Army Budget Request Leaves Little Room for Modernization (UPDATED)
The Trump administration’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposal for the Army would give the service a modest $7 billion increase over the 2017 enacted levels, which officials say will maintain readiness and grow the size of the force, but leave little funding to procure new platforms.
The Army will fund incremental upgrades to several of its iconic platforms while placing bigger bets on research and development for future weapons systems, documents show.
Maj. Gen. Thomas A. Horlander, Army budget director, said in a briefing to reporters that the 2018 request “starts to arrest the Army’s readiness decline and sets the conditions for improving the future readiness of the force.” That decline began at the outset of the Budget Control Act in 2012, he said. The Army’s end strength would be the same as the 2017 enacted levels, which stands at 1,018,000 regular Army, National Guard and reservists.
However, recruiting, paying, equipping and training this force came at a cost to the procurement of big-ticket military hardware programs. After requesting the funds to fully man, train and equip formations and give them adequate infrastructure, “only a small portion of the growth remained to apply to our future modernization accounts,” Horlander said.
Hamilton Cook, senior market analyst at Avascent, said the budget fits with the message the Army has been putting out — that the service is at an all-time low in readiness. He was surprised that the regular Army number is holding steady at 476,000. The administration and several think tanks want that to eventually be around 540,000.
“We’re still looking at the same force size as we had last year, so it will be interesting to see how the Army decides to grow,” Cook said.
As far as major weapons systems, the modernization base budget goes from $26.2 billion to $26.8 billion. Emphasis is put on “developing and improving existing fleet systems,” the budget documents said. Money for the procurement of existing platforms goes down from $17.8 billion to $17.4 billion.
“The Army is accepting risk in developing new capabilities in order to prioritize incremental upgrades in air and ground systems so we can put in the hands of our soldiers in the near term a greater and more lethal capability,” Horlander said.
The service sees itself getting away from counterterrorism operations and entering a period of confronting near-peer competitors with more robust tactical missile systems, officers have said in recent months. It wants to be able to fight in all domains.
“Air and missile defense and long-range fires represent the Army’s most urgent … capabilities,” Horlander said. Given the possibility of confronting a force with substantial anti-access, area-denial capabilities, the Army needs to advance its short-range air defense and long-range fires capabilities, he said.
The request asks for the procurement and installation of 131 Patriot modification kits, and more Avenger surface-to-air missile systems. For surface-to-surface fires, it requests service life extension of 121 Army tactical missile systems and 6,000 guided multiple launch systems.
Perhaps the biggest leap in the budget is the research, development, test and evaluation accounts, which jump from $8.4 billion enacted for 2017 to $9.4 billion requested for 2018. That supports development of the armored multi-purpose vehicle (AMPV) and the joint tactical ground system “to increase mobility and lethality for brigade combat teams,” the document said.
The Army request would take 107 M113 armored personnel carriers and integrate them onto Bradley fighting vehicle hulls to create the new AMPV. The 107 being requested would serve as low-rate initial production vehicles. The program’s cost is being split between the base budget and overseas contingency operations funding, $393 million and $254 million respectively.
The Army describes the joint tactical ground system as an early warning system that communicates with the Air Force's space-based infrared system, which counters enemy tactical missiles.
Other R&D priorities include more funding for assured positioning, navigation and timing, electronic warfare, cyber operations and communications, the documents said.
“On today’s battlefield, the Army requires a greater ability to conduct electronic warfare. Against near-peer adversaries it requires an electronic warfare capability at the brigade and below,” Horlander said. While most of the EW funding is in the research-and-development category, it includes some upcoming installations of the Prophet signal-intelligence systems on Stryker and mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles.
As for rotary wing aircraft, most programs would take a hit with AH-64E remanufactured models going from 52 to 50, the CH-47 Chinook falling from 61 to six, and UH-60M Black Hawk’s from 61 to 48. The only program to receive more helicopters is the Apache new builds, from seven enacted in 2017 to 13 proposed for 2018.
Horlander said the cuts to aviation have to be carried out to fund other priorities such as air defenses and long-range fires.
Cook said he was shocked at the number of Black Hawks being proposed. Forty-eight would be the lowest number in years. Sixty to 70 new builds is more normal, he added.
This is an example of one of those procurement accounts “where Congress is likely to get involved,” Cook said. Lawmakers may come to the rescue in the name of jobs for their districts, particularly where President Donald Trump did well in the election, he said.
Fighting vehicles are a mixed bag as the number of M1 Abrams tanks being upgraded drops from 60 to 20. However, the number of Bradley fighting vehicles undergoing modifications goes from 45 to 135 and the number of Paladin Integrated Management mobile 155 mm Howitzers and their resupply vehicles being acquired goes from 48 to 71, with 48 of them coming from OCO funding.
The new joint light tactical vehicle program, still in its low-rate initial production (LRIP) stage, continues to ramp up with 2,110 being requested in 2018, an increase from the 1,828 enacted in 2017. Fiscal year 2018 is the third and final year of LRIP numbers before the program is expected to reach full-rate production.
There are some, but not many, requests for new builds in the overseas contingency operations budget. For example, the administration is asking for $26 million to acquire 262 heavy tactical vehicles at the request of combatant commanders.
Cook said considering all the calls for rapidly expanding the size of the force, the modernization accounts did well. There has been a battle for the soul of the Army with modernizing weapon systems going against the desire to field a large “overwhelming force.”
“It is at least a focus on short-term modernization. It’s going to be a lot of shovel-ready programs that are available now,” he said, noting that the “decent” uptick on research and development came with it as well.
Absent from the annual budget briefing was any mention of the future years defense program, a five-year look at funding levels beyond the current request. John Roth, performing the duties of under secretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer, said at an earlier briefing that he ordered the services to withhold releasing FYDP numbers because they would not have any legitimacy to them until the completion of a series of strategic reviews due to be wrapped up this summer.
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Black Hawk helicopters requested.