Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: The Paradox of Readiness and Modernization in the US Army

By: Eric Altamura, Columnist

Photo by: http://asc.army.mil

The recently published National Defense Strategy states that, “without sustained and predictable investment to restore readiness and modernize our military to make it fit for our time, we will rapidly lose our military advantage.”[i] Secretary of Defense James Mattis reinforced this point to the Senate Armed Services Committee this past week, testifying that budget uncertainty since the passing of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) has “negatively impacted military readiness” and resulted in a “failure to modernize our military.”[ii]

The Army in particular, having borne a tremendous amount of the burden in Iraq and Afghanistan, now finds itself stretched thinly across the globe, annually rotating brigade combat teams through Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Korean Peninsula in an attempt to deter a type of conflict it has not fought nor trained for in a generation. According to LTG John Murray, Army Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8 (responsible for the programming of resources), the Army is at an “inflection point,” and cannot choose between investing in readiness or modernization alone.[iii] For the Army, readiness and modernization have become two, often conflated, sides of the same coin, each demanding immediate investment. However, these two concepts potentially contradict each other, as generating readiness means preparing for today’s threats, and modernization entails planning for future conflict. As such, the Army’s plan for achieving its near and long-term objectives should acknowledge and mitigate the negative effects of contradicting efforts.

This contradiction occurs most noticeably in procurement. The Army awards contracts spanning decades in order to make major acquisitions programs sustainable for the industrial base to undertake. Although these programs should address both near and far term requirements, the Army has recently failed to balance the allocation of funding between the two. Since the 2013 sequester, investment in research and development across all ground systems and platforms received disproportionately high cuts in funding relative to other products and services.[iv] Instead, the Army allocated funding towards programs that provided near-term capabilities within the context of ongoing operations in Afghanistan and the counter-ISIS campaign. For example, the Army began fielding the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) in 2012, a communications system intended to provide high-band connectivity across all echelons at a total cost of approximately $6 billion to date.[v] While the system has proved effective in uncontested information environments, it remains highly vulnerable to electronic warfare and cyber capabilities that the Army anticipates future adversaries to possess.

The conflict between readiness and modernization also plays out in manning and training, as the Army determines how to best prepare its troops for a wide scope of missions. This year, the Army plans to deploy the first Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) to Afghanistan.[vi] This unit, specially designed to provide “training and advising [to] foreign security forces,” will be the first of six SFABs to deploy oversees.[vii] In theory, these units will deleverage other forces from current obligations providing security assistance in Afghanistan, freeing up both conventional and special operations units to focus on emerging challenges consistent with their traditional mission sets. Each SFAB consists exclusively of senior and non-commissioned officers, selected based on experience and demonstrated competence in previous leadership positions. These soldiers then undergo time-consuming, specialized training in preparation for their unique mission. In effect, the SFAB concept has resulted in the removal of some of the Army’s most competent leaders from its conventional forces, relegating them to a counter-insurgency mission during a time when reorganizing for great power competition has become the stated priority of the Department of Defense.

While instances when investment in readiness detracts from modernization are common, the inverse situation can also occur. As of October 2017, the Army’s modernization priorities include six key focus areas: long-range precision fires, next generation combat vehicles, future vertical lift platforms, networks, air and missile defense, and soldier lethality.[viii] While all of these categories represent areas long overdue for development, modernization has the potential to nullify partnerships if allies cannot keep pace with a rapid influx of defense spending in the United States. The Army cannot overlook the importance of maintaining the capacity to integrate with key allies and partners across the globe. Interoperability remains a key theme for NATO in the face of a resurgent Russia and challenges posed by mass migration from conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, specifically, NATO allies recently pledged to increase defense spending following criticism from President Trump during last year’s NATO summit in Brussels.[ix] These allies have limited budgets, and US policymakers should acknowledge that the more the U.S. pressures its European partners to spend on readiness today, the less funding will be available for modernization efforts critical to interoperability in the future.

These cases demonstrate the importance of recognizing the trade-off that occurs between meeting short-term requirements and the long-term implications for modernization. The Department of Defense publishes the National Defense Strategy so that Congress can align resources with strategy. While the passage of Friday’s spending bill may indicate movement towards a new era of increased defense spending, it remains the Army’s responsibility to clearly communicate where it intends to prioritize readiness versus modernization efforts. This process will necessitate assuming risk in both areas, as having it all is not an option.



[i] U.S. Department of Defense. Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. January 19, 2018. https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.

[ii] Terri Moon Cronk. “Mattis Urges Congress to Provide Budget Predictability for DoD.” DoD News. February 6, 2018. https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/1433784/mattis-urges-congress-to-provide-budget-predictability-for-dod/.

[iii] U.S. Congress. Senate. Committee on Armed Services. Army Modernization: Hearings before the Subcommittee on AirLand, of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, 115th Congress, 2nd sess., February 7, 2018.

[iv] Rhys McCormick, Andrew Hunter, and Gregory Sanders. Measuring the Impact of Sequestration and the Drawdown on the Defense Industrial Base (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), XI.

[v] Colin Clark and Sydney Freedberg Jr. “Army Plans to Halt WIN-T Buy; Shuffle Network $$.” Breaking Defense, September 27, 2017. https://breakingdefense.com/2017/09/army-plans-to-halt-win-t-buy-shuffle-network/.

[vi] Daniel Wasserbly. “US Army to Send Its First New SFAB Advisory Unit to Afghanistan in Mid-2018.” Jane’s 360, January 14, 2018. https://www.janes.com/article/77031/us-army-to-send-its-first-new-sfab-advisory-unit-to-afghanistan-in-mid-2018.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Office of the Chief of Public Affairs. US Army. “Army Modernization.” Stand-To! January 16, 2018. https://www.army.mil/standto/2018-01-16.

[ix] Michael Birnbaum and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “NATO Allies Boost Defense Spending in the Wake of Trump Criticism.” The Washington Post, June 28, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/nato-allies-boost-defense-spending-in-the-wake-of-trump-criticism/2017/06/28/153584de-5a8c-11e7-aa69-3964a7d55207_story.html?utm_term=.80496f400cfa.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.