A March 2021 American Enterprise Institute report, The 2020s Tri Service Modernization Crunch, by Mackenzie Eaglen details some of the near-term challenges facing the Department of Defense as deferred modernization begins to reach maturation during a need for greater funding. Titling the challenge facing the Department of Defense the “Terrible 20s,” Eaglen goes on to show that the current modernization plans are underfunded in the later years of the decade, even at the planned DoD growth.
This challenge is not new. The Department of Defense has previously gone through periods of modernization where the initial plans became unaffordable due to a shift in priorities, such as the shift to War on Terror in the post-9/11 period or during periods of funding cuts like those caused by the post-Cold War peace dividend and the Budget Control Act.
In 2021, the United States is facing several significant challenges. Firstly, the United States is simultaneously trying to:
- Modernize the nuclear triad;
- Modernize fighter capabilities;
- Grow the number of surface ships;
- Transform the Army with a new generation of Group Combat Vehicles and Future Vertical Lift; and
- Introduce emerging technologies into widespread use.
Historically, DoD has struggled with programmatics during periods of contraction. As pointed out in the report, the Department is poised for another period of contraction. There are, however, other factors that make the current (circa 2021) situation more complex:
- The rise of near peer competitors. The United States and its allies have not had a near peer since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
- The evolution from the industrial/mechanical era to the information era. In the past, the primary product was the platform (tank, fighter, ship, etc); by 2020, a platform without integrated information technology advantage has limited value.
- A federal budget that is at historically high levels in both total debt ($28.1 Trillion) and debt to GDP (approximately 130%).
- The United States no longer leads in the manufacture or production of critical underlying products, including microelectronics and rare earth elements.
Several recommendations were made in the report, some of which are to increase funding to 3 – 5% real growth, make upgrade trade-off choices early, publish better long-range forecasts, improve defense program management flexibility, and restore readiness selectively.
However, two major threads are missing in this report: How can technology and new capabilities, as well as process changes, reduce the bow wave? For example, can directed energy provide options beyond the kinetic kill? Will the deterrent factor of hypersonic missiles slow other development? Can we converge AI with wargames to get better fidelity into requirements? How can we make the operator part of every system development to reduce requirements to the necessary?
Join us on June 7 as we seek to find answers to these questions and make recommendations for how the Department of Defense should efficiently navigate the “Terrible 20s” and beyond.