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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Senior Army leaders may be showing some concern about the yet-to-be announced 2022 budget request, adding that they would rather not be forced to choose between “better weapons and more soldiers” due to competing budget demands and planned expenditures.

The question, cited in an essay from Defense One, quotes Acting Sec John Whitley as telling Congress “I think there is a lot of risk in the budget.” The article also suggests that there may be a consensus that, among Army decision-makers and Congressional advocates, the upcoming budget is “not going to be what anyone wants.”

Whitley’s comments align with others such as senior Army leaders and lawmakers who are anticipating the upcoming 2022 Pentagon military budget with some trepidation, out of a concern that key focus areas such as modernization and manpower may be asked to absorb cuts.

Of course naturally Army leaders, advocates, and many on the hill, would not like to see funding for Army efforts diminished in a substantive way, given the current global threat environment and increased operational focus on multi-domain operations and defining new technologies such as AI and improved cross-service networking and communications systems.

“Little is publicly known about the Biden administration’s 2022 defense spending request, except that it will be submitted to Congress far later than usual, and that its $715 billion top line is a slight increase from this year’s $705 billion,” an interesting essay published by Defense One states.

The Defense One write up goes on to suggest that Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville “hinted that the spending plan would force him to choose between better weapons and more soldiers.” +

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While the impact of any kind of substantial force size reduction is easily understood in many respects, any kind of substantial modernization reduction could bring far reaching consequences, as the Army is now on the cutting edge of several defining breakthroughs potentially likely to generate new concepts and applications of Combined Arms Maneuver. This kind of technology-tactics-maneuver formation synergy is precisely what senior Army decision-makers with Army Futures Command and the service’s acquisition community (Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics and Technology) consistently emphasize. The thrust of the thinking is not only the kind of immediate technical impact new technologies and weapons have but the broader extent to which emerging systems inform, transform and shape concepts of operation. This dynamic is particularly evident with the Army’s Project Convergence initiative, a series of high-speed experiments leveraging AI, drones, manned-unmanned teaming and emerging weapons systems to exponentially truncate combat targeting, data analysis and sensor-to-shooter time. An ability to shorten the “kill web” merging sensor nodes with weapons and “effectors” as they are called from 20-mins to 20-seconds introduces an entirely new sphere of warfare tactics and dynamics.

However, something like Project Convergence, and the technologies it relies upon to come to life in an operational setting, depends greatly upon the continued maturation of promising new innovations such as various emerging applications of AI, recently established air-ground connectivity such as real-time F-35-ground soldier information sharing, unmanned-unmanned teaming using mini-drones to find targets and long-range, precision guided weapons such as the Army’s now evolving Precision Strike Missile.

Should some or any of these systems suffer substantial funding setbacks, an ability for Army forces to conduct a new dimension of “warfare at speed” could be measurably compromised or delayed, breakthrough levels of operational combat functionality could be delayed or even derailed and, quite simply, an ability to wage ground war and even multi-domain attacks inside of or much faster than an enemies’ decision-cycle could suffer impactful setbacks.

What might this mean? Certainly the question raises a handful of significant points of discussion. There has now, for many years, been ongoing discussion about Army end-strength and the need to balance modernization costs with actual size. One thing seems clear, both are crucial and of great importance. Even with an Afghan drawdown, there would be absolutely no sensible basis upon which to reduce the size of Army end strength, especially when it comes to the ability to flex with the Army National Guard and Reserves.

There are several key reasons for this, most of which may seem self-evident to Congressional and Pentagon decision makers. While there will of course be less of a need to station large numbers of ground forces in the Middle East, the demand for a larger presence and force footprint in the Pacific and European theaters seems to be growing quickly. Certainly the significance of very credible Russian threats along the Ukrainian border, not to mention commensurate deterrence efforts throughout Europe with NATO allies, seem to suggest that any kind of decreased Combatant Commander request for more troops is unlikely to happen.

Also, a lesser known fact is that the Army has a sizeable footprint in Asia as well, a mission scope that is likely to only grow further. The Army, for instance, already has a strong presence in Japan and South Korea and continues to step up collaboration with Australia, India and other regional allies throughout Southeast Asia. Given this, there does appear to be an evidenced based argument for why not may certainly not be the time to decrease the Army’s overall size, a thought process further fortified by the known reality that China operates with as many as 3.3 million activity duty forces with what might arguably be an unparalleled ability to flex.

Strategically speaking, the growing emphasis upon multi-domain operations requires increased maritime connectivity with land forces, something of particular relevance in the Pacific’s many dispersed island chains such as the Senkaku Islands and of course the South China Sea. While in many cases small by comparison, the land formations dispersed throughout the South China Sea are increasingly seen as key opportunities for the U.S. military and its allies to leverage expeditionary ground power such as deployable artillery, rockets and other weapons increasingly configured to operate within a maritime environment. This kind of thing actually forms a large part of the rationale for the Marine Corps’ evolving Light Amphibious Warship concept, a developing vessel envisioned as an island-hopping type of transport ship able to quickly bring Marines, supplies and even heavy weaponry to island outposts throughout the Pacific. What this means, quite simply, is that a need for ground-forces and ground-weapons is likely to increase exponentially due to increased networking technologies and multi-domain, maritime-environment capable Army weapons systems engineered to operate in close coordination with Air Force and Navy assets in the Pacific. The Army’s Integrated Battle Command System, for instance, is a dispersed, yet highly networked compilation of radar and sensor nodes able to conduct air-land-and-sea target recognition missions. IBCS is, for instance, designed with the concept of operations to function in a multi-domain, maritime type of environment as ground-based threat sensors can increasingly share real-time targeting data with sea and air platforms such as Navy ships and fighter jets. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics&Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.