process is the means by which a consensus emerges on defense priorities, strongly influenced by the priorities and self-interests of the armed services, Congressional delegations and the defense industries. Sometimes this consensus is congruent with strategic requirements, and at other times, there is an horrendous disconnect, which leaves the military scrambling to find solutions to operational requirements it never really considered before (e.g., the need to shift from conventional to counter-insurgency warfare in the 2004-2006 timeframe). But, crisis over, the services tend to go back to what they see as their core roles and missions: the Army wants to do high-intensity combined arms operations ("real war"); the Air Force wants to do air superiority and strike/interdiction; the Navy wants to do blue water sea control.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) was mandated by Congress in the 1990s to reconcile the U.S. National Security Strategy (which provides high level strategic guidance and objectives) with the National Defense Strategy (the implementation of national strategic objectives by the military) and the Program Objective Memorandum (POM), the military's five year defense acquisition plan. In a perfect world, the National Security Strategy--based on a firm political consensus about U.S. national interests and rigorous analysis of short-, medium-, and long-term threats--would shape the roles and missions of the military services as expressed in the National Defense Strategy, which in turn would influence choices in the POM. The reality is rather different, and the QDR usually degenerates into what insiders call a "salami slicing exercise": here is the salami, how big a piece will each service get? When the budget is growing, the fight is over getting a bigger piece of the sausage; when it is shrinking, the fight is to minimize one's own cuts at the expense of others.

In both cases, this means the services bend over backwards to demonstrate how they--or rather their favorite programs--play a critical role in whatever ongoing mission or operations have the Administration's attention at the moment. Today, that means counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and related low-intensity operations such as stabilization and reconstruction, disaster relief, etc. The real problem is the role of the Air Force and the Navy in low intensity operations is limited to support of the ground forces. For the Army, the main problem is low-intensity conflict really doesn't support acquisition of big ticket items (tanks, artillery, attack helicopters, etc.), nor does it offer the chance for career enhancement in the branches that have, typically, dominated the Army command structure (armor, artillery, mechanized infantry).

Rather than think seriously about how to reshape their forces to meet strategic requirements, the services all go through intellectual contortions and produce truly bizarre analyses to show, e.g., why a supersonic stealth fighter or a new guided missile destroyer, or an advanced armored vehicle capable of killing a main battle tank are keys to beating the Taliban and al Qaeda.

A lot of the blame this time around goes to the Obama Administration (and to some extent, the preceding Bush Administration) for its chronic inability to walk and chew gum at the same time where strategy is concerned. A look at the recent National Defense Strategy issued by Secretary Gates (in advance of the new National Security Strategy, which is putting the cart before the horse) shows an almost myopic focus on our two ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But strategy is supposed to be forward-looking, at the very least, from three to five years into the future (and preferably a good deal more); one way or the other, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will be resolved by the time goals of the National Defense Strategy are implemented. There is very little discussion of the potential for high-intensity regional conflicts, or of the emergence of a peer competitor in the near future.

That emerging peer competitor, the proverbial elephant in the living room, is China. No other country has the combination of wealth, political will and conflicting interests to pose as a major strategic threat to the United States. Russia is a spent force (why does the Obama Administration waste so much time appeasing it?), Brazil and India have no interest in regional hegemony, Europe is too self-absorbed. So, at the very least, the U.S. should be laying the groundwork to deter, and if necessary, defeat regional aggression by China, especially as the global economic center of gravity shifts to the Pacific Rim. A cursory look at the map will immediately reveal one critical fact: China lives in a strategic cul de sac, penned in by the desert and the mountains to the west, by the jungle to the south, by the Siberian tundra to the north. If China is to achieve its strategic objective of extending hegemony over East Asia, of reintegrating Taiwan, of seizing the vital natural resource areas of the South China Sea, then it isn't going to do so by land: China can only become a superpower by developing the ability to project military power by sea and air. Conversely, the United States has no real ability to project land power onto the Chinese mainland. Our limited forces in Korea are sufficient to deter Kim Jong Il, but no matter how much force we put on the Korean Peninsula, we could never seriously threaten China by that route.

So, if we must fight China, we will fight at sea and in the air, not on land. That has profound implications for our military posture and the defense budget. For the Navy and the Air Force, it means maintaining a technological edge by investing in new ships, submarines and aircraft. During the recent budget debates, production FA-22 Raptor was terminated by the Obama Administration after just 183 aircraft, far below what the Air Force required. It was claimed by the Administration that the Raptor was irrelevant for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--as indeed they are; but that was entirely beside the point. The Raptor was meant to counter the threat of the latest Chinese fighters and air defense systems, which are superior to our aging F-15s, F-16s, and FA-18s (all of which were designed in the 1970s). Yet the FA-35 Joint Strike Fighter was retained, even though it is not yet in production, suffers from escalating costs, and will in all respects be inferior to the FA-22. Go figure.

Similarly, the Navy got itself tied in knots by trying to design a Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and a new guided missile destroyer (DDG-1000) that would be "relevant" for low intensity conflicts when it really needed a ship to challenge the emergent Chinese navy.

In a rational strategic environment, the Navy and the Air Force would not have to justify their programs in light of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but against long-term strategic objectives and requirements. That would allow them to make rational choices on how to invest their R&D and procurement funding. For instance, by sacrificing one or two LCS or DDGs in the out-years, the Navy could buy a host of cheap but effective coastal patrol vessels which would be more than adequate for the requirements of any counter-insurgency or counter-pirate operation it may have to perform. Similarly, the Air Force could agree to a modest cut in the number of FA-22s it needs, in order to procure larger numbers of relatively cheap unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) such as the Predator and Reaper, which have all the capability needed to perform persistent surveillance and close air support in a benign air environment.

That brings us back to the Army, which ought to be living high on the hog just now, insofar as the Army carries the bulk of the burden in both ongoing wars. But the Army is disgruntled, because it doesn't really like the kind of wars it has, and wants to go back to the kind of "real" war for which it trained throughout the Cold War. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen, because, as noted, the only country that could possibly compete with us in conventional war will not be fighting us on land. That means the Army has more than enough tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled artillery to take on all potential comers from now out into the middle of the century. The M1Abrams, the M2/3 Bradley, even the venerable M109 Paladin, remain competitive on the battlefield and with relatively modest upgrades, can remain in service for the next fifty years.

That doesn't stop the Army from looking for excuses to develop replacements. Through the 1990s until last year, that was the Future Combat System, a "system of systems" that would include new, lightweight, air transportable vehicles capable of taking on everything from insurgents to main battle tanks. Along the way, the program became a Christmas tree for everybody's pet project, from electric fuel cell propulsion to total digital connectivity. The technical challenges were simply too great to accomplish at one time, and industry observers knew FCS would never be fielded in its anticipated form. Indeed, by 2004 the program had been restructured from a vehicle program to a technology program, with emphasis on "lateral technology insertion" into existing platforms such as the Stryker Infantry Armored Vehicle (Stryker was originally styled the "Interim Armored Vehicle" because it was just a gapfiller until the arrival of FCS, but a couple of years ago, "Infantry" replaced "Interim"). By canceling the program earlier this year, Defense Secretary Gates merely removed it from life support.

Just because FCS was cancelled did not mean its constituent projects died with it. Rather, the individual bits and pieces have reconstituted themselves as individual programs, such as the "Non-Line of Sight" (NLOS) missile system--essentially a remotely controlled vertical launcher holding four to eight missiles that can be steered by a fire direction center to point targets such as tanks, armored vehicles or even houses and bunkers. And the FCS Manned Combat Vehicle (MCV) has been resurrected as the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV)--another 20-ton, air transportable vehicle able to slug it out with T-80s on some God-forsaken battlefield who knows where.

Though the AUSA Conventional was dominated by weapons, systems and subsystems intended to fight low intensity wars, there was no recognition that, for better or worse, this is what the Army will be doing for decades to come. As the "Big Land War" becomes a receding possibility, small wars will proliferate. These wars will be fought mainly in accordance with the Petraeus doctrine of counter-insurgency, a doctrine that places a premium on highly trained manpower, population protection, and minimal employment of lethal force. In other words, the Army, if it is to remain relevant, will have to transform itself into a quasi-constabulary force capable of fighting what can best be described as "neo-colonial" warfare. Of course, if the Army explicitly recognized this shift in mission, it would also have to fundamentally change its power structure (the future would belong to special forces and intelligence, not to armor, artillery and infantry) and its procurement priorities. Gone would be most of the big budget, high-tech whiz-bangs, because the technology needed for counter-insurgency, while not "low", tends to be "small" and cheap. And the weapons needed to fight counter-insurgency tend to be pretty basic--rifle, bayonet, grenade, machine gun, mortar. Other technologies, such as small UAVs, unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), secure communications, remote sensors, tend to supplement but do not dominate, either on the battlefield or in the budget. And the Army isn't ready to concede this, yet.

So, in the meanwhile, the Army and its suppliers drift through AUSA. Visually, the exhibition floor was dominated by a host of "tactical wheeled vehicles"--a fancy way of saying trucks. Of course, these are now heavily armored trucks, many with mine resistant undercarriages, and increasingly equipped with gun turrets, remote weapon stations, sensors of various sorts, and integrated command, control, communications and intelligence systems. They ranged in size from the merely large (the AM General M1152 Up-Armored HMMWV) to the huge (various candidates for the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle) to the immense (the Oshkosh MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle) to the gargantuan (the Force Protection, Inc. Buffalo mine countermeasures vehicle).

These vehicles were supported by large numbers of subcontractors making subsystems and components such as suspensions, transmissions, engines, radios, test equipment, run flat tires, shock-resistant seating, and whatever. Trucks and the truck components probably represented close to half the exhibit space.

Force protection (i.e., keeping our guys from getting hurt) is apparently still a high priority, even though operationally our emphasis has shifted to protecting civilians from the bad guys. In addition to armored and mine resistant vehicles, all sorts of armor systems for vehicles and personnel were on display. It appears that ceramics are finally poised to supersede steel and aluminum as the material of choice--as the threat increased, it simply became impossible to protect light vehicles with steel armor. Ceramics may cost more, but they offer better levels of protection at roughly half the weight.

Body armor remains a contentious issue. The Army recently upgraded its requirements to what is called "X-SAPI" standard. X-SAPI is a ceramic plate that, when inserted into a Kevlar vest, provides protection against high-velocity tungsten carbide core bullets. Ceradyne has successfully tested and is producing these new plates, which supersede the previous "E-SAPI" (protection against steel-core bullets) and the original SAPI (good against 7.62mm ball rounds). But everything has a price, and the weight of these plates has increased dramatically--from 4.5 pounds in the SAPI, to 5.5 pounds in the E-SAPI, and now to six pounds in the X-SAPI. Since a complete set of armor consists of two such plates, plus smaller plates for the upper arms, in addition to an Outer Tactical Vest (OTV), the total weight of body armor is more than 30 lbs. To this, the soldier has to add the weight of his helmet, his weapon, ammunition and all the other accoutrements of battle. As a result, the Army has ordered relatively few X-SAPIs in favor of the ostensibly inferior but lighter E-SAPIs.

Back in the 1920s, the British military theorist Basil Liddell Hart said that the infantryman should be as agile and fleet of foot as an athlete; instead, he now waddles around the battlezone like an overloaded turtle. It is no wonder, then, that soldiers themselves have begun to discard elements of their body armor in favor of greater mobility. This situation came to pass because the military allowed political considerations to trump operational and tactical ones.

Specifically, when the war in Iraq was at its height in 2006-2007, the Bush Administration and the Army came under severe criticism because of the number of casualties we were sustaining. It was alleged that the military was fielding inferior body armor resulting in unnecessary deaths. Some critics pointed out that the original SAPI plates could not stop armor-piercing bullets; others that the OTV did not provide coverage for the neck, arms or groin. Rather than respond rationally to this criticism by explaining the tradeoffs involved, the military simply ordered armor that could defeat the worst-case threat, knowing full well the result would mean more weight for the soldier. But in discussions with several body armor manufacturers, I was informed that very few armor-piercing bullets had been encountered in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and that nobody had yet been hit by one of those elusive tungsten carbide rounds for which the X-SAPI was designed. The overwhelming majority of hits are ordinary ball ammunition, for which the original, lightweight SAPI would have been sufficient. By basing the ballistic requirement for body armor on a hypothetical, rather than actual threat, the military ended up spending billions of dollars on over-specified armor plates too heavy to use in the field. On the plus side, nobody anticipates the military will further define the threat upward, because the kinetic energy of even larger or faster rounds would be sufficient to kill a man with blunt force trauma, even if he was wearing body armor that could prevent penetration. Future armor developments will focus on reducing weight while improving comfort and mobility.

Robotic and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) are now widely used for a range of missions, including surveillance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD). Most of these have been relatively small, about the size of a dog, but the Army is looking to field larger versions to provide services such as resupply and medical evacuation in hazardous environments. Several prototypes were on display, many derived from commercial All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) and golf carts. Others were equipped with remotely operated gun mounts for assaults on fortified enemy positions. One gets the feeling that a lot of this development is technologically driven, and that the utility of such vehicles on the battlefield will be narrow and limited.

The big trend in unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) is the emergence of very small "mini" and "micro" air vehicles, typically smaller than an RC model plane, equipped with a very basic sensor package such as a CCD camera or FLIR. These can be carried by a solider in a modified backpack (some slightly larger models can be launched from the roof of a HMMWV) and controlled from a laptop computer and a joystick. Cheap and essentially disposable, they fulfill what the Duke of Wellington called the most difficult aspect of the commander's task--figuring out what lies on the other side of the hill.

On the offensive side, in addition to the usual displays from small arms manufacturers, a number of companies were offering cheap and accurate precision-guided munitions for field artillery and mortars. The latter in particular would be invaluable for our troops in the field, since mortars are light enough to go with the forward elements, and can provide effective fire on short notice. In urban warfare, the high trajectory of mortar bombs can be used to shoot over buildings or to penetrate vulnerable rooftops. A guided mortar, using either GPS, laser or electro-optical guidance, would offer pinpoint accuracy to reduce the kinds of collateral damage which has undermined some of our efforts in Afghanistan. Of course, the Army has been working this problem for more than twenty years, but with several models available "off the shelf", even the R&D mafia will have to concede soon.

Back in the 1990s, a great deal of attention was given to "non-lethal" (now more accurately called "less lethal") weapons, to be used for riot control and in situations where sorting out the bad guys from the civilians was difficult. Examples included big speakers emitting ultrasonic waves and arrays of strobe lights, both of which were supposed to induce nausea; there was also a high frequency microwave weapon that would cause an uncomfortable burning sensation on the skin, which presumably would cause the enemy to run away. These were all pretty large, awkward and expensive weapons. The individual soldier patrolling a narrow street was pretty much limited to a shotgun filled with rubber projectiles or "bean bag" rounds. This year, one company was offering something really innovative: a wireless TASER fitted into a 40mm grenade round. Fitted with a crushable Styrofoam nose, the round could be fired out to 60 feet or so, and was safe for the target at ranges of under 10 feet. When fired, four spring-loaded contacts points emerged from the round, which would catch in the clothing of the target and trigger the TASER's incapacitating electrical pulse. I declined the invitation to be a test subject.

Not everything was about toys and widgets. Among the most interesting displays was the "Sergeant's Corner", in which combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan would present briefings on engagements and tactical situations they had encountered, and the lessons learned from them. Not only educational, the Sergeant's Corner provided a much needed connection to the reality faced by our troops.

The Army is also paying more attention to the needs of returning troops, particularly those suffering from physical or psychological injuries. One display highlighted the Army's "Wounded Warrior Sanctuaries", essentially retreat homes where wounded soldiers can live with their families while undergoing the initial phases of rehabilitation. There was also a lot more attention being paid to issues like PTSD and suicide prevention--though I would also prefer if the Army would try to discover why the rate of psychological casualties in our present wars seems higher than it was in World War II.

Finally, I would be remiss without taking note of one private charity, Snowball Express, which organizes vacations and events for the children of servicemen who have been killed in the line of duty (both combat and non-combat related). Working together with airlines, hotels, sports teams and other companies, Snowball Express brings up to 2500 kids between ages 5-18 together for small local events called Snowflakes, as well as for large, national "Snowballs". It seems like an outstanding example of charitable action in support of those our fallen soldiers have left behind. To learn more, check out their web site


Stuart Koehl is a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.