Loren Thompson - How Mattis' Plan For Fixing The U.S. Military Would Transform The Army

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has issued his initial campaign plan for rebuilding America's military, pursuant to a presidential directive signed January 27. If Congress provides necessary funding, the Mattis plan would reverse a steady erosion of the joint force's warfighting edge that resulted from caps on military spending during the Obama years. In fact, the plan may usher in a surge of spending on new military technology unlike anything seen since the Reagan years.

All four of the military services General Mattis oversees would get a boost, but the biggest beneficiary during President Trump's tenure will be the service that is currently in the direst straits -- the Army. That's because the fixes the Army needs can be implemented more quickly than expanding the Navy's fleet or fielding a new Air Force bomber. In fact, making the Army healthy again could be largely accomplished during Trump's first term -- which is a good thing since it is pivotal to deterring East-West war in Europe.

After two decades of fighting lightly-equipped insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has fallen behind near-peer adversaries -- most notably Russia -- in a wide array of capabilities including long-range fires (missiles and artillery), air defense, force protection, electronic warfare, and cybersecurity. The Army needed so much money to sustain the force structure and readiness demanded by a global war on terror that there wasn't much left for replacing old equipment -- especially after Congress capped spending in 2011.

So today the service is still relying on combat systems bought during the Reagan defense buildup three decades ago (or earlier). A few new systems have been fielded along the way such as the Stryker wheeled troop carrier, but because they were configured for fighting irregular forces like the Taliban, they need more firepower and protection to provide a credible deterrent in Europe. At the moment, the two light brigades of U.S. troops permanently stationed in Europe, including a Stryker brigade, aren't much of a deterrent to Russian aggression.

The Mattis campaign plan consists of three steps, aimed at quickly closing readiness gaps and then building up capability. Like I said, the Army benefits most in the near term because what it needs can be fielded fairly fast. Step One in the Mattis plan is to deliver to the White House by March 1 proposed changes to the 2017 budget fixing readiness shortfalls across the joint force. Readiness includes everything from training to maintenance to munitions stocks.

Step Two, delivered to the White House by May 1, would rewrite the 2018 military spending request for the fiscal year beginning October 1 to buy more munitions, invest in critical enablers, grow the size of the force, and fund demonstration of new capabilities. Step Three, based on a revised national defense strategy, would lay out a comprehensive military modernization program for the years 2019-2023. The revised strategy would include a new "force sizing construct" that would boost the size of all the services, but especially the Army.

Congress has already passed legislation to reverse the shrinkage of the Army that had cut the number of brigade combat teams by a third during the Obama years. Brigade combat teams are the Army's basic formation for conducting maneuver warfare, and typically contain about 4,500 soldiers. There are three brigades in a division, and three battalions in a brigade. What the Army needs as it shifts focus from Southwest Asia to Europe is more armored brigades, equipped with the latest Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

The Army isn't lacking for tanks and troop carriers -- it has thousands of each -- but fighting rag-tag insurgents provided little incentive to modernize these vehicles to the highest level of capability. If it goes up against a rapidly modernizing and professionalizing Russian Army in Eastern Europe, much of the armor currently in inventory could be defeated by enemy forces with better protection and superior firepower. It could also suffer heavy casualties from Russian tactical missiles, which out-range and out-number U.S. missiles in the theater.

The Army has plenty of programs to remedy these deficiencies. For instance, the Paladin Improvement Program for its main self-propelled howitzer greatly enhances vehicle performance, and a Long Range Precision Fires program would field a more lethal missile with greater reach for exchanges across hundreds of miles of territory. But these programs are not being funded with the degree of urgency that recent developments in Europe would seem to warrant. In fact, new versions of the Abrams tanks are being built at the rate of only one per month.

There is so much slack capacity at the nation's sole surviving tank plant that it could easily surge production to 30 times current levels, building all the upgraded tanks the Army needs for additional armored brigades before President Trump's second inaugural. The Mattis plan would likely implement many of the initiatives the Army recently proposed to Congress for funding critical needs, such as accelerating the fielding of new helicopters, buying more survivable armored vehicles faster, and providing better battlefield networks that will allow communications on the move.

If you are not near the fighting, it is easy to take a detached view of whether such items should be funded. But if you have been to war as Secretary Mattis was repeatedly over four decades of service in the Marine Corps, you know why something like being able to maintain communications links on the move is so important. Without those links, you might not know where friendly or hostile forces are in a fast-moving fight. And if you have to halt to set up fixed communications gear, you become a lot more vulnerable to being killed.

And that's before you even consider threats to tactical communications like electronic jamming or cyber attacks that Russian forces have become adept at executing in Europe. The latest Army communications gear can cope with all those challenges, but first it has to reach the force -- and at the rate that is currently happening it will take decades. Similarly, the Army knows exactly what smart munitions it needs to counter Russian forces in Europe, but that won't matter on the first day of war if the munitions aren't bought and forward-positioned for the fight.

The good news is that all of these enhancements can be had for a few days of additional federal spending per year. The Mattis plan doesn't need to break the bank to restore the fighting edge of America's military. In fact, if everything Mattis decides to do is fully funded and the economy doesn't grow at all during the Trump years, defense spending will still be barely 4% of the economy in 2020. It was 6-10% during the Cold War. So if Congress goes along, the Mattis campaign plan is eminently feasible, and the U.S. Army in particular can be brought back from the brink.