HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – In her first major speech before the Association of the U.S. Army, acting chief weapons buyer Steffanie Easter laid out an ambitious list of technologies the service needs for future war, but cautioned that they are out of reach without consistent funding.
“While the list of initiatives that we are pursuing to equip our soldiers for the multi-domain battle is long and even more extensive than what I’ve outlined, we also are challenged by a fiscal environment that has forced us to delay capability, to stretch out programs and in some cases even cancel them,” Easter, whose formal title is acting assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (ATL), said at AUSA’s Global Force Symposium here on Monday.
Formerly principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army for ATL, Easter replaced former Army ASA (ATL) Katrina McFarland who resigned the post before the Trump administration took office. President Trump has not appointed an Army Secretary or deputies.
The Army needs active protection systems for its combat vehicles that protect them and the soldiers inside from inbound “armor penetrators” like rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles, Easter said.
She also called for advanced protection for Army aircraft, to include early missile warning systems. The Army is using the Navy’s radar warning receivers to detect and deploy countermeasures against surface-to-air, air-to-air and ballistic missiles. They should be operational aboard Army helicopters sometime between 2020-2030, Easter said.
Robotic ground systems are “critical to providing freedom of movement” on future battlefields, Easter said. Equally critical in modern warfare is an organic electronic warfare and cyber capability, she added.
As many of the Army’s senior leaders have said and testified before Congress, Easter also said the Army needs steady, predictable funding to realize its modernization goals.
“That is something we have not enjoyed for quite some time,” she said. Easter went on to describe an Army that has set modernization aside for so long it risks losing its assumed technological edge. There is no time to lose before investing in research and development, modernization and acquisition of new capabilities, she said.
“Timing is critical because we cannot risk losing our overmatch by taking forever to deliver capability to our soldiers,” she said. “Technological superiority is not something we can count on either,” she said. “Because of a lot of different reasons – global competition, multiple simultaneous engagements, and some might say an aversion to taking risk – we are on the brink of being able to lose our global superiority.”
The most pressing issue is the Army’s modernization budget, which has fallen by a third since 2012. Since then, the Army – along with the whole Defense Department and the whole federal government – has operated under a year of forced sequestration cuts followed by budget caps that required the Army to prioritize near-term readiness over preparation for future conflicts. Funding through continuing resolutions “that seem to last longer and longer each year,” has exacerbated the issue, Easter said.
“During that time the Army has taken significant risk in our modernization program and it’s going to take us a very long time to recover from that,” Easter said. “Since 2012, our [research and development] budget has decline by 30 percent. That’s quite a hill to overcome as we move forward.”
Easter vowed to protect science and technology funding so that technologies that are required for future warfare are available to the Army when and if it receives funding required to purchase new platforms. Some specific programs she mentioned were sensors that can help helicopter pilots see through degraded visual environments, the Future Vertical Lift next-generation rotorcraft and the improved turbine engine project.
To save an even larger portion of its existing budget, Easter also has revived effort to divest of some legacy equipment. Instead of just shuffling gear and vehicles from the active to reserve components, Easter called for outright shedding of excess items.
“We have a lot of things we have … acquired over time and we need to look at is this driving our sustainment costs,” she said. “We can no longer afford to have systems around that are not used and are not bringing pure warfighting capability to bear.”
In this category are the M113 armored personnel carrier and the TH-67 training helicopter. The Army is sitting on more than 2 million pieces of equipment it does not need under any circumstances, according to Gen. Gustav Perna, chief of Army Materiel Command (AMCOM).
Meanwhile the Army is making selective investments in “Priority areas where capability gaps have been identified,” Easter said. Those include the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. Easter also vowed to fulfill the Army’s requirement for Mobile Protected Firepower, envisioned as a sort of light tank for infantry brigades.
“That has been a key priority for the chief of staff of the Army,” she said. “He has made it very clear that he needs that capability very quickly and he needs for it to be a dominant capability to fill an existing gap today.”
The Army plans to reconstitute its short-range air defense capabilities by using legacy TWQ-1 Avenger air defense systems introduced in the 1980s, Easter said.
When equipment comes back from active combat zones in the Middle East and Asia, the Army is doing its best to reset it and upgrade it when possible, “with the simple goal that that combat capability can both regenerate and maintain equipment readiness,” she said.