US Defense

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.

Loren Thompson - U.S. Marine Corps Retools Strategy As Tech Threats Mushroom

The U.S. Marine Corps is postured for the past rather than the future. That's the conclusion its top leaders came to after a year-long review of how the threats Marines face are changing and what the Corps must do to adapt.

Eventually, these divergent trends will put Marines at a disadvantage in fighting the nation's wars. The other military services face a similar challenge, but because the Marines are America's first responders in overseas crises, they are likely to be early casualties of the chronic under-investment in new technology. Here is how the Corps describes its central problem in a recent revision of the Marine Operating Concept:

The Marine Corps is not organized, trained, and equipped to meet the demands of a future operating environment characterized by complex terrain, technology proliferation, information warfare, the need to shield and exploit signatures, and an increasingly non-permissive maritime domain.

This is not the way the Marines used to talk about challenges. The traditional message has been that the Marine Corps is almost infinitely adaptable, able to improvise and prevail no matter how austere the circumstances. But the appearance of new information technologies in the hands of foreign adversaries clearly has it worried. As my colleague Daniel Goure puts it, there aren't any low-end threats anymore -- even rag-tag extremists have smart phones, drones, GPS jammers and lethal anti-armor weapons.

So the Marine Corps has to change. This week I sat down with Lieutenant General Robert S. Walsh, the Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps for Combat Development and Integration, to discuss where his service is headed. Walsh is dual-hatted as head of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, and thus has the lead for developing future warfighting doctrine, requirements and training concepts.

Walsh says that "we are nearing completion of an extremely exacting capabilities-based review that identified several critical gaps that must be addressed in order to fight and win against highly capable adversaries." Among other things, the review found a need for more sophisticated information warfare capabilities; additional unmanned aircraft systems; active protection of combat vehicles; and better expeditionary defenses against airborne and ballistic threats.

The good news is that the Marines have sustained their investment in the unique MV-22 tilt-rotor and stealthy F-35B fighter, both of which are capable of landing on a dime pretty much anywhere rather than requiring air strips. The ability to combine the vertical agility of a helicopter with the speed and reach of a fixed-wing plane is already delivering big operational dividends to the Corps in terms of flexibility and versatility.

But everywhere else that Walsh looks, he sees problems that need to be fixed. For instance, the minimum number of amphibious warships needed to lift two Marine Expeditionary Brigades is 38, and at the moment the Navy only operates 31. If current shipbuilding plans aren't changed, the service won't have what it needs until 2034. There's plenty of shipbuilding capacity for building additional ships sooner and the cost is not high -- a couple of days worth of federal spending at present rates -- but Congress has capped defense spending.

Without adequate resources, the Marine Corps has been forced to fund readiness while neglecting modernization. But now, Gen. Walsh says, "We've got to start modernizing -- we aren't postured for the future fight."

The Marines are not abandoning their traditional emphasis on maneuver warfare or individual initiative. If anything, the new warfighting environment will require small units to exercise even more autonomy and initiative as they operate in widely dispersed operations. So leadership training down to the most junior officer will be crucial to future success. But it is no longer enough to maneuver effectively at sea, on the ground, and in the air. The Marine Corps must also learn to maneuver on the electromagnetic spectrum.

That's where the sensors, smart weapons and networks that increasingly define modern warfare operate. If Marines can't dominate the spectrum, then their communications will be jammed, their emissions will make them vulnerable to targeting, and they may even be denied access to GPS. Enemies will use non-kinetic weapons like cyber attacks to take down systems that the Marines count on to multiply their effectiveness.

So information warfare has become central to Marine planning. The service has already shifted 6,000-7,000 Marines into information specialties to cope with the various assaults enemies may launch on the electromagnetic spectrum. That's a big commitment in an organization that currently numbers only 182,000 uniformed warfighters. But all the other requisites of modern warfare like long-range fires and armored warfare must also be serviced, so some increase in personnel will be needed just to keep the Marine Corps abreast of emerging threats.

It's unusual to hear Marines like Gen. Walsh talking about information warfare. The historic ethos of the Marine Corps was always about the human elements of war, and the importance of esprit in overcoming material obstacles. But there's just so far those values can get you when the enemy is able to track your formations, target your combat systems and disrupt your command links. So now the Marine Corps must adapt its most cherished principles to a world in which the worst actors may have the latest technology.