Much of the Army’s modernization wish list is funded under the final defense authorization bill passed Nov. 15, but the service can’t spend the money until it convinces Congress the programs are on track.

Senior service officials see the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act as a tacit approval of the Army’s near-term modernization strategy, especially regarding lethality upgrades for armored brigades. Acting Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said the compromise bill indicated that lawmakers “embrace wholeheartedly” the service’s current modernization strategy.

Army Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, addresses the National Guard Association of the United States 138th General Conference, Baltimore, Md., Sept. 10, 2016. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill)
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, addresses the National Guard Association of the United States 138th General Conference, Baltimore, Md., Sept. 10, 2016. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jim Greenhill)

That embrace is not without hesitation on the part of the House and Senate armed services committees, which included requirements for detailed reports of Army modernization spending. The Army is on the hook for a report on plans to modernize its battlefield network by Jan. 31 and at least half the authorized spending on network programs is on hold until the report is delivered.

A day later, reports on both the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) program and the air- and missile-defense battle command system are due. A “comprehensive modernization strategy for the total Army to include a detailed description of its combat vehicle modernization priorities over the next five and 10 years” is due April 30.

 “We fully intend to publish on time and use that as a mechanism of communication,” McCarthy, who soon will be relieved by incoming Army Secretary Mark Esper, said Nov. 15 at a breakfast hosted by George Washington University’s Project on Media and Security in Washington, D.C.

While the mandated reporting could be perceived as congressional unease with the Army’s ability to manage money and modernization programs, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley welcomed the oversight and was pleased with the level of support the service did get.

“The American people spend an awful lot of money on the United States military and they trust the people’s representatives in Congress and the oversight committees to ensure that money is properly spent and we have to be proper stewards,” Milley said at the breakfast. “We should expect and welcome oversight. It’s a question of optimal versus what’s acceptable with an acceptable level of risk and I think this NDAA provides an acceptable level of risk.”

The NDAA authorizes an active duty Army of 483,500 soldiers, a 7,500-troop increase over fiscal 2017. That represents a riser on the stair-step path the Army is taking to growing the force, Milley said. With limited funding to train and equip more soldiers, the service plans to add about 7,500 every other year until it gets to an “optimal” end strength, he said. There will be no increase in the off years.

“We don’t want to increase forces unless we have the money to make them ready,” Milley said. “So, if money became available, then we would prefer to go up every year to get to the optimal number, or close to it, faster because the world is spinning and it’s not going to wait for the American budgetary risk.”

Adding 7,500 troops every other year will get the Army to its optimal strength in the “distant future,” Milley said. In the meantime, he is not comfortable with the level of risk an Army of 1.02 million active and reserve soldiers assumes in the current global threat environment.

“I am not comfortable, and I have said in testimony several times, with the level of risk on the size, the capacity, of the United States Army to do all the tasks required of it in today’s world,” Milley said. “The capability of the Army both in readiness and technology – we need to work on those two areas as well.”

While the NDAA spells out where the Army’s money can be spent, the budget bill to fund those priorities is unlikely to pass before Dec. 8 when the current continuing resolution (CR) funding the government expires, McCarthy said. He predicted the government will operate under another stopgap spending measure until at least Christmas.

“It prolongs the pain. It kicks the can down the road,” McCarthy said of continuing resolutions. “Our ability to invest in science and technology and aggressively move the Army through a modernization program … it confines us. Our ability to invest and work with industry to expand production lines, to produce parts for programs, military construction – it inhibits us to do any of that.”

“What I’m hearing is that at the very minimum is another CR to take us to Christmas,” McCarthy said. “The issue will be whether or not it’s going to be longer than a couple weeks.”