After 10 years in Afghanistan and eight in Iraq, the United States Army now boasts the most battle-tested soldiers since World War II. Yet the Army also faces a readiness crisis more dangerous than any firefight.
A woeful reluctance on the part of President Barack Obama and Congress to fund essential Army programs now threatens to fundamentally weaken our ground forces even as the Middle East destabilizes right before our very eyes.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently canceled the Army’s top modernization program and has suggested force reductions, while Congress continues to take bites out of critical Army programs.
Certainly, Gates’ calls for reform are right on the money: The Army must stop spending more than
$3 billion each year in programs that are eventually canceled. However, the Army cannot finish the job in Afghanistan or prepare for future battles without bipartisan support in Congress for filling three essential funding needs.
First and foremost, the Army needs a combat-ready wireless network that is fast, mobile, and secure.
You might not believe it, but many teenagers are more connected through their smartphones and iPads than are U.S. soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan. This is because warzones don’t support the kind of expensive and vulnerable telecommunications infrastructure — cell towers and signal amplifiers — that make it possible for us to search the Internet while stuck in traffic. Soldiers need this same capability during a firefight.
Through its Brigade Combat Team Modernization program, the Army is now building an early version of this network that would install network nodes on Humvees and use them as mobile cell towers.
However, Congress and the Pentagon have taken turns cutting back the funding for BCTM, slowing it down, and limiting its deployment. Critics have fairly pointed out that the Army needs to reduce the price of this network and improve its bandwidth and reliability through testing, but no one argues that our soldiers do not need this capability. We need to be delivering it to them faster.
Second, our soldiers need a new ground combat vehicle that will protect its occupants against threats like roadside bombs, transport a full infantry brigade, and be capable of engaging in peacekeeping on one city block and full-scale combat on the next.
For the last decade, soldiers have relied on a motley mix of mine-resistant troop-transport vehicles that don’t perform well in combat and 1970’s-era tanks that are too heavy to take on patrol.
Efforts to build a new GCV have faltered due to debates about its requirements and bureaucratic navel-gazing over its operational utility. The Pentagon should make delivering a new GCV to soldiers a top priority and Congress should allocate the funds necessary to make it a reality.
Finally, soldiers at the platoon level need more sophisticated training to cope with their new responsibilities in today’s conflicts.
Afghanistan and Iraq are becoming known as the “captains’ wars” for the way to victory or defeat has depended on the quick decision-making of soldiers at the company and platoon level. Funding advanced cultural, political, and language studies for the captains on the front lines will ensure that they are prepared to make effective, ethical decisions in the heat of battle.
Seemingly consumed by our economic woes, Obama and Congress are in danger of hollowing out our Army and leaving us ill prepared to address conflicts like the one in Libya.
There should be wide bipartisan support for funding the essential programs that will rebuild and strengthen an Army already sharpened by a decade at war.
Anthony T. Hawkins is national coordinator of the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust.