AUSA: It may sound ambitious, even hubristic, that the Army wants to fold all its modernization programs into a single 30-year plan. But the long-range look is all about living within limits.

The service wants to keep researching and developing 21st century weapons like the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) truck and the tank-like Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), but it is also knows it must keep 1980s designs like the Humvee and the M1 Abrams tank for years to come. This sets up a nasty cycle. The more the new stuff gets cut, the longer the old stuff has to last, which requires careful investment in maintenance and upgrades.

Changes to one program’s budget create ripple effects across the others. By building a long-term plan that links research, development, procurement, and sustainment, explained the Army’s acquisition chief, Assistant Secretary Heidi Shyu, “we can understand implications if a program gets delayed, stretched out, or cut.”

“We actually don’t sit around and say, ‘well, you know, if the budget’s going to be cut, I’m just going to sit around and not do anything,'” Shyu said tartly, speaking to reporters Wednesday at the annual conference of the Association of the US Army “That’s exactly why I want to do the long-term look,” she said, “so we can understand the impact of long-term cuts.”

As the budget-cutters circle menacingly on all sides, Army leaders repeat almost as a mantra that their top modernization priority is “the network.” That’s not one program but an integrated set of digital communications systems meant to allow better battlefield coordination, from the individual foot soldier with his Rifleman Radio to generals in command vehicles using something called “WIN-T Inc 2″ (Warfighter Information Network, Tactical, Increment 2).

But retrofitting new electronics into old vehicles is not so simple — and not so cheap. The 1980s-vintage M1 Abrams tank and M2 Bradley troop carrier are “taxed” just to accommodate current equipment, said Scott Davis, the Army’s Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems, speaking just before Shyu at AUSA. So, he said, his office is working on a whole set of upgrades, formally called “Engineering Change Proposals” (ECPs), just to make Abrams and Bradley able to accept “the network elements that are already being planned and budgeted for.” Even the more modern eight-wheel-drive Stryker vehicles, which only entered service in 2002, may need a new alternator to generate the necessary electrical power.

So far, in fact, the Army is fielding its first integrated set of network gear, “Capability Set ’13,” not to its heavy armored units, nor to its medium-weight Stryker brigades, but to the infantry. That means fitting the systems in, not tanks, but trucks. Yet installation is still a pain on even relatively recent acquisitions like the MRAP ATV (Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected, All-Terrain Vehicle), first fielded only in 2009.

“I have to do a tremendous amount of touch labor,” said Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, the Army’s director for “System of Systems Integration,” i.e. the network. For future systems, he told reporters at AUSA, “we’re building in the specs up front [so] we don’t have to rewire everything.”

“[Installing] the network in an MRAP ATV is not a cheap thing because it’s not designed to carry it,” said Kevin Fahey, a senior civil servant with long experience in the MRAP program. Fahey now bears the jawbreaking title of “Program Executive Officer, Combat Support and Combat Service Support,” or PEO CS & CSS, for (not very) short. That gives him oversight over, among other things, the Army’s massive fleet of trucks, from the venerable Humvee to the newer MRAPs to the prototype JLTV. Those vehicles are less exciting, and individually less expensive, than the tanks and other heavy combat vehicles — but there are a lot more of them, so they loom large in Army budgets. Said Fahey, “if you add a small thing to 150,000 vehicles, it by definition becomes a large thing.”

Those small things that add up include new electronics. “With MRAP, if you’re going to put the network on it, you also have to put in the digital backbone,” Fahey said, referring to the displays, processors, and software the network needs to run. “JLTV will come with that.”

But at least the MRAPs have enough power to run all the new electronics once they’re installed: The Humvee does not. The alternator on the MRAP ATV (or M-ATV), for example, can generate 570 amperes, “more than adequate,” said Fahey’s deputy, Col. David Bassett. The max on a Humvee is 400 amperes, he said, and “[only] some fraction of the existing Humvee fleet has that.” It’s technically possible to upgrade the alternator beyond 400 amps, but that would require upgrading the engine and other components as well; by the time you’re done paying that many modifications to a Humvee, said Bassett, you might as well buy an all-new JLTV.

So the upgrade kit for Humvees won’t include the most power-hungry component, the jammer, which disables certain kinds of roadside bombs. If there were such improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around, said Bassett, “you wouldn’t be operating the Humvee in that environment anyway.”

“There’s a lot of missions and roles that the Army and Marine Corps do that are not necessary going to Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Fahey, from humanitarian relief abroad to hurricane response at home, “that the Humvee is perfectly fine for.”

Which is just as well, because the Army frankly admits it can’t replace all its Humvees, not for decades. Even a Humvee upgrade program called the Modernized Expanded Capacity Vehicle (MECV) was cut back to save funds for other programs, although the Army and Marines are still doing some research. When will theey have the money for actual upgrades? “We’re still working through that,” said Bassett, “as part of that overall 30-year plan.”

The Army knows it can’t predict the next three decades perfectly. “Things change,” said Fahey, speaking to Breaking Defense after the panel at AUSA: New technologies develop in unexpected ways, budgets rise and fall. But, he told Breaking Defense, “as long as you have an overall plan… at least you have something you can work to that’s affordable.”

Edited Dec. 14, 2012 to correct Kevin Fahey’s title.