The Army’s acting secretary on Tuesday said the next 18 to 24 months will serve as a critical period for the force’s modernization efforts amid budget uncertainty as it moves ahead with the first prototypes and flight tests of major weapon systems.

Ryan McCarthy told attendees at a Foundation for Defense of Democracies event a recently agreed upon two-year budget deal would provide predictable funding, while noting that a slightly lower proposed spending level for fiscal year 2021 would lead the Army to “make adjustments to its balance sheet” to continue fully funding modernization priorities.

Ryan McCarthy, the Acting Secretary of the Army, poses for his official portrait in the Army portrait studio at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, Aug. 3, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Monica King)

“We’ve got a very important 18 to 24 months ahead of us as we face this modernization effort,” McCarthy said. “If we stay flat in the out years, our buying power starts to decrease.”

McCarthy, who was most recently the under secretary, took over as the top Army civilian in an acting capacity after Mark Esper was officially installed as the latest secretary of defense. 

The Army is set to start accepting the first prototypes for major modernization efforts, such as the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle replacing its Bradleys, this fall as the service looks to push forward with test platforms ahead of fielding low-rate initial production capabilities around the 2026 timeframe.

“A lot of people are going to be watching to see if we made the right bets or did we go too quickly,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy noted that a continuing resolution would stunt modernization efforts, offering his support for a two-year budget deal recently approved by the Senate (Defense Daily, Aug. 1). 

“We’ve got to recognize that there’s going to potentially be a continuing resolution as [Congress] tries to smooth out the specifics of the FY ’20 [budget]. It’s very important that we get that deal done in the early fall,” McCarthy said. “Continuing resolutions create uncertainty. It creates a lot more conservatism. And in the business world, that fluctuation prevents them from investing. They slow their production lines. It creates mass confusion.”

McCarthy told reporters following his discussion that the FY ’21 topline in the proposed budget deal would require the Army to continue making divestitures away from legacy programs, similar to the “night court” process senior leaders used to find $33 billion it could shift away from low priority programs to modernization efforts. 

Current programmatic cuts in the Army’s FY ’20 budget proposal include reductions to the Bradley fighting vehicle and CH-47 Chinook helicopter. 

The Army is also readying to submit its Program Objective Memorandum, its projected spending plan for the next five years, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense on Friday to begin the review process, according to McCarthy. 

Additional benchmarks over the next 18 to 24 months that McCarthy said would indicate success for the modernization effort include finding an autoloader for the Extended Range Cannon Artillery program and looking into post-INF treaty ranges of up to 550 kilometers for the Precision Strike Missile.