After two decades of canceled combat vehicles, the Mobile Protected Firepower program is a crucial test for the Army’s new approach to acquisitions. The service is seeking off-the-shelf technology instead of gambling on breakthroughs. It’s bringing together industry, combat officers, and acquisition professionals together at an earlier stage than ever before. And it intends to rein in its requirements if industry says something can’t be done on budget and on schedule.
The Army hasn’t officially set the number of MPF vehicles it wants to buy, but the aspiration is 14 MPFs for each of the Army’s 33 regular and National Guard infantry brigades — so at least 462 vehicles. That’s a fraction of the 50,000 JLTV trucks the service plans to buy to replace Humvees, but still a significant purchase for a service that’s struggled to design and field new armored fighting vehicles.
The Army is well aware it faces intense scrutiny and skepticism. “If you followed NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) 2016, you know that Congress is trying to drive the Department of Defense to become more agile in their acquisition efforts,” said Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley. “(So) we are trying to be a little more agile.”
That Wesley is so acutely aware of the issue is itself significant, because strictly speaking he doesn’t work in acquisition. He commands the combined infantry, tank, and scout school at Fort Benning, Georgia — the Maneuver Center of Excellence — which is part, not of the Army’s acquisition bureaucracy, but of the Training and Doctrine Command. TRADOC acts as the Army’s priesthood, publishing commandments on everything from digging latrines to planning wars.
TRADOC’s traditional role in acquisition is to determine the requirements that a new weapon must meet, and its pronouncements are sometimes more oracular than practical, giving industry and the acquisition corps a mission impossible, or at least unaffordable, from the start. Unrealistic requirements helped doom the Future Combat System program, which was supposed to build 20-ton combat vehicles with the same protection as a 70-ton M1 Abrams.
The Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle is also supposed to pack a big gun in a lightweight, deployable package, but its still-evolving requirements are more realistic: Its armor must stop something “more than a heavy machinegun,” said Col. Will Nuckols, Wesley’s director for mounted (i.e. vehicle) requirements. Heavy machinegun caliber is typically .50 inches or 14.5 millimeters; by contrast, an M1 can shrug off 125 mm cannon shells.
Not only is TRADOC trying to keep its requirements realistic this time: It’s actively seeking feedback from the start. “We’ve been dialoging with industry for a year on this,” said Nuckols. At an industry day this week with 200 representatives from 59 companies, with senior Army acquisition and budget officials in attendance, the requirements writers shared work-in-progress at an unprecedentedly early stage, giving vetted contractors the draft Capabilities Development Document (CDD).
“The intent was to try to pull industry in and be more collaborative with them and more transparent at a much earlier stage,” said Nuckols. “One of the things we asked industry to do… was provide us input, which requirements are too stringent, which are not stringent enough, where can we stretch the envelope.”
“They’re going to submit some feedback on our draft requirements,” said Wesley. Then, “in the next two months,” the Army will produce a revised draft — which then goes back to industry for another round of feedback. “That will allow us to adapt our requirements to their capabilities,” said Wesley, rather than holding them as holy writ.
While requirements are in flux, on purpose, the Army seems firm on one thing: It wants only proven technology in the Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle. There’s no US or foreign vehicle in service that would meet the requirements as-is, according to Fort Benning’s extensive analysis, so the Army wants a new vehicle, but it doesn’t want new tech.
“It’s more of an integration effort than a developmental effort,” Nuckols said, pulling technologies off the shelf and putting them together. Avoiding the uncertainty of developing new tech should save both money and time.
“It’s not as fast as Stryker, (because) it’s going to be a little more complicated than Stryker,” said Nuckols, referring to the Army’s last successful ground vehicle acquisition, a straightforward variant of the international Piranha/LAV family of armored cars. But it should be faster than a traditional development program, with fielding set for the early 2020s.
“We’ve told industry we want to move as quickly as possible,” said Wesley, and the Army’s willing to make trade-offs to stay on schedule. “This is a near-term requirement….and not technological leap ahead or Third Offset,” he said. “We’re looking for current technologies, and therefore there’s no silver bullet.”
Indeed, the final Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle built in the 2020s may look a lot like something built in the 1990s. “Our technological solutions to the limits of physics haven’t changed substantially since the AGS (Armored Gun System) was cancelled in 1996,” said Nuckols. “There have been some modest improvements, (e.g. in) drivetrains, transmissions… even a little bit in our protection, (but) I would call those incremental improvements and not game-changing.”