There is no doubt it will take a lot of work to maintain the existing military edge the U.S. has now over adversaries, said the Army’s chief of staff, but right now, the service feels good about its current capabilities.
“We are confident in our current capabilities, and we are confident in our current systems, relative to Russia, China, or anyone else, for that matter,” said Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, during testimony Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The general, sitting aside Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper, told lawmakers that despite the advantage the Army currently has, others are working very hard to catch up.
“We are keenly aware of the modernization programs of both Russia and China right now,” Milley said. “And we are aware that we need to shift gears rapidly, into the modernization, in order to make sure that we don’t have parity or that they don’t close the gap. We want a military, across the board, to be unbelievably lethal and unbelievably dominant, so that no nation will ever challenge the U.S. militarily.”
The Army announced in October plans to build a new Futures Command dedicated to expediting development and delivery of new combat capabilities to Soldiers. That command will focus on the Army’s six modernization priorities, including long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defense capabilities, and Soldier lethality.
The location of the new command has yet to be decided, but Esper told senators the Army initially identified as many as 150 possible locations and has since narrowed that list down to about a dozen. Where the Army ultimately decides to put the Futures Command will depend in large part on the talent and amenities available in the surrounding community.
“We want to make sure we can attract the top talent, with access to an ecosystem of talent,” Esper said. “It’s critical we have access to talent ... not just on the material side, particularly with the hard sciences, but also talent to think about the future strategic environment — thinking in the 2030s and the 2040s.”
Esper said availability of talent, proximity to innovation, and academia, along with quality of life and cost of living, will all be key factors in determining where the Army decides to locate Futures Command.
Eight Cross-Functional Teams dedicated to supporting the six modernization priorities have already been stood up and are now actively working toward the modernization goals they support. Eventually, each of the teams will fall under the Army Futures Command. Even before Futures Command stands up, however, the Army is working toward its modernization goals.
One effort the Army is already pursuing is development of a replacement for combat vehicles such as the Bradley, Stryker and Abrams tank.
“These systems were designed and came online many years ago,” Milley told lawmakers. While they have had incremental upgrades since, he said, “they are products of technologies and ideas that come out of the 1960s and the 1970s.”
Development of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle is underway, Milley said. The NGCV will replace existing combat vehicles, which he said right now have about 15 years of useful life left in them.
“We think by 2028, we should be able to begin fielding the NGCV that is optimized for urban operations, that is both either manned or unmanned for ground operations, [and] that has lethality, power, speed, and weight optimized for the next generation of the battlefield we perceive.”
Milley told senators that while the NGCV will include the capability to be driven by an actual Soldier, it will also have the option to be driven remotely. And the requirement for that capability — to operate autonomously -- is not limited to just ground vehicles, he said.
“Every ground and rotary-wing vehicle that the U.S. Army produces from now on -- the next generation, after Bradley, after Abrams, every single one of them -- has to have the base requirement that it has to be either manned or unmanned ... either fully autonomous or semi-autonomous, built in its very basic requirement,” Milley said. “It has to be able to have that option so the commander on the battlefield of the future has that option, based on mission, enemy, terrain, time and troops available, to pick whether he wants [an] objective to be seized with manned vehicles or not.”
Esper said the same applies to vehicles such as trucks that perform logistics operations.
“We hope to accelerate that as well, so we can be experimenting in the next couple of years with regard to unmanned sustainment and logistics support,” Esper said.
Milley said that while the Army is developing the NGCV, it is also “aggressively” providing upgrades to existing Abrams, Bradley, and Stryker combat vehicles across all Army formations.
“I am very confident that those weapons systems will continue to serve us well, even against a Russia or a China in the near term,” he said.
Another area of modernization the Army is focused on now is the network.
“We know that we have learned from various studies of what we saw the Russians do in Ukraine, that we need a network that is reliable, that is resilient, that is mobile, and that can meet our needs in such an environment,” Esper said.
Esper said next-generation network and communications technology is just one aspect of maintaining an edge on adversaries in terms of communications. Another aspect, he said, is training for Soldiers.
“We need to look at trying to make sure Soldiers are training now to operate in an environment in which they have either no data or communications are limited,” he said. “I was pleased to see on my first trip to the National Training Center in November that the [1st. Cavalry Division] was actually doing that. The OPFOR out there were presenting that type of scenario, and we were training in an environment of limited communications.”
Milley confirmed that while the modern Army is very dependent on GPS and position navigation and timing to conduct operations, Soldiers are being trained and are capable of operating in an environment where those capabilities are degraded or unavailable.
The top modernization priority for the Army, Esper said, is long-range precision fires. Ongoing efforts with that modernization priority involve the Paladin Integrated Management System, the Extended Range Cannon Artillery, and at the strategic level, hypersonics.
With hypersonics and other kinds of advanced technologies, Esper said, the Army is working with the Navy and the Air Force to advance joint efforts in parallel.
“We really need to pool our efforts together, and look at how we can make sure we are making advancements and not duplicating efforts to get more bang for every dollar we put toward it,” Esper said.