By Arpi Dilanian and Matthew HowardAugust 31, 2018
Throughout a career spanning nearly four decades, retired Gen. David D. McKiernan had a front row seat to some of the Army's biggest modernization efforts. Known for his ability to adapt to change and to a wide variety of assignments, McKiernan held command at every level of the Army, including the 1st Cavalry Division, Third Army/Coalition Forces Land Component Command (during Operation Iraqi Freedom), U.S. Army Europe, and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. As the Army now reaches an inflection point, we sat down with him to find out why it's time to modernize.
Q: How did the Army's modernization progress over the course of your career?
A: I entered the Army in 1972 at a time when modernization had not been a focal point. We were coming out of the Vietnam War. Our major weapon systems were antiquated and not well maintained. Funding was down for the Army; manpower was too.
What I saw in the Army during the 1970s and 1980s was a focus on one particular threat, and that was the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War era, and Gen. Donn Starry and others designed the AirLand Battle doctrine. AirLand Battle drove our modernization and equipping and really all the other doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOTMLPF) domains as well. From that--doctrine driving modernization--the "big five" weapons systems resulted: Abrams, Bradley, Apache, Black Hawk, and Patriot. I'd also add the Paladin and the Multiple Launcher Rocket System that came about during that same time period.
I think modernization over the years has been a factor of two things: funding and what conflict we're in or anticipate we might be in. Throughout the Cold War, the discussion was really doctrine and supporting capabilities against a very predictable, but certainly catastrophic, threat from the Soviet Union. More recently, I've seen it migrate to the post-9/11 world, where the types of conflicts we're involved in require modernization to focus on things like protection, survivability, precision-guided munitions, and more versatile and adaptable Soldier equipment under increasingly austere and asymmetrical conditions.
Q: The "big five" weapon systems have been the backbone of the Army's lethality for several decades. Why is it time for the Army's six new modernization priorities?
A: As we look at conflict in the 21st century and to an uncertain future as far as we can see out, we're looking at a wide range of threats: small-scale, wide-area security, and very unconventional-type conflicts, all the way up to high-intensity, near-peer combat.
Again, with modernization being a function of funding and the types of conflicts we anticipate, it's not a discussion of whether it's direct action or counterinsurgency; I think that's a poorly framed, either-or argument. It's a question of what do we modernize to be able to have an Army that can conduct offensive, defensive, and stability operations simultaneously?
As we look at the multi-domain threats we face, our modernization efforts certainly need to prioritize things like precision, range, and unconventional capabilities. We need to be able to fight in very constricted, and most likely urban, terrain. We need to be able to acquire targets as far out, or within very complex terrain conditions, as we want to shoot.
We need systems that are all-weather and complement other joint effects; we won't go to any war without it being a joint effort. And certainly paramount to all of these things is the ability to protect ourselves and have systems that are very lethal.
Q: What role will innovation play in ensuring readiness and competitive overmatch?
A: Innovation will be critical for us to fight in the kinds of urban and restricted terrain in which we increasingly find ourselves in the 21st century, and I think there are several areas where innovation will enhance the capabilities of the Army.
Information technology can enable us to provide mission command from both the command and control components. Artificial intelligence will also certainly play a role in the future.
Innovation can help us in the timeless quest to find lighter materials to build our equipment with while providing even greater protection. That's always been a technology challenge, but innovation must help us in that regard.
Our ability to provide more lethal munitions can be improved--everything from small arms to large caliber, long-range precision-guided munitions. We've taken great, innovative strides in medical care and medical capabilities, and I think that will also continue in the future.
Q: What advice do you have for leaders in managing expectations and embracing change within the ranks as the Army evolves?
A: I like to put it in the context of my own service in the Army. You can look back on the 1970s and say it was a time of great constraints, resource shortfalls, and evolving doctrinal and training changes--a glass half-empty viewpoint. But in my experience, it was actually a glass half-full picture, where there were opportunities for leaders in terms of what they could influence and the ability to embrace change.
The Army has always evolved, and we are constantly changing over the DOTMLPF variables. As we look to today, and look at change and managing expectations, I think the central theme is that we need to expect the unexpected. We need to have a "fight tonight, anywhere" mentality and readiness across the Army.
Q: What are some of the challenges you foresee for the sustainment community in the future fight?
A: From my own perspective, for many funding and organizational variables, we perhaps embarked on a slippery slope in sustainment in the 1990s; we took a lot of force structure out of the active component and placed it into the Reserve and National Guard. I don't think we've always had timely access to the Reserve and National Guard to make that effective.
From our experiences in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, we've also grown heavily reliant on contractor support, which may not be available at the start of future conflicts. So I think there are certainly some big challenges in the sustainment arena in the 21st century.
There are deficiencies in distribution and intra-theater lift. I spent a lot of time in Europe and remember what capabilities the 21st Theater Support Command had. I look at what they have today, and it's really eroded. Intra-theater distribution seems to me to be a capability shortfall. We can get equipment and materiel to the theater, but how we move it quickly to the hands of the warfighter is going to be a challenge. And in the future, our ability to set the theater to enable our Army Service Component Commands might not be guaranteed either.
Maintenance is also critical. I think the transition to the two-level maintenance concept continues to be a challenge, and the evolution of maintenance within the Army is still ongoing. We need to do more with maintenance support above the brigade level.
Finally, especially as we look toward high-intensity offensive operations where casualty rates will be significantly higher than in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom and might well be under "dirty" conditions, challenges in evacuation and medical care continue to arise.
Q: How important is collaboration with commercial industry to meet the Army's modernization objectives?
A: It's absolutely critical for the Army and all of the services. Our ability to collaborate with and leverage industry is, quite frankly, underwhelming in many areas. Some of that belief is rooted in cumbersome acquisition policy and regulatory constraints, some in cultural inertia, and some in examples of "rice bowl" friction.
I think the Army needs more running contact with industry, and collaboration on what is available today in terms of equipping the force. I look at the modernization objectives the Army has set for itself; we need to go out to industry and not be hesitant about going to single vendors and seeing what they have available.
I think sometimes we are very self-constrained in our initiative to go out, talk to vendors, see what technologies are available today, and then move quickly to get them. We tend to do it at big trade shows, on industry days, or for slow-moving request for proposal processes, but I don't think those are necessarily the right venues to meet our objectives in a timely way.
Q: What is the most important thing Soldiers entering the Army should know as they prepare for the future fight?
A: Whether it's 1972 (when I entered the Army), 2018, or the future, I think Soldiers want two things, and they should be confident in these two things for any future fight.
The first is leadership. The only way they're confident in leadership is through realistic training to the right tasks, conditions, and standards. Constant training builds confidence in leadership and that unit's skill sets. And about the time you have your basic blocking and tackling skills honed, then you increase and change the conditions. You do it at night or under degraded communications; you do it under increasingly difficult terrain, opposing force situations, and a variety of other challenging conditions.
The second is confidence in our equipment. Our equipment is far better than it was when I entered the Army. I think Soldiers have much greater confidence in our equipment today, but that's a fleeting condition. We constantly have to modernize and look at improving our equipment as conditions change. And reliability, user-friendly maintenance, precision, lethality, and all-weather ruggedness are all required features.
Arpi Dilanian is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. She holds a bachelor's degree from American University and a master's degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Matthew Howard is a strategic analyst in the Army G-4's Logistics Initiatives Group. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Georgetown University.
This article was published in the September-October 2018 issue of Army Sustainment.