The Army Must Balance Expensive Modernization with Lower Cost Upgrades

    Dan Goure

    Security,

    The consequence of this strategy is soaring maintenance costs for aging platforms that can produce a death spiral in which a military service lacks the resources either to maintain an obsolescent system or to acquire a new one.

    Modernizing military forces is never cheap. Even if buying new equipment will result in lower life-cycle costs, the upfront investment is inevitably substantial. When defense budgets are tight, the tendency is to defer modernization, particularly for non-combat platforms.

    The consequence of this strategy is soaring maintenance costs for aging platforms that can produce a death spiral in which a military service lacks the resources either to maintain an obsolescent system or to acquire a new one.

    A period of increased defense spending produces a race to modernize. Typically, these surges in military budgets rarely last longer than five years. The new two-year budget agreement passed earlier last spring provided a major boost in defense spending.

    But starting in Fiscal Year 2020, things could change. It is possible, although unlikely, that the spending caps instated by the Budget Control Act could be re-imposed. At best, future defense budget increases are likely to be limited, possibly to less than the rate of inflation. So there is not a lot of time for the services to bring new capabilities online and also replace aging platforms and systems that are reaching the end of their maximum service life.

    For most of the past two decades, defense spending has been declining. Even during the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, increases in defense spending went largely to fund overseas operations or to acquire specialized equipment such as Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles. Almost across the board, the services deferred modernization and cut back on maintenance. Our adversaries are now ahead in areas such as electronic warfare, hypersonic weapons, integrated air defenses, nuclear forces and space weapons.

    The current defense budget environment is different from previous eras. While resources are available, the Department of Defense must both introduce new, even revolutionary, capabilities in order to re-establish overmatch vis-à-vis global competitors and replace entire fleets of support aircraft and vehicles that have aged to the point of obsolescence.

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