The Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle program may be running aground before it can even sign a development contract. And that’s a tragedy. A decade of casualties from improvised roadside bombs – simple weapons easily replicated by any future enemy – has shown that what the U.S. military needs most is the very thing the Ground Combat Vehicle is supposed to provide: a better-protected way to move our troops around war zones that are only going to get more lethal.
The Army already rebooted the program on its own initiative last August, after industry said that meeting the original requirements for armor protection could only be met by an expensive juggernaut weighing 50 to 70 tons. The Army has also tightened its cost targets from $24 million per vehicle to $10 million. Nevertheless, at $40 billion for the program overall, key Defense Department officials still doubt that the military can afford it. The Defense Acquisition Board, which must approve any contract, has repeatedly postponed its meeting on the program and sent the Army back to do more homework to justify the GCV. The review finally happened July 21, and Ash Carter, head of military acquisition, did approve GCV’s first phase worth an estimated $1.35 billion, according to a Pentagon spokeswoman.
So far, BAE Systems, General Dynamics and SAIC have bid on GCV.. But the program faces yet another hurdle next month: OSD has launched another major review of all current Army ground vehicles, which is scheduled for August. While the legacy systems review will not address GCV, its findings will be affected by the program, since GCV will play into future Bradley upgrades.
The struggling Ground Combat Vehicle itself began as an attempt to salvage something from the wreckage of the $200-plus billion Future Combat Systems, which struggled along for a decade before Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally canceled it in April 2009. The Army has repeatedly failed to replace 1980s-vintage machines that are lethally inadequate for the war we’re fighting now, let alone the next.
Just look at the struggle to protect ground vehicles against the growing threat of roadside bombs in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2.5-ton baseline Humvee was replaced by the 5-ton uparmored variant, which in turn gave way to Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks weighing anywhere from 10 to 40 tons. All this heavy armor, however, has come at the cost of cross-country mobility, an ironic problem since the best way to defeat roadside bombs is to get off the road altogether and drive around easily-mined chokepoints. A better off-road option is the eight-wheel-drive Stryker, whose original 21-ton model was ultimately uparmored to 26, but even some of the heaviest Strykers have been lost to IEDs in Afghanistan. At the height of the IED threat, in the worst parts of Baghdad during the surge of 2007-2008, what troops rode in was the tracked M2 Bradley, whose variants weigh from 35 to 40 tons.
But the Bradleys, too, proved vulnerable to the most powerful roadside bombs. Instead, commanders often put 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks in front or even ran them up and down roads as ad hoc minesweepers in the hope that the tanks would set off bombs before some more vulnerable vehicle did. (Even some M1s have been destroyed).
In January, the U.S. finally deployed M1s to Afghanistan for the first time – a year after Marine commanders had first asked for them and three years after the Canadians, hardly known for overkill, had deployed their own 70-ton Leopard II tanks. A Canadian after-action report from 2008 was glowing. While the Marines have not been as forthcoming, they are currently deploying a new tank company to Afghanistan to take over once the first one deployed completes its tour. But the M1 tank has no room for passengers, so the best protected transport for the infantry remains the far more vulnerable Bradley.
Since its introduction in 1981, the Bradley has been repeatedly upgraded – to the bursting point. All the added armor has overloaded the engine and reduced cross-country mobility. All the added electronics have overloaded the electrical system, so much so that some crews experienced brown-outs and had to shut off some systems to turn others on. new engine and generator could give the Bradley more juice. But no refit will make the Bradley bigger inside: It can only carry a partial squad, at most six men, which means a Bradley force requires at least 50 percent more vehicles to deploy the same number of infantry as a unit in Strykers, which hold nine. And no refit can lift the Bradley’s hull further off the ground, which is the simplest and best way to dissipate the force of bombs exploding underneath.
The Bradley has plenty of problems, but the nail in its coffin is that it cannot be made survivable enough for modern warfare. What’s needed is a new design, designed from the ground up to survive powerful roadside bombs and able to carry both the most modern electronics and a full squad of old-fashioned infantry. The only such machine in the offering is the Ground Combat Vehicle – if only it can ever get built.
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. produces the website Learning From Veterans. Carlo Munoz, deputy editor of Breaking Defense, contributed to this story.