The US Army Strategy, published in late 2018, continued the army’s shift from a focus on counterinsurgency to high-intensity conflict `involving large-scale combat with Division and Corps-level maneuvers against near-peer competitors’. The strategy has four lines of effort: building readiness; modernisation; reform; and strengthening alliances and partnerships.
Building readiness for war and large-scale contingencies remains a key focus. In its posture statement in March 2019, the army reported that since 2016 it had increased the number of ready Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) from 18 to 28, while readiness was up by 11%. At the same time, US$1.7bn was budgeted in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to improve prepositioned equipment and supplies. The army also plans to staff its operational units to 105% of establishment strength by 2020 and has cut the number of non-deployable soldiers from 15% in 2015 to 6% in 2019, thereby making available thousands more personnel. Training is also receiving a boost, with more `decisive action’ rotations due at combat-training centres in fiscal year 2019. Additionally, recognising the challenges of high intensity combat, the two Infantry BCTs have been converted into Armored BCTs; for one of these, it is understood the army had to draw equipment from its Korean Enduring Equipment Set. Meanwhile, the army has increased Infantry and Armor One Station Unit Training (basic training and elements of trade training) from 14 to 22 weeks and plans to increase training periods in other branches.
However, readiness challenges remain, particularly in recruiting to the desired end-strength. A strong US economy, coupled with low unemployment, is providing tough competition – the army was 6,500 people short of its 2018 personnel goal. It has since bolstered its recruiting efforts, adding 700 recruiters, expanding its online advertising and focusing on 22 cities. This approach worked in 2019; the army exceeded its goal, enlisting more than 68,000 new active-duty soldiers.
In July 2019, Army Futures Command reached full operational capability. It is responsible for providing unity of command for the army’s modernisation efforts so that, as the Army Posture Statement has it, there is one commander for `concept development, requirements determination, organizational design, science and technology research, and solution development’. The army’s modernisation ambitions are reflected in its Army Reform Initiative. This effort reassigned funds from about 200 legacy programmes to 31 key modernisation efforts, particularly the army’s top six priorities: long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicles; future vertical lift; army network; air and missile defence; and soldier lethality. These investments are bearing fruit, with new capabilities developing more rapidly than in the past; one example is the army’s announcement that it will field a hypersonic-missile unit in 2023.
The army’s main future concept is the U. S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 (version 1.5), published in December 2018. This looks to prepare the service, as part of a joint force, for the challenges posed particularly by China and Russia, both in competition and conflict. Key to the concept is the idea of integrating service capabilities, rather than simply synchronising them. Perhaps the central challenge to realising the potential of the concept is that the other armed services (and civilian agencies) will have to contribute capabilities the army does not control, and so far there does not seem to have been strong inter-service support for the army’s efforts. There is no overarching joint concept to drive convergence, and the other services are developing their own operating approaches – for example the air force’s Multi-Domain Command and Control concept. Furthermore, since the demise of the four-star US Joint Forces Command, joint concept-development capabilities have decreased. Nevertheless, the army is moving forward and has fielded an experimental multi-domain task force for the Pacific and is organising another for Europe.
The army is also trying to reform its processes in order to achieve efficiencies and reduce procurement and acquisition times. Several examples show the breadth of these efforts: the realignment of Installation Management Command under Army Materiel Command; the reform of contracting services; the implementation of an audit system across all army accounts by fiscal year 2022; and the reorganisation of medical capabilities, as the Department of Defense transitions medical-treatment facilities from the armed services to the Defense Health Agency.
The army also remains committed to strengthening alliances and partnerships. As well as its enduring and operational deployments abroad and a full exercise programme, a Security Force Assistance Command was established to oversee the army’s new Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFABs). These are responsible for training, advising, assisting, enabling and accompanying allied and partner nations. The first of these, the 3rd SFAB, was formally activated in July 2019. The SFABs free other BCTs to focus on preparing for high-intensity combat, while retaining the capabilities gleaned from over a decade of counterinsurgency and irregular-warfare operations.
In summer 2019, the army saw significant leadership changes. Mark Esper became secretary of defense and General Mark Milley became the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their tenures have marked a significant shift in direction for the army towards preparing for the challenges identified in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. Nevertheless, continuity seems to be ensured, as Esper and Milley are both succeeded by their deputies: Ryan McCarthy as secretary of the army and General James McConville as US Army chief of staff respectively.
The US Army continues to prioritise for modernisation the `big six’ equipment projects: long-range precision fires; armoured-vehicle replacements; future vertical lift; networking efforts; air and missile defence; and soldier lethality.
However, under the leadership of then-secretary of the army Mark Esper, the army attempted to make its modernisation plans budget-neutral by engaging in so-called `night court’ senior-level reviews of each army acquisition programme. This led to the saving of some US$25bn in five years for reinvestment in the big six priorities. The army’s most controversial decisions included the cancellation of a planned upgrade to the CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter and reduced quantities of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. As secretary of defense, Esper is expected to bring the same senior-level-review process to the entire DoD budget in the FY2021 budget request, a process he began with a review of defence-wide functions outside the military services.