A pivotal year for Army weapon modernization programs awaits: 2023 Preview

A pivotal year for Army weapon modernization programs awaits: 2023 Preview
2023 preview

US Army squads under FORSCOM compete for the title of “Best Squad” in August 2022. (US Army/ Pvt. Kyler Hembree)

WASHINGTON — A variety of factors may alter Army priorities in 2023, including the progress of the ongoing war inside Ukraine. Just how long should the service keep munition production lines ramped up to replace dwindling US stockpiles? How should service officials fold lessons learned from the ongoing war into new weapons programs?

As Army leaders mull over some of these questions, they are also billing 2023 as a pivotal year for their weapon modernization programs and a chance to show they can move beyond past acquisition missteps such as the Future Combat System. 

Here are just a few of the 2023 storylines we at Breaking Defense are watching for from the Army next year.

[This article is one of many in a series in which Breaking Defense reporters look back on the most significant (and entertaining) news stories of 2022 and look forward to what 2023 may hold.]

Planning For A Rainy Day 

Washington was once again planning its pivot toward the Indo-Pacific region to counter America’s top strategic competitor, China, when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Although the Biden administration has asserted that its priority remains China, the Defense Department spent 2022 drawing up plans to send Kyiv roughly $19.3 billion in security assistance, helping train Ukrainian military forces on how to use these new weapons and corralling allied and partner countries together to support Ukraine. 

As part of those efforts, a plethora of Army weapons made their way to the fight this year including M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System launchers, Javelin anti-tank systems, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems and more. The service, in conjunction with the Pentagon at large, is now identifying ways to refill its weapon stockpiles and in 2022 moved forward with plans to ramp up production of several weapons lines via a funding infusion. 

The big question, though, is how long the DoD wants to keep these production lines cranking at a higher rate, and if industry can keep up with the demand. 

“There’s kind of a bulge of money in ‘22 and ‘23,” Douglas Bush, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told reporters during a November 21 press event. However, the department’s forthcoming fiscal 2024 budget request and the future fiscal 2025 Program Objective Memorandum will need to “look at a longer-range projection of how high do we keep these production lines for how long?” he added.

Some of these answers should emerge next year.

Ukraine And Weapon Modernization 

Some Army leaders have already identified lessons the service has taken from Ukraine, but more remains to be divined, especially how it may alter weapon modernization plans.

“It’s a little early to translate lessons learned from Ukraine into all of our requirements process for our major weapon systems,” Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo told reporters on December 7. However, he noted that the entire DoD is closely monitoring activities on the ground in Eastern Europe and looking for ways to adapt where possible. 

Questions abound about what role tanks will play in the future battlefield, but Army leaders contend that ground vehicles like the M1 Abrams are here to stay. 

“You don’t need armor if you don’t want to win,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville told reporters during an October 10 press conference.

The Director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, has also asserted that the tank will remain in the Army’s arsenal. However, he said the service is studying which weapons are destroying the tanks in Ukraine to plot for the future. 

“Is it tank-on-tank direct fire engagements or is it top attack from anti-tank guided missiles [or] artillery sensor fuse munitions?’ he told Janes on October 11. “We’re taking a hard look at that through the intelligence that’s coming from what’s happening…. How are we protected against that? What, if anything, do we need to do differently, both from the material standpoint, but also from a tactics and a doctrine standpoint.”

Such questions are not relegated to the service’s ground combat vehicle fleet, and continue to percolate around the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) competition. JJ Gertler, a senior analyst with the Teal Group, told Breaking Defense earlier this month that the fight inside Ukraine has demonstrated the “challenging environment” such attack helicopters will face on battlefields. 

Decisions about modifying existing weapons or requirements for new ones could begin emerging in 2023. 

Modernization Aspirations 

The Army Future Command (AFC) will celebrate its five-year anniversary in August 2023, an entity established to help the service untangle its requirements and acquisition communities and field new weapons more quickly. In the intervening years since its inception, tensions between the AFC and acquisition side of the house emerged, and several high-profile development programs have hit roadblocks including the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) and the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS).

Despite these challenges, Army leaders are billing 2023 as a seminal moment where it will have 24 new technologies either being fielded, undergoing testing, or participating in experiments. The list of capabilities ranges from the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) and a long-range hypersonic weapon to robotic combat vehicles (RCVs) and the service’s new light tank built by General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS). 

Although the Army’s definition of 24 new capabilities in 2023 is broad, it will likely face some setbacks or delays along the way and it may need to make tough decisions about the road ahead for programs that aren’t performing.  

Race For The Prize

Several weapon modernization programs are poised for downselects in 2023 including the Army’s fourth attempt to replace its aging fleet of M2 Bradleys. Five teams — American Rheinmetall Vehicle, BAE Systems, GDLS, Oshkosh Defense, and Point Blank Enterprises — participated in the service’s recent OMFV concept design phase and Breaking Defense confirmed that all five teams have submitted their bids for the upcoming phases. But other companies may also be seeking one of the three available spots.

Stay tuned for a decision from the Army in 2023 when it announces the teams participating in the next 54-month OMFV development stint for phase 3 (detailed design) and phase 4 (prototype build and test) activities. 

The service is also expected to make downselects in two other competitions — the Common Tactical Truck and RCV-Light (RCV-L).

Recruiting And Readiness

McConville has been a proponent for growing the Army’s active-duty component above 500,000 soldiers while also acknowledging that the service must strike the right balance between funding a force of this size and paying for new weapons programs.

“I think the Army should be bigger, but … we’re going to deliver the best army we can with the resources we get,” the four-star general said during a February 10 virtual Heritage Foundation event. “Do you want a big stick [or do] you want a sharp stick? I believe in a sharp stick and I want to make sure that … every person the United States Army counts.”

However, striking the balance between soldiers and weapons development programs was not the Army’s problem for 2022. Recruiting was.

The service ended FY22 with 466,000 active-duty soldiers, 10,000 fewer people than planned, Army spokesperson Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Hewitt, told Breaking Defense in a December 20 email. It also missed its recruitment goal by 25 percent, or roughly 15,000 soldiers, and only brought in 44,900 new soldiers, he added. 

As a result, for FY23 the Army is anticipating missing its end strength goal of 473,000 and settling between 445,000 and 452,000 active-duty soldiers.

For now, Army leaders have said service readiness remains high and can meet its broader requirements. However, cracks could emerge next year and beyond, and the service may need to increase reliance on its reserve component or take other steps.