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Army Picks BAE, GD For MPF Light Tank Prototypes: Upstart SAIC Is Out

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

BAE photo

BAE’s prototype Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) light tank

UPDATED with SAIC response, exact $ amounts The Army picked its two traditional armored vehicle manufacturers, General Dynamics and BAE Systems, to build contending prototypes for its Mobile Protected Firepower light tank, the service announced today. Each company will get up to $376 million to build 12 prototypes, with delivery starting in 14 months and testing in 16. In 2022, the Army will pick a final winner to build a planned 504 vehicles.

Cut from the competition today was upstart SAIC and its Singaporean partner STK. It’s the second swing and a miss for SAIC, which lost the Marine Corps Amphibious Combat Vehicle to BAE earlier this year. SAIC has a strong record on roadside-bomb resistant trucks — the famous MRAPs — but its efforts to break into the market for full-scale armored fighting vehicles have been rebuffed so far.

Instead, the Army’s turned to its traditional vendors, with a $375.9 million award to BAE and $335 million to General Dynamics Land Systems. A Mobile Protected Firepower win would be particularly advantageous for General Dynamics, because GD is pushing a variant of its MPF offering, the Griffin, for a much larger Army competition: the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), meant to replace thousands of M2 Bradleys, the Army’s heavily armed and armored troop carrier. (Griffin III is the OMFV version, Griffin II the MPF). Buying variants of the same vehicle for both missions would simplify Army training and logistics.

BAE, which makes both the Bradley and its turretless support variant, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, is also positioning itself for the Bradley replacement, but BAE’s likely offering there is the European CV90, which isn’t related to its MPF contender, the Armored Gun System.

SAIC hasn’t publicly discussed an OMFV bid so far, and losing out on another Army competition is doubtlessly discouraging. UPDATE But company spokesperson Lauren Presti left all doors open in an email to me this evening. “Of course, we are disappointed that our Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle prototype was not selected,” she wrote. “As for the (Bradley replacement), we are anticipating the Army’s release of a draft RFP for OMFV with great interest. We will continue to work with our partners ST Engineering, CMI Defense, Plasan, and other technology providers to assess and evaluate the Army’s requirements.”

Light Tanks, Big Wars

The Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle is essentially a 30-ton light tank to accompany airborne troops and other light infantry where the 70-ton M1 Abrams heavy tank can’t go. As such, MPF would fill a gap the Army’s had for 22 years, ever since it retired the easy-to-deploy but technically troubled M551 Sheridan in 1996. Ironically, BAE’s offering is an evolution of the M8 Buford Armored Gun System that the Army developed to replace the Sheridan and then cancelled at the last minute before buying it.

Now, MPF is not required to be droppable by parachute the way the Sheridan and the original Armored Gun System were, nor capable of fitting on an Air Force C-130 turboprop transport the way the cancelled Future Combat Systems vehicle was supposed to be. But it is small enough to fit two on a C-17 jet transport for landing on a dirt airstrip — or to drive over rickety bridges and down narrow streets where a M1 might not fit. Being lighter also reduces fuel consumption and thus strain on supply lines, a major problem with the turbine-driven M1.

The Army has long sought an armored vehicle that combined deployability with tank-like firepower. It’s arguably only more important as the service pivots from counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq to preparing for high-intensity multi-domain operations against Russia or China. In guerrilla warfare, whenever American infantry ran across a target too tough for their own weapons, they could call in airpower effectively on demand to smart-bomb it into oblivion. Against Russian and Chinese-style anti-aircraft defenses, however, the Army expects it’ll need to rely much more on firepower of its own, so it’s made long-range artillery its No. 1 investment priority and new armored vehicles like MPF its No. 2.

Yes, MPF is much lighter and less heavily armored than the M1 Abrams or even Russian tanks like the T-90, although the Army says whichever contender wins the contract will get an Active Protection System installed to shoot down incoming anti-tank missiles. But MPF is going to light infantry units that currently have no armored vehicles at all, just a handful of Humvees, towed M777 howitzers, and whatever weapons the men can carry on their backs.

These are units that also lack the fuel trucks and mechanics to support the big, gas-guzzling M1, especially once they deploy forward at the end of long, easily attacked supply lines. These aren’t units intended to take on Russian armored hordes — and if they do, their best bet is to go to ground and take potshots from hiding with shoulder-fired Javelin missiles. Normally, the light brigades are expected to face light armored vehicles, bunkers, and dug-in infantry. To help them, each light brigade will get a modest and logistically manageable contingent of 14 MPFs.

In light units today, Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman told reporters, “as we close with the enemy, there’s artillery, which is area fire, that can be used, but there’s no precision munition to remove bunkers from the battlefield, to shoot into buildings in dense urban terrain, to allow infantrymen to close with the industry. So this is a huge need and a huge advancement.”

Coffman heads the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team, which oversees all the Army’s new armored vehicles. Starting with the most near-term and ready-to-build, then going to the ones that are (in all senses) the furthest out there, these are

  • the AMPV utility vehicle now entering production, which is basically a turretless Bradley;
  • the MPF light tank, for which both BAE and GDLS are offering evolutions of existing vehicles;
  • the OMFV Bradley replacement, also to be evolved from current vehicles;
  • the ambitious Robotic Combat Vehicle, an all-new design;
  • and a potential long-term replacement for the M1 Abrams, which might be something entirely unlike a modern tank.

Coffman’s team, in turn, is part of the newly created Army Futures Command, which seeks to bypass traditional bureaucracy and accelerate Army modernization after decades of dysfunction, cancelled programs, and delays. Coffman and his acquisition-program partners — all co-located in Warren, Michigan, along with the TARDEC armored vehicle R&D lab, for easier collaboration — said the MPF program is using congressionally-granted Section 804 authorities to cut 12-18 months out of the usual process and will be “absolutely a model we are trying to replicate” on other programs.

“This is the first NGCV major decision that’s come out as far as procurement actions,” Coffman said. “We are very, very happy with the relationship we have.”

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