Army modernization bosses: Cut us some slack

The brass knows about all that old stuff, and it wants a fresh chance to prove itself going forward.

Two of the Army’s top modernization leaders had a very simple message Friday: We get it. Enough already. We’re doing our best.

“There are a lot of naysayers out there about Army acquisitions … The myth is, Army acquisitions can’t deliver,” said Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips. “The truth is, we deliver for our soldiers. We’ve delivered yesterday, we deliver today and we’ll deliver tomorrow.”

To be clear, Phillips and his colleague, Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, were genial with the reporters assembled for their roundtable briefing in the Pentagon — everyone was polite. There were no shouting matches. But both leaders clearly want to cast off the stain that still lingers on Army acquisitions, and they argued that part of that involves just giving the service a break.

Cucolo argued that criticizing today’s Army for things that happened in the past is like telling the Army of 1945 “it can’t fight” because of its debacle at the Battle of Buna early in the war. He and Phillips said the service is knuckling down and already seeing good results from changes in the way it does business.

Remember last year’s Army Acquisition Report? Phillips conceded it had a lot of good recommendations, and he said the service expects to implement the 63 it’s adopting by this summer. Officials are confident they don’t need to apply all of 76 them, he argued, including relatively small ones such as changing the name of PEO Soldier to “PEO Soldier and Small Units.”

Remember the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle? Phillips said the Army’s commitment to getting acquisitions right is what saved that program. In the technology development phase, it was looking like JLTV could wind up costing about $500,000 per copy, he said — a deal-breaker. The Army was dealing with a lot of headwinds around town, including opposition up on the Hill, and its Marine Corps partner was eyeing the exits.

Today the latest estimate is that JLTV’s cost has fallen by half, to about $250,000 per vehicle, and the Marines are back in the game.

“They’re in with both feet now,” Phillips said. “That wasn’t true seven months ago. That’s where we’ve taken the greatest strides, but we do have more work to do.”

So the Army wants a fresh start. It doesn’t want every story to mention its disastrous Future Combat Systems; or its Comanche helicopter; or those unmanned ground sensors that caused soldiers to shake their heads. Phillips said Army acquisitions actually has many successes to its credit, including the Stryker — the service is buying 760 new ones with a double-v hull, he said — and the heavy ambush-protected vehicles that have have saved so many lives; and the many weapons and C4ISR upgrades today’s troops enjoy.

He’s right, as far as it goes, but those accomplishments took place when troops were dying and the Army could spend whatever it wanted to get them the armor, vehicles and other gear they needed. The true test for the new Army will be whether it can wind up combat and maintain the kind of  discipline it says it’s now making a priority.

A theoretical post-Afghanistan peacetime Army with plenty of time, if not money, could fall back into its old habits. It could keep adding requirements to its Ground Combat Vehicle because, why not, right? No war going on. Might as well make this baby the dreadnought of the battlefield … so it needs to be amphibious … and wouldn’t it be cool if it could fly itself into the fight? So it needs VTOL capability … and that means air-to-air weapons … and it also means it needs to be stealthy … and so on.

When the Army learns and masters the ability to say “No — this GCV is good enough,” and winds up delivering the vehicles close to their schedule and budget, that’s when people may start to forget Phillips’ “myth” about Army acquisitions.