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Army searches for ‘sweet spot’ between current, future needs

From left, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Defense Undersecretary Comptroller Michael J. McCord arrive to testify on Capitol Hill on May 11, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/TNS)

The Army and Congress are wrestling with this year’s version of a perennial budgetary tension: spending on upkeep of today’s equipment versus developing tomorrow’s.

House Armed Services Committee members, at a hearing Thursday on the Army’s $177.5 billion fiscal 2023 budget request, showed differing approaches to how much the size and capability of the current force must give in order to pay for developing next-generation systems.

Members split on largely party lines in the debate. GOP members have denigrated President Joe Biden’s budget request as posing a false choice between current and future requirements simply because the total amount of proposed funding is, they say, insufficient.

Democrats, meanwhile, have generally argued that cutbacks to the size of the Army and to upgrading existing equipment are needed to prepare for emerging military challenges.

Fewer than 1 million soldiers

Senior committee Republicans — including ranking member Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, Michael R. Turner of Ohio and Rob Wittman of Virginia — characterized several categories of proposed spending in fiscal 2023 as insufficient.

One was end strength, or the number of soldiers in uniform. For fiscal 2023, the administration’s proposed end strength for the active and reserve Army combined is 998,500. That is 12,000 fewer soldiers than the fiscal 2022 enacted end strength authorization. It is 3,000 fewer soldiers than the estimate for actual fiscal 2022 end strength.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville acknowledged under questioning Thursday that fiscal 2023 is poised to be the first year in two decades that the service has gone below a million soldiers. He said he is concerned about the size of the Army and noted that recruitment has been a challenge recently. But he hastened to add that “quality is more important than quantity.”

Vehicular collision

Rogers expressed concern about the smaller Army and also took dead aim at the administration’s plan to curb spending on newer versions of combat vehicles. He cited Abrams tanks and Stryker wheeled armored vehicles as the primary examples.

The Army would upgrade 22 Abrams in fiscal 2023, down significantly from 90 in fiscal 2022. And it would update 102 Strykers in fiscal 2023, far fewer than the 228 receiving the updates this year.

“The Army’s trying their best to manage risk by dividing investment between long-term modernization priorities and short-term requirements,” Rogers said. “But it also means we’re making a dangerous gamble that risk in the near term will be low. I suspect that’s not the case.”

“Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine highlights just how vital it is that we pass a robust budget that reduces both near-term and long-term risks,” Rogers added. “Unfortunately, this budget proposal makes those choices mutually exclusive.”

Congress appropriated more than the president requested for Abrams and Stryker programs in fiscal 2022, as lawmakers have many times before. It is a safe bet they will do so again this year in response to the lower fiscal 2023 request.

In fact, McConville himself gave Congress a $5.1 billion list of so-called unfunded priorities for fiscal 2023 — systems he considers important but that were not deemed sufficiently so to be included in the budget request.

Nearly half of the total is for equipment, including $524 million just for Abrams tanks.

McConville, at Thursday’s hearing, nonetheless defended the budget as submitted.

“We’re trying to strike the balance between continuing to invest in our enduring platforms like Strykers, like Abrams, but also maintaining our modernization on developing the new systems — developing the robotic combat vehicles or the optionally manned fighting vehicle,” he said. “We’re trying to find that sweet spot.”

Ready for a fight

Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said the Army is headed in “the right direction” as it seeks to balance current needs with future systems.

“We have to update our systems and be ready for the fight that is here today, and not the one that was there 30 years ago, so that involves some very difficult decisions,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of existing programs and older programs and older systems that are not contributing in a positive way to that fight. We need to move off of those and get the systems that you just described.”

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth assured lawmakers that the service can answer the call today, regardless of what changes are proposed on the margin of its budget.

“America’s Army is fit, trained and ready when called upon to fight and win the nation’s wars,” Wormuth said. “We are transforming for the future, something we have to do given the dangerous environment we face today.”

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