After the Bow Wave

The Army fiercely guards modernization plans as war bills come due.

Perhaps more than any other service, the Army already is feeling the effects of the long-dreaded procurement budget crunch, an anticipated downturn in the so-called defense spending bow wave that could put its plans for the future in danger.

Publicly, Army leaders insist they are marching forward with the $160 billion Future Combat Systems, while at the same time they're writing massive checks to repair and replace equipment destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army says it will need $17.1 billion next year alone to reset ground equipment and helicopters. That includes nearly $5 billion in expenses that was stripped from wartime spending accounts this year. After that, officials say they will need at least $12 billion annually for depot work and procurement dollars to replace worn-out equipment.

That's a hefty bill for a legacy fleet of vehicles and choppers. And it could eventually scuttle the service's plan to spend billions each year on the sprawling Future Combat Systems, the centerpiece of its technology transformation efforts.

In June, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker warned House lawmakers not to tamper with FCS, a complex network of manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles that have been a target for budget cuts in the past several years. Doing so, he told the House Armed Services Committee, would put the Army's transformation and modernization plans at risk and relegate it to 1990s-era readiness, when the service's procurement accounts were $56 billion in the hole.

"With the exception of the Future Combat Systems, the Army has not had a major start in modernization in almost four decades," Schoomaker said. "Our enemies will continue to adapt their tactics. We must remain ahead of them and place our soldiers in positions of advantage by providing them the best equipment, training and support our nation can provide."

A former senior Army official says officials are trying to shield the centerpiece Future Combat Systems from the kinds of cuts that led to the cancellation of other top Army programs, including the Comanche reconnaissance and attack helicopter, which was scrapped in February 2004. "They're really trying to protect this program," the former official says. "We can't put off modernizing the Army forever. The weapons systems we have are old."

But the former official also acknowledges that the Army is devising contingency plans in the event FCS does face drastic cuts. "There's always a plan," the former official says. "Hope for the best, plan for the worst. That's what the Army does."

Indeed, Army officials privately are girding for anticipated cuts to the prized program, several defense observers have said. In closed-door meetings outlining budget plans for the next five years, service officials are weighing their options for FCS, making a list of priorities, and determining what subsystems they can live without or put off temporarily.

So far, though, FCS has emerged from the Army's internal budget negotiations unscathed. Preliminary budget documents dated June 6 indicated that the service wants to continue to fund the program over the next several years at the same levels prescribed last year in spending forecasts.

Cutting FCS would dramatically alter the program, which was expanded to include several new systems just last year. Among the options on the table is scaling back the number of FCS technologies, including futuristic sensors and un-manned air and ground vehicles, it will phase in through 2014.

If the Army is forced to make cuts, it could delay development of the expensive manned ground vehicle portion of FCS, or merely upgrade the 20-ton Stryker vehicle. That approach has long been feared by Army officials, who have insisted that linking the Stryker to the FCS network and adding more advanced protection devices would force them to redesign the vehicle, now used extensively in Iraq. "Something's got to give," a defense observer with knowledge of the cuts says. "There's got to be a decision made to cut something."

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