Army looks to ‘deep future’ to ensure it stays ahead of technology curve

Assuming sequestration continues, the Army's near-term procurement plans are in severe jeopardy. But leaders say long-term investments in science and technology...

Following a dozen years of sustained combat, the Army has serious concerns about its ability to repair and modernize the gear it thinks it will need to get through the next few years, especially if sequestration stays in effect.

But the service’s leaders also say they now need to dedicate a good portion of the Army’s brainpower toward the “deep future” — something they’ve been distracted from for more than 10 years.

It’s not as though the Army has never set its sights a couple decades down the road. When he was Defense Secretary, Robert Gates famously called out the military for what he termed “next-war-itis,” and directed military leaders to prioritize the fights that were then raging in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“He was telling us to stop thinking about the war after the next one, and start thinking about the youngsters who are on the ground right now,” Gen. Robert Cone, the commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) told attendees at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington. “After that, the Army completely fired its retro rockets and focused very well, and we are now all attuned to the call from theater so we can grind quick solutions to near-term problems, and I think that’s great. But the challenge we face as we switch from an army of execution to an army of preparation is we must reallocate some of our energy toward the future.”

And in particular, the Army is devoting more of its institutional brain power toward the “deep future” — the period between roughly 2030 and 2040, said Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, TRADOC’s deputy commander for futures.

“The obvious challenge is predicting the future, and we know we can’t get it right,” Walker said in an interview. “The issue is not getting it right; the issue is making sure we think about it real hard so we make sure we don’t get it too wrong.”

S&T program investments

To make sure they don’t, Army leaders say they need to make sure they maintain a robust investment in science and technology programs, even while acknowledging that some of their nearer-term procurement priorities are going to take a major hit from sequestration. And since the Army S&T enterprise has focused on its current fights for the last several years, the service will have to rely more heavily during the next few on technologies that already are ready to deploy, and from there, make incremental improvements, leaders say.

“We’re going to have to rely a lot more on mature technologies in the near-term so that we can really start looking hard at the things we need to invest money in that will pay dividends out beyond 2020, and probably into the mid-2030s when we start fielding some of this stuff,” said Lt. Gen. James Barclay, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for resources.

Barclay said that line of thinking also will lead to smaller procurements during the next several years.

“That’s part of the cost effective modernization under the fiscal limits we have. That will then allow us to invest some dollars toward where we’re hopefully going to go in the future,” he said. “But all the while, if we’re not careful to maintain the strengths that we already have in our industrial base, you can think about and talk about and design a force all you want, but you won’t be able to build it if you aren’t cautious over the next five years about what you do with that industrial base in a very constrained fiscal environment.”

Army officials say they have some other strategic concerns about the next five years, mainly centered on the idea that the technological superiority the U.S. military currently enjoys in some areas will be made less relevant as other countries begin to catch up.

But Cone said that’s not the main thing that keeps him awake at night. He’s more worried that the next big long-term breakthrough will happen outside America’s shores.

“We need to be technology makers, and we need to think about what technology is being developed by our potential adversaries that we are not keeping pace with,” he said. “We are very, very comfortable now with using commercial-off-the-shelf technologies. But there are 90 other countries that can do the same thing. There are a number of areas we’re monitoring, and what I’m worried about is whether we have the appropriate investment in the right areas so that we have the initiative in science and technology instead of trying to adapt. The cost of adaptation — if someone else develops a truly innovative weapon — will be significant in terms of lives.”

FCS hangover

But Cone said there’s some reluctance in the institutional Army to point resources toward a murky future that’s still a couple decades off. Part of that, he said, springs from the Army’s six-year experience with the Future Combat Systems program, which Gates canceled in 2009 amid cost overruns, immature technologies and significant doubts about the program’s relevance to the future of ground combat.

“I think that hangs over all of us,” Cone said. “We’re a little bit gun-shy, and frankly we’re a little more comfortable operating in the environment we’re in.”

And Barclay said the Army may have been able to afford to bet and lose on a huge costly program like FCS during the last decade. But it won’t be able to in the next one.

“We’ve made some huge mistakes, but it didn’t really make a big impact on how we were going to design our force because we had the funds and the resources to do that. We are not going to be in that kind of environment in the future,” he said. “To get beyond 2020, we have to understand what we want the Army to look like and what we want it to be capable of. We want it to be versatile and tailorable, but also cost effective. Sometimes those words are not spoken in the same sentence, but that’s what we have to look at.”


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