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A bleak forecast for the Army's industrial base

As you've read here so many times, today's official line from the Army is: We get it.

All that stuff you need to do to successfully buy complex weapons and equipment? They're going to do it: Control requirements. Play hardball with vendors. Test before buying -- have you heard about the fantastic Network Integration Evaluation we do out west? Oh, you have.

Anyway, what else -- oh yeah: Go evolutionary, not revolutionary. Don't be afraid to pull the plug. Make "tough choices." Say to the general: General, y'know what, sir? This is jacked up and I don't think we should do it.

In short, the Army acquisitions we used to know were gone. Going forward, it was going to be a new ballgame, with a fresh set of test cases with which its leaders in and out of uniform were going to prove their new skills: Network modernization. The Ground Combat Vehicle. The Joint Light Tactical Vehicle. And eventually, so far down the chart you almost got to your own doodles in the margin -- a new helicopter for the long-suffering aviators.

But defense commentator Loren Thompson, an industry advocate with no great love for the Army, does not buy today's leaders' rosy outlook about their new chapter. In a column for AOL Defense, he took direct aim at the prospects for the Army to redeem itself with its next set of high profile programs:

[W]ith the Army now extricated from one conflict and beginning to wind down its role in the second, service leaders need to give more thought to how they will modernize their fleet of combat vehicles and weapons systems. Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence they have learned from past mistakes.

Their program to buy a next-generation troop carrier called the Ground Combat Vehicle is certain to falter, because it proposes to counter hundred-dollar IEDs with super-heavy vehicles that will cost over $10 million each. Their pricey next-generation jeep, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, has recently suffered a near-death experience on Capitol Hill. And a plan to modernize battlefield communication networks -- supposedly the service's top modernization priority -- is coming unraveled due to the meltdown of a joint radio architecture and pressure from policymakers to reprogram half the funding for the backbone of the warfighter network.

So there is reason to suspect the Army's latest modernization initiatives won't fare much better than earlier projects did. You'd think service leaders would draw the obvious conclusion and hedge their bets by preserving the handful of programs that are going well, but in fact they are proposing to shut down much of the Army's remaining industrial base in order to generate money for new initiatives.

Ah yes, there it is -- the other shoe dropping. Thompson is miffed at the Army's desire to idle the manufacturing lines for its Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M1 Abrams tanks, as we've talked about here before. Given that we know the Army will never get this right, he argues, why not at least keep doing what it knows works now and get the maximum benefit? The risk is that it will lose its industrial base forever:
For all the Obama Administration's talk about revitalizing the manufacturing sector and sustaining a robust defense industrial base, there just isn't much evidence that military planners give the subject any thought. There always seem to be a dozen more pressing concerns facing Army leaders before the subject of the industrial base comes up. But after a dozen years of bad decisions and mismanagement in modernization programs, the Army has finally brought its supplier community to a point where it could atrophy quickly once spending on overseas conflicts ends. If the service can't start thinking coherently about what it must have for the future, it may soon find itself unable to obtain much of anything in a timely or affordable fashion.
The Army brass, for its part, thinks it can bring off the stoppages without permanently losing its vendors, and save money to boot. Whatever happens, everyone will be watching. Show Full Article

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