Army Leaders Losing Tolerance for Absurdities in Weapon Acquisitions
Soon after Gen. Ray Odierno took over as chief of staff of the U.S. Army last fall, he noticed an atmosphere of gloom and doom surrounding weapon acquisitions.
“When I came in, the drumbeat I kept hearing was: ‘We have to change the way we buy equipment,’” Odierno said Feb. 21 during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.
Only months before Odierno’s arrival, Army Secretary John McHugh had received a report by former procurement official Gil Decker and former Chief of Staff Gen. Lou Wagner that documented a litany of acquisition missteps that over the past two decades had led the Army down endless black holes of wasteful spending.
Odierno said past mistakes will not be repeated.
“We have to change, and we are changing,” he insisted. Many of the reforms that were spearheaded by Odierno’s former deputy, now retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, will continue under his successor Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, he said.
The most significant lesson from past failures is that equipment wish lists have to be grounded in the real world, rather than in science fiction, he said.
“We have gotten ourselves in trouble when we’ve tried to predict what technologies will be available 10 to 15 years from now, how fast they’ll get here and what impact they’ll have on the battlefield,” Odierno said. “We have to work closer with industry and be realistic about what we can do.”
The poster child of ill-fated military programs, the Future Combat Systems, has taught the Army many tough lessons, he said. “Matching requirements with technologies is key.”
The Army had hoped to design a new combat vehicle under FCS to replace the M-1 Abrams main battle tank. It made several unfruitful attempts to build a new combat helicopter to replace the aging Kiowa Warrior. And it continues to struggle to develop a new light truck to modernize the Humvee fleet.
Most of the Army’s current inventory consists of weapon systems that were conceived in the 1960s and 1970s — decades that are now regarded as the golden age of U.S. ground weapons.
Odierno cited the Stryker armored personnel carrier as a success story of the past decade, even though the vehicle is too thin skinned for operations in mine-infested war zones such as Afghanistan. The Stryker illustrates the dilemma the Army faces as it tries to buy a new combat vehicle. “The Stryker started out as a great medium-light vehicle. But it’s been weighed down [with extra armor] for survivability reasons. It’s no longer medium and not as mobile as we want it to be,” he said. The Army is looking for a vehicle with the “right mix of survivability and mobility.”
The Bradley Fighting Vehicle, one of the most widely used by infantry units in combat, is another case in point. Soldiers like its mobility, but the vehicle, too, is vulnerable to enemy bombs. “The statistics on survivability of the Bradley in Iraq and Afghanistan did not do well,” Odierno said. “We’ve lost more Bradleys than we have any other combat vehicle.”
The Army teamed with the Marine Corps to buy a replacement for the Humvee, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. Odierno supports the JLTV but questioned some of the technical specifications that caused the price tag to soar unnecessarily. “Some of the requirements are unreasonable from a technological perspective,” he said. “In JLTV we had a requirement that we had to drive up a 53-degree slope at 35 mph,” he said. Such nonsensical demands are what ultimately leads programs to fail, he suggested. “When I look at that, I think, ‘I don’t want us to be driving up a 53-degree slope, and not at 35 mph.”
According to the Decker-Wagner study, between 1990 and 2010, the Army terminated 22 major defense acquisition programs before completion, 15 of them since 2001.
“This track record of too many cancellations, schedule slippages, cost overruns and failures to deliver timely solutions to the war fighters’ requirements is unacceptable,” the report said. “The Army cannot afford to continue acquiring materiel the way it has in the last two decades.”