US Army, what on earth are you doing?
The US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley promised that the new Next Generation Individual/Squad Weapon (NGSW/NGIW) program will give a “10 times improvement” in individual small arms capability “over any other system in the world”, in his speech at the Eisenhower Luncheon as part of the 2017 Association of the United States Army annual meeting last week. General Milley’s speech emphasized the US Army’s leveraging of technology, including exoskeletons, artificial intelligence, and advanced simulators to give the soldier what he needs to fight in future war. The full speech is available in the video embedded below, with the section on small arms beginning at about 50:45:
With the facts out of the way, allow me some necessary commentary. General Milley’s statements reflect the great hubris of the United States Army: Its reflexive search for materiel solutions to every conceivable problem. Milley seems preoccupied with the concept of “overmatch”, a word which at this point has been reduced to little more than fancy buzzword meaning “advantage”. It is certainly good to strive for maximum advantage, and technology can often provide that. Yet, in context Milley seems to be looking for an answer that goes far beyond achieving a simple advance and well into the realm of science fiction. Advanced weapon-mounted fire control computers, lightweight polymer cased ammunition, and passively stabilized infantry guns that self-compensate for shooter error, all seem to be in the pipeline of Milley’s vision – a vision that calls out to ARDEC and DARPA for boons they may not be able to give. Given enough time, any one of these things might be achievable to some limited degree, but it’s likely that instead all will be thrown in a pot together to stew. How else is Milley’s bold “10x improvement” supposed to be achieved?
The US Army is prone to falling into a trap where they seek so much improvement so single-mindedly that their efforts are doomed to collapse into a heap. Cheyenne, MBT-70, Sergeant York, Comanche, Crusader, Future Combat Systems, Ground Combat Vehicle, all wrote stories of this hubris. In small arms specifically, we remember SPIW, ACR, and numerous other smaller or shorter-lived programs that also consumed millions of dollars and failed to produce any materiel results. In each case, the Army (or rather, those officers within it who initiated the programs) latched on to a compelling concept that promised much, but carried great risk of failure. Each time, the Army stared into the light until they burned up in it.
There have been materiel successes – M855A1 and Stryker are two examples – but precious few, and virtually none that have achieved the kind lofty promises made by those most colossal of failures. None of this is a secret in and around the Army – I have spoken with many managers and officers who have worked on program management with or in the Army, and they say the same thing, often in the same words. Now, in a time of budget crisis, doubt about the Army’s ability to deliver solutions, and looming war, the Army does not need to be embarking on a decades-long spirit-quest to find Excalibur in the Realm of Dreams – they need to be executing the kind of immediate and impactful reforms that have been asked for for over a decade.