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Breaking the grip of the Army's 'Iron Triangle'

Speaking earlier this week at the 9th Annual Defense Programs Conference sponsored by defense consulting firm McAleese and Associates, Lt. Gen. John Murray, Army deputy chief of staff for force development, warned that Army modernization can't be deferred for much longer.

While continuing to fund readiness, he noted, "We also have to invest in new capabilities for the next battlefield because what we have today is good equipment, but it has just about reached the limits of its ability to be upgraded."

He's right, but the Army's current spending plans don't jibe with that view. On the contrary, as Murray himself acknowledged, Army leaders plan to defer major new investments in modernization for at least four more years.

"We should start to reach readiness recovery in about the 2022 time frame," Murray declared. "That is what we are projecting."

At today's rate of technological change, four years of deferred modernization is a lifetime. But the decision merely reflects what former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks called the "iron triangle of painful trade-offs" among readiness, modernization, and force structure.

Force structure — the size of the active and reserve forces and the balance between them — would be the least problematic, but for the nation's consistent failure to discipline our military commitments abroad. Even so, the Army expects to grow by only 4,000 soldiers in FY 2019, a relatively modest increase.

In contrast, readiness — everything from training and equipment refurbishment to replenishing depleted stockpiles of munitions, parts, and consumables — is a much steeper budgetary climb after 16 years of virtually continuous overseas commitments.

Meanwhile, single-minded preoccupation with counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism has fundamentally degraded preparedness for major combat operations. Hence, Murray noted, despite having prioritized readiness for the past five years, the Army won't reach what he called "readiness recovery" until 2022.

This isn't the first time the Army has confronted this problem. Coming out of Vietnam in the late 1970s, the Army found itself radically reduced in numbers, without a peacetime draft, and on the short end of a 10-year deficit in equipment modernization.

During that same period, the Soviet army, the Army's principal adversary for planning purposes, modernized itself significantly, transforming what previously had been a ponderous and relatively inflexible force into a formidable offensive capability.

Many military historians still consider the Army's response to that challenge to have been a triumph of effective institutional leadership. During the following decade, the Army totally rewrote its combat doctrine, retrained itself from the ground up, and fielded weapons like the M1 tank, Bradley fighting vehicle, multiple-launch rocket system and Apache helicopter that remain its conventional backbone 30 years later.

It's worth noting that at no time in that process were Army leaders willing to defer attention to any one leg of Ms. Hicks's iron triangle. On the contrary, force structure, readiness, and modernization all fed off each other. The product of that symbiosis was the Army that demolished Saddam Hussein's supposedly battle-hardened forces in only 100 hours in 1991.

There are, however, two notable differences between that situation and the one confronting today's Army leaders. The first is that, unlike today's endless commitments, the Vietnam War ended. Both the end of the war itself and the way that it ended — in defeat — allowed and encouraged an unsparing reexamination of what the Army should prepare itself to do and what it should look like to do it.

Today's Army leaders lack both incentives. Unlike their post-Vietnam predecessors, they're burdened with continuing force commitments from the Middle East and Africa to Central Asia and the Far East.

Meanwhile, senior leaders have claimed for so long that today's Army is the best we've ever fielded — despite having fought only technologically inferior enemies — that their political masters have come to believe it. Their willingness to resource Army readiness, force structure and modernization has suffered commensurately.

The second difference is that, unlike their predecessors, today's Army leaders have thus far failed to settle on a defining force design scenario. Scarred by (inaccurate and unfair) criticism that the post-Vietnam Army abandoned low-intensity warfare, current Army force developers have been unable or unwilling to prioritize any potential contingency.

"Who defends everything defends nothing" goes an old military adage. That the Army has in the past and will again in the future be called upon to perform all manner of tasks is no excuse for refusing to identify a core mission for which to prepare.

Until they put their planning money down, the "iron triangle" will continue to bedevil Army leaders, whether they choose to defer modernization or not.

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