A U.S. military stuck in the ditch

Oct. 17, 2014
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Oct. 2014. The U.S. military's mission in the Middle East is drawing to a close -- with the exception of scattered and largely ineffective bombing raids to annoy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
THE MIL & AERO BLOG, 17 Oct. 2014. The U.S. military's mission in the Middle East is drawing to a close -- with the exception of scattered and largely ineffective bombing raids to annoy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

With this in mind, it's a legitimate question for U.S. military leaders and the defense industry that supports them to ask, where do we go from here?

The answer not only is unclear, but also increasingly is looking ugly. This represents one of the take-aways from the Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) conference and trade show that wrapped up this past week in Washington.

With pledges of "no boots on the ground" from the Obama Administration in its ongoing bickering with ISIS, the Army is in a particularly difficult place. With Army ground forces taken off the board -- at least for now -- its leaders are struggling with what to do next.

Related: Defense industry left guessing as Army struggles forward with an unclear mission

This state of limbo was painfully on display along the aisles of the AUSA show, and in the long run it's not only the Army that will suffer this way. An unclear military mission and insufficient resources to support the Pentagon's stated goals are leading the U.S. military into a deepening malaise.

The AUSA show is an impressive event. Its massive trade show floors are lined with armored combat vehicles; helicopters and rotorcraft; artillery pieces; machine guns, rifles, and other small arms; body armor; tactical radar; electro-optical sensor payloads; military survival gear; protective clothing; and seemingly countless other items to support the warfighter.

An overriding-yet-unstated question that floated above the exposition floors, however, was "why are we here?" The answer, if asked, most often revolved around two words: readiness and relevance. Army leaders and their industry contractors are striving to keep the service ready to meet an uncertain future. In addition, they want to maintain the Army's ground power as a front-line player in whatever U.S. military mission might emerge in the future.

Related: Coming struggle with ISIS a test of U.S. resolve

Take a look back, for a second, at the Army's evolving missions of the last century: two world wars to confront totalitarian aggression in Europe; a long Cold War to contain communist expansion throughout the world; two hot wars to contain communism in Korea and Vietnam; two separate wars to confront expansion in Iraq; and now an emerging threat of Radical Islam in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and perhaps other regions.

With that in mind, the Army's mission is reduced to readiness and relevance ... and so it goes for the other branches of the U.S. military. It's little wonder the advice of noted talk show host Montel Williams -- a 15-year enlisted and officer veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy. When William's son asks his father if he should follow in his father's footsteps and serve in the U.S. military, the elder William's says no. Why? Because of the relative lack of support that military personnel and military veterans are receiving from their government these days, and the huge risks that military personnel are asked to face.

Risks, you ask? The latest is a plan from the White House to send as many as 3,000 U.S. military personnel to Ebola-afflicted regions of West Africa, presumably to help contain this deadly contagion -- somehow. Meanwhile, U.S. military veterans -- many of whom served multiple tours in Southwest Asia and came home with permanent injuries -- are finding it harder to find quality medical care than the illegal immigrants flooding across U.S. borders. No wonder Montel Williams is discouraging his son from joining the military.

Related: The growing drumbeat for more defense spending

The Army junior officer corps must be asking themselves if they've chosen a promising career. Meanwhile, those in the defense industry supporting the Army must be asking themselves if they're in the right business.

Walking the aisles at AUSA beside the massive equipment displays the defense industry is offering to the Army, I thought of a third word to go along with readiness and relevance: desperation.

Contractors were showcasing armored combat vehicles that no one is going to buy -- at least in the near term; computer and network gear that no one needs; and the ability to run computers and communications gear on obsolescent networking equipment that no one is going to use.

At AUSA the defense industry brought out everything they have in hopes that somewhere, somehow, some way, they'll find a buyer for something ... anything. Things eventually may change, but right now it looks pretty bleak to be an Army contractor.

Related: Armored vehicle market can be a risky place for electronics suppliers

With that in mind, cast an eye westward to Herlong, Calif., located at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Here lies the sprawling Sierra Army Depot where literally thousands of main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, Humvees, MRAPs, artillery pieces and other capital Army equipment are parked in the desert in what to the casual observer might look like a massive junkyard.

Most of these parked and all-but-abandoned combat vehicles never will see action again. They have little chance of being upgraded and refielded because the demand for their use is in the past. Their futures involve the desert sun, and wind, and silence.

Meanwhile Army MRAPs deployed in Afghanistan are being sold on-site for scrap because it's far cheaper to see them destroyed in theater than it would be to bring them home. Grinding never-used armored combat vehicles to shrapnel for melting down and casting into other things is a growth business.

Related: National Defense Panel releases sobering assessment on the future of the U.S. military

No doubt, new Army procurement programs are in the offing. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program may see a contractor selected within the next year. Meanwhile, there is some demand for inter- and intra-vehicular networking equipment to keep a shrinking number of Army vehicles up to date.

Yet rumors of a second round of sequestration threaten to deflate already dwindling military budgets even further. Bipartisan commissions warn that the military doesn't have the money to support its commitments, and the military services face unclear missions and unclear futures.

The Army's leadership may be struggling to maintain readiness and relevance, but I fear in this environment they will be able to do neither.

About the Author

John Keller | Editor

John Keller is editor-in-chief of Military & Aerospace Electronics magazine, which provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronic and optoelectronic technologies in military, space, and commercial aviation applications. A member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since the magazine's founding in 1989, Mr. Keller took over as chief editor in 1995.

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