WASHINGTON: Experts fear the Army has undermined a top priority program, the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, by disqualifying one of the only two remaining competitors for not delivering its prototype on time.
“I cannot believe that is the reason,” said a baffled Thomas Spoehr, a retired three-star who headed the Army’s program analysis & evaluation office. There must be, he told me this morning, some more profound problem driving this decision: “Nobody wants to have this major program go forward with only one competitor.”
The news was broken by our colleague Jen Judson on Friday and confirmed to us by several sources. The Army declined official comment. Manufacturer Rheinmetall could not physically ship their Lynx-41 prototype from Germany to the US — which is strange, since they’ve managed to do so before — by the October first deadline. While some Army officials were willing to offer them an extension, the recently created Army Futures Command refused.
That leaves General Dynamics, offering an all-new design we describe below, as the sole competitor for the Engineering & Manufacturing Design (EMD) contract to be awarded early next year. A crucial caveat: Winning EMD does not guarantee General Dynamics will win the production contract, which will be awarded in 2023 in a competition open to all comers.
But any 2023 contender would have to refine their design at their own expense, without the constant feedback from the Army that comes with being on the EMD contract. That’s a hard risk for a board to justify, given GD’s advantage. And without a second competitor, all the Army’s eggs are in the basket of GD succeeding, with no backup.
The timing of this news is particularly painful for the Army, because thousands of soldiers, contractors, and media will be heading to Washington for next-week’s huge Association of the US Army conference. One of the highlights of last year’s show was the Lynx prototype.
Disqualifying the Lynx doesn’t make sense, said Spoehr, who as head of national defense studies at the Heritage Foundation has long urged the Army to replace its M2 Bradley troop carrier and other 1980s-vintage armored vehicle designs.
“I have to believe the Army will take another look at this situation,” Spoehr said.
Or, maybe not. The decision to disqualify the Rheinmetall-Raytheon team for missing the deadline is arguably, “the correct one when you consider schedule is the priority,” an industry source told me. But maybe schedule shouldn’t be the priority, the source went on, because the current timeline — fielding the first combat-ready unit by 2026 — doesn’t permit much innovation. “The vehicle they are asking for will not be significantly better than the current Bradley.” (General Dynamics disputes this hotly, not surprisingly, as we detail later in this story).
“I think the Army is pretty short-sighted,” the industry source said. “Personally, I don’t see how the program survives in future budgets.”
Even before this news broke, skeptical Senate appropriators had already cut funding for Army Next Generation Combat Vehicles in their draft of the defense spending bill, although the House has not. But with the Hill so roiled by impeachment that it’s unclear legislators will even be able to pass the annual defense bills — which were already headed for closed-door conferences in any case — we’ve not been able to get any but the most noncommittal comment from Congress. We’ll update this story or write a sequel when we hear from the Hill.
The underlying anxiety here is that the Army has tried and failed repeatedly to modernize its Reagan-era arsenal over the past 30 years — the problem Army Futures Command was created to fix. Armored fighting vehicle programs, above all replacements for the Bradley troop carrier, have been particularly fraught. The Future Combat Systems family of vehicles, which included a lightweight Bradley replacement, was canceled in 2009, while the Ground Combat Vehicle, a better-armored and correspondingly heavier Bradley replacement, was cancelled in 2014. The Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle is the Army’s third swing at this ball.
That puts tremendous pressure on Army Futures Command and General Dynamics to deliver. Their balancing act is to make something different and better enough it’s worth replacing the Bradley instead of just upgrading it again, without taking on so much new technology that the program risks major delays and overruns.
The Army’s modernization director for Next Generation Combat Vehicles, Brig. Gen. Richard Ross Coffman, spoke to me Friday just before the news broke about Rheinmetall. While he didn’t speak to the number of competitors, he did emphasize that a company that doesn’t win an Engineering & Manufacturing Design contract can still compete for Low-Rate Initial Production.
“The LRIP award is FY23,” Coffman said. “That’s a free and open competition. So let’s say you didn’t have the time or didn’t feel you had the money … to compete starting on 1 October, you can further mature your product, you can test that product, and then enter back in to the competition in ’23.”
We Have A Winner (By Default)?
Assuming General Dynamics does win the production contract in 2023, what will their vehicle look like? It will not resemble the Griffin III concept vehicle that vied with the Lynx on the floor of last year’s Association of the US Army mega-conference, company officials told me. In fact, they said, the GD OMFV shares no major components with the ASCOD/Ajax lineage of combat vehicles, widely used in Europe, on whose proven chassis and automotive systems GD build its Griffin series, including its offering for the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower light tank.
“The suspension is a totally new design. The engine and transmission are totally different. Drive train is different. Exhaust placement is different,” Keith Barclay, director of global strategy for General Dynamics Land Systems, said in an interview. (The core of the engine is the same as MPF, but not the configuration, cooling, or transmission).
That’s remarkable because Army leaders had said they were willing to go with a proven, pre-existing chassis to reduce risk, as long as the weapons and electronics were cutting-edge. As with many weapons programs, the Army plans to field OMFV in successively more advanced increments: Increment 1 will only have to meet minimum or “threshold” requirements, while Increment 2 will go after higher “objective” requirements.
“One of the problems we had with previous ground vehicle programs was we always tried to reach for technology that wasn’t mature,” Coffman told me. “Now we’ve set the objective to those technologies that are on the cusp of maturation, so that if it does mature … we can achieve[it] in Increment 2.”
Barclay and other GD execs told me this morning that the prototype they just delivered to the Army already meets some of the objective requirements for Increment 2, particularly for the gun and fire control. (They declined to offer more specifics). Meeting those requirements was what drove the all-new design.
“It had to be designed from the inside out,” Barclay told me. “Modifying an existing platform would not work.”
That said, Barclay went on, this is not new unproven tech. “These are very high Technological Readiness Level (TRL) components that have been through quite a bit of testing, and we’ve just packaged them and designed them… into a new configuration.” (Of course, “quite a bit of testing” isn’t the same as actually being deployed on hundreds of vehicles in Spanish, Austrian, and — soon — British service, as was the case for many of the Griffin’s components). While the GD OMFV’s components aren’t the same as those on the ASCOD/Ajax/Griffin series, they do build on that experience, Barclay said, as well as on decades of General Dynamics R&D for the cancelled FCS and GCV programs.
So what are the innovations in the GD OMFV that make it a significant improvement over an upgraded Bradley? Most visible from the outside is the weapon, the one component the OMFV shares with the Griffin III prototype at AUSA last year. It’s a new 50mm quick-firing cannon, largely developed by the Army’s Armaments Center, which is many times more powerful than the 25mm on the Bradley or the 30mm weapons on many Russian vehicles. Whereas the Bradley gunner and commander sit in the turret, the OMFV’s turret is unmanned, remote-controlled from a well-protected and well-connected crew compartment in the hull.
In fact, from the crew’s perspective inside the vehicle, the most visible difference will probably be how much better their visibility is. Traditional armored vehicles rely on narrow viewports and periscopic sights, making them half-blind behemoths on the battlefield. But massive investments by the automotive industry — from backup cameras to self-driving cars — have driven down the cost and size of sensors. GD boasts their OMFV design offers “360 degree situational awareness” from cameras all around the vehicle. The sensor feeds are visible from screens at not only the crew stations but in the passenger area, so the infantry can know what kind of situation they may have to clamber out into.
Currently, the vehicle is configured for three crew and five infantry soldiers, the same as the Bradley and the Army’s minimum requirement for OMFV. (The seats are designed to buffer blasts from mines and roadside bombs). But all eight seats are together in the hull, rather than having some in the turret, and each crew station can control any function, rather than each being specially hard-wired for the commander, gunner, and driver respectively. So GD expects that, as automation technology improves, it’ll be possible to go down to just two crewmembers, freeing up a seat for a sixth passenger.
That ability to upgrade electronics is perhaps the single most important, if subtle, improvement over the Bradley. Designed in the 1970s and repeatedly upgraded since, the Bradley has repeatedly run into the limits of its electrical system. Troops in Iraq often had to turn equipment on and off because they couldn’t run all of it at once. The Army is now increasing the Bradley’s power, and they’re even retrofitting it with an Active Protection System that uses electricity-hungry radars to detect and shoot down incoming anti-tank missiles.
But the OMFV will have Active Protection as standard equipment, rather than tacked on. And the all-new design lets GD build in the power, wiring, and — most crucial — the standardized interfaces (aka a Modular Open Systems Architecture) to make future electronic upgrades much easier, from anti-missile jammers to reconnaissance mini-drones to AI-assisted targeting systems.
“We have looked to the future about what power requirements will be,” Barclay told me. Their vehicle, he said, has “electrical power, both high voltage and low voltage, that will allow myriad capabilities that you could not put onto an existing combat vehicle today in the Army’s inventory.”