Leadership: The Good Old Days Come To An End


May 12, 2010: The U.S. Department of Defense is telling the services that budgets are going to be tight for the foreseeable future, and everyone should change their spending plans accordingly. But not everyone is coming out of budget downsizing a loser. Nine years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq has cost over a trillion dollars, and most of that went to the army. While there were supplemental budgets just for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the army gradually got a larger and larger share of the regular budget. The army plans to keep most of their larger cut of the pie. All this reflected the fact that the army was doing most of the fighting. The marines also did well, but not as well as the army. The air force and navy had to adjust to having less money, so the new austerity is falling mainly on the army. But this is not particularly painful, as the army managed to reequip itself with lots of new gear since September 11, 2001, and refurbish a lot of their existing weapons. While the army lost about 500 armored vehicles in combat (most to heavy damage from roadside bombs), about half of these were armored hummers. Another 500 trucks (including MRAPs) were lost. But these losses were less than one percent of the army vehicles. The big damage was wear and tear, and combat damage that did not total the vehicle. The supplemental budgets covered replacements for the trucks and armored vehicles (as well as over a hundred helicopters) and, more importantly, the refurbishment or replacement of thousands of armored vehicles, aircraft and trucks that suffered wear and tear in the combat zone.

More important was the several hundred billion dollars that went into developing new equipment and weapons. The army ended the decade with GPS guided shells and rockets they didn't have in 2000, as well as an enormous quantity of new communications and computer equipment. Of particular importance was the fact that all this new gear was developed during wartime, and was "combat proven." For a military organization, that's a really big deal.

This experience changed the army's view of its future, and what kind of new equipment it would need. Thus, a year ago, the army announced the official cancellation of its FCS (Future Combat Systems). This was a program of next generation weapons, vehicles and other equipment that was going to cost over $160 billion. The cancellation was no surprise. Two years ago, the army dropped any pretence of trying to roll out its new FCS stuff as a complete package. That's mainly because the Department of Defense had ordered that individual FCS items be readied for combat use as soon as possible. The future will arrive piecemeal, as had been actually happening ever since September 11, 2001, and especially since early 2003.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the army took stock and decided that its future combat vehicles would be smaller and lighter, relying more on missiles, better communications and lots of electronic gadgets. All this was called FCS, and it would change everything. Then came 2003, and three American divisions invaded Iraq and, within three weeks, had seized Baghdad and conquered the country. When the dust had settled, and the battles were carefully examined, it was discovered that the key to rapid victory were the "obsolete" M-1 tanks and M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, doing what they were designed to do.

This didn't faze the FCS developers, for the 20-30 ton FCS vehicles could have done the same thing. The key was being resistant to the RPG rockets, which the M-1 and M-2 were. But that got people thinking. We got all these M-1s and M-2s, and money is tight, and the FCS crowd are asking for over $100 billion to buy new armored vehicles that might not be as effective. Why not just keep upgrading the armor we got, and we know works? This bold idea, reeking of practicality and thrift, received a cool reception. The FCS proponents had spent years of effort to get enough political support for the money to start flowing. And now these retards, with their experience in Iraq, want to face the future with refurbs? The "retards", in the end, had the stronger argument.

The FCS was seen as a breakthrough system. Actually, it was over fifty systems (depending on how you counted them), and a lot of technologies that hadn't been invented yet. Many in the army were unsure about how FCS would do in combat. This "tried and true" crew responded with an offer to try out each of the new technologies as they become available. Whenever that might be. Eventually, the brass at the Pentagon agreed with this. Meanwhile, FCS faced a more formidable problem than reality checks after 2003; lack of money. Not only was Iraq reminding everyone how well existing armor works, but it sucked up the billions that FCS was hoping to feast on.

FCS was nothing if not ambitious, with its plan to militarize many new technologies before anyone else did, and give the army powerful armored vehicles that could be airlifted anywhere in the world in a few days, and then be easier to maintain because the FCS vehicles guzzled a lot less fuel. But that depends on the air force coming up with more transports (C-17s), something the air force has been reluctant to do. The air force has its own FCS (the F-22 and F-35), and that's where all their money is going.

What a lot of officers, and troops, began to see was a need for evolution, not revolution. There's no longer any big land army out there that needs to be shut down. The Red Army is gone, the Chinese army is largely obsolete and shrinking, the North Korean army is falling apart, and the Iranians are more concerned about another civil war. The few nations that are still building new tanks are trying to keep up with the M-1, not leap-frog it using unproven technologies. Continued efforts to keep FCS alive ended up becoming evolutionary as well, because the money just wasn't there for anything radically new. Thus the M-1, M-2, and Stryker rapidly evolved, and proved that, as weapons, they were far from dead. NLOS-C, a new self-propelled artillery system, was built from the wreckage of the cancelled Crusader system, and then cancelled in favor of upgrading the existing M-109.

But there was another factor at work in undermining FCS, and it was called RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). One of the little noticed after-effects of the Afghanistan campaign was the establishment, in early 2002, of the Rapid Fielding Initiative. This was an army program that recognized that American army troops did not always have the best weapons and equipment. RFI was intended to do something about that, and do it quickly.

You could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other stuff came from hunting suppliers (new gun sights). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear.

The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet, and like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet came along, each soldier's discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new ideas gets spread army wide within hours.

Finally, there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed its own RFI powers, and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (night vision gear and satellite phones). SOCOM personnel were on the Internet as well. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating on the Internet how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOMs freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.

When American troops went into Afghanistan in early October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money. Especially if the new equipment, from a civilian supplier, was obviously superior to the stuff the government was giving the troops. With this kind of incentive, the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.

So eventually FCS became, in effect, a part of RFI. It's another example of what happens when carefully constructed plans encounter reality. Reality always wins. In this case, FSC as a program was killed by RFI, while FSC as a collection of good, or at least promising, ideas, lived on.

The army also faces over a hundred billion dollars in additional health costs over the next decade or two, so soldiers are treated for combat stress and other injuries they suffered in combat. Those soldiers who leave the army, are taken care of by the Veterans Administration (which will have to take care of most of the stress, or PTSD, casualties.) The army also has to deal with rising health care costs in general (for troops and dependents), something which all Americans have to cope with. There is also the need to keep compensation and benefits competitive, in order to attract the quality of people needed. But, overall, the army budget came through the decade in better shape than the other services.

The Department of Defense also wants all the services to cut overhead and unnecessary jobs. But that's the kind of mantra that is always being repeated, to little effect.






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