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GCV And Beyond: How The Army Is Gettin’ Heavy After Afghanistan

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


America’s Army has developed a bit of a split personality of late. On the one hand, the top brass has very publicly embraced the administration’s January 2012 strategic guidance that emphasizes “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches” and “building partner capacity” in lieu of large ground force deployments. Leaders from Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno on down talk up the Army’s capabilities in cyberspace, missile defense, seaborne operations, and small advisor teams.

At the same time, the service’s biggest new weapons program remains the controversial Ground Combat Vehicle, an estimated $34 billion program to build what could be 70-ton-plus behemoths optimized for all-out land war. “Low-cost” and “small-footprint” it ain’t. (“Innovative” it may be; read on). And GCV is just the tip of the armored iceberg.

Outside the Washington spotlight, the Army is quietly trying to heavy up. There are plans to upgrade Humvee-mounted scout troops to tank-like Bradleys, add back light armored vehicles to the 82nd Airborne, and buy a new, better-protected Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle to replace the aging, vulnerable M113s in support units. (A formal request for proposals on AMPV will come out soon). In less tangible ways as well, from brigade organization to training scenarios, the Army is working to reemphasize straight-ahead ground fighting power.

Such military heavy metal is unfashionable, at odds with both the past decade of “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency and the new focus on Special Operations, drones, and cyberwar. But the Army has a point.

“There’s no computer that holds and seizes a piece of terrain. It just doesn’t happen,” said Col. Rocky Kmiecik, director of “mounted requirements” – i.e. armored vehicles — at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Fort Benning “maneuver center of excellence,” speaking at the Association of the US Army’s annual winter conference. Cyberspace is increasingly important but controlling it, by itself, won’t win a war. Said Kmiecik: “you can’t hold terrain from the air; you can’t hold it from the sea; you can only hold land on the land.”

In the Army’s evolving vision of future warfare, cyberspace and heavy armor, advisor teams and tank brigades, soft power and hard, are complementary sides of a single coin. They go together like an iron fist and a velvet glove. After the crusading bravado of the Bush years, the United States has rediscovered the value of speaking clearly and softly around the world, but it still needs its big stick.

“Our ability to be an instrument of engagement and shaping across the world, to attract partners, reassure allies, and give our enemies pause [depends on] our credibility as a ground combat force,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, director of concept development at TRADOC’s Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), in a recent interview with Breaking Defense. As an Army, “decisive combat is our first responsibility,” Hix said: “to deliver the punch that nobody else, arguably in the world, can deliver.”

Hix’s own background is in light infantry units — airborne and special forces– but he still appreciates that heavy armor “is an asymmetric advantage that we should not concede to anyone…There’s nobody in the world that has our capability.” In the Cold War, having heavy forces was about matching the Soviets’ tank armies. Today, it’s about overmatching potential adversaries who have no equivalent forces, deterring them from starting a fight they cannot win (what strategists call “escalation dominance”). Said Hix, “part of what GCV is about is ensuring we do not concede that area of competition to anyone.”

The problem, of course, is the bottom line. Talk is cheap; tanks aren’t. Cybersecurity, small special ops teams, and relationship-building fit well into a declining budget; new armored vehicles do not. And both the Army’s budget and its manpower are declining more steeply than any other service’s. To make things worse, of course, there’s the Army’s atrocious acquisition record over the past 15 years, killing 22 major programs after spending billions on them, including the infamous Future Combat System, from which GCV evolved.

So while the Army wants to beef up its combat brigades and reconnaissance formations, it has to do so as much as possible by repurposing the troops and equipment it already has, buying as little new gear as possible. “We’re trying to do this as zero-sum… using existing force structure,” Maj. Gen. Arthur Bartell, ARCIC’s chief of staff, told Breaking Defense in a sidebar conversation at the AUSA winter conference. “It’s a Rubik’s Cube.”

To further complicate the problem, Bartell went on, “a lot of this is based on the FY ’14 [budget request].” That document would normally have been rolled out in February but has been indefinitely delayed due to Congress and the White House being unable to agree on a budget for fiscal 2013, which is almost half over. Long-term planning is paralyzed by the repeated short-term crises over sequestration cuts and continuing resolutions. “It’s like the Sword of Damocles, that budget,” Bartell told Breaking Defense. “If we fall off the cliff here… we’re going to have to adjust fire.”

“We have to survive FY ’13,” Bartell said, “[but] solutions we find to survive FY ’13, they can’t catastrophically impact ’14 and beyond.”

[Click here to read about the Army’s struggle to safeguard GCV in the face of sequestration cuts]

The budget crunch puts the Army under intense pressure to figure out its future role — and then to articulate that vision to the administration and Congress, something the service is notoriously bad at. So where is the Army actually going?

Uparmoring the Army

What were the lessons of the last 10 years? Counterinsurgency strategy, language skills, cultural knowledge, and better integration between Special Forces and conventional units have all gotten well-deserved attention, and the Army in particular does not want to forget them. But heavy metal mattered too.

Uparmored Humvees and MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected) trucks got most of the publicity, but those wheeled vehicles lacked the off-road mobility and, in many cases, even the armor protection necessary to prevail. At the height of the surge fighting in Baghdad, for example, some Army units moved around the city in 40-ton tracked troop carriers called M2 Bradleys — and at the head of the column they placed 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks, because even the Bradleys could not withstand the most powerful roadside bombs, Iranian-supplied devices called explosively formed penetrators. Today in Afghanistan, while the largest Army vehicle present is the 30-ton Stryker (itself uparmored from the 20-ton early models), Marines operating in the relatively open country around Helmand have made heavy use of the massive M1.

The two wars showed up some serious shortfalls in America’s heavy armored capabilities. When the Army reorganized its combat brigades to be more self-sufficient, or “modular,” after 2003, one of the reforms was to give each armored brigade its own reconnaissance squadron — at the price of reducing the number of combat battalions from three to two. Brigade commanders certainly needed their own scouts, but replacing a big battalion of tanks, Bradleys, and combat infantry with a smaller squadron mostly riding in Humvees left them painfully short on fighting power. The Army also created a specialized reconnaissance force called the “Battlefield Surveillance Brigade” which proved over-reliant on high-tech gear like drones and was under-gunned in terms of old-fashioned ground combat.

“We have seen the necessity to have the capability to fight for reconnaissance, to fight for that information, to fight for intel,” Maj. Gen. Bartell said at the AUSA conference. So while the Army is not exactly rebuilding its heavy “Armored Cavalry” recon units from the Cold War, Bartell said, it does want to recapture “a lot of the capabilities we had in armored cav.”

Specifically, the Army is looking at beefing up both the independent Battlefield Surveillance Brigades and the reconnaissance squadrons within the armored brigades. One part of the solution is putting Humvee-mounted scouts in Bradleys instead. The Army also wants to add back the third combat battalion of tanks and Bradleys to its heavy brigades. (The Army would probably not buy more Bradleys for the beefed-up units, just repurpose those from combat battalions being disbanded during the drawdown).

The Army even wants to heavy up its light forces. Currently infantry and airborne brigades consist entirely of troops on foot or in trucks, without armored fighting vehicles. Until 1996, however, the Airborne had a contingent of light tanks, such as the notoriously unreliable M551 Sheridan used from Vietnam to Panama. The Army has struggled to replace the Sheridan for almost two decades, the cancelled Future Combat System being the highest-profile attempt. Now TRADOC wants to try again and find a relatively lightweight but well-armed machine to stiffen both airborne and regular infantry brigades.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a tank,” said Col. Kmiecik. A cannon-armed variant of the Stryker, the troubled Mobile Gun System, is one alternative. Nor is the initiative going to progress beyond the internal Army studies any time soon, he said: “It can’t, given our fiscal environment.”

More immediately, however, the Army is about to issue a formal request for proposals to replace the M113, a Vietnam-vintage tracked vehicle with variants serving as armored ambulances, mortar carriers, mobile command posts, and other support roles. The new “Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle” will not be an all-new design, however. One leading candidate is the Stryker, which General Dynamics now offers in both wheeled and tracked variants. The other is a modified Bradley from BAE, stripped of its gun turret to give it more carrying capacity. Either Bradley or Stryker would be significantly heavier, better-protected, and more expensive than the old M113s.

But both Bradley and Stryker have their limits. Stryker is relatively light for an armored vehicle, about 30 tons in the best-armored variants, and lacks weapons heavier than a machinegun. Bradleys mount anti-tank missiles and a 25-millimeter cannon, and the latest, toughest models weigh in at 40 tons — but they are still a 1970s design that is showing its age.

“We’ve got to graduate beyond Bradley,” said Maj. Gen. Hix. After 30 years of adding not only armor but electronics, from communications networks and GPS maps to jammers for disabling roadside bombs, the Bradley is running out of room. It lacks the horsepower to carry further upgrades and the electrical power to run them. Yet even the heaviest Bradleys are still too vulnerable to the more powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and anti-tank rockets now proliferating around the world. And no amount of modernization will give the Bradley more room for passengers than the original design, which can carry at most six foot troops in back and often fewer, depending on the bulk of their gear.

So while Bradley variants probably have a long future ahead of them in support and scout roles, the heavy combat battalions need something better. “We’ve got to have capacity to grow,” said Hix. “That’s really the big thing GCV provides us, growth capacity.”

GCV: Building the Big Dog

The Ground Combat Vehicle is big. In its most stripped-down configuration, a GCV would weigh 40 to 50 tons, more than the most heavily uparmored Bradley. With all the add-on armor required for the most dangerous missions, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the General Dynamics design would weigh 64 tons and BAE System’s 70 — though both companies say they’re bringing the weight down significantly as they refine their designs.

On top of whatever that fully uparmored weight turns out to be, however, the Army requires a 20 percent margin for growth in both weight and power to accommodate future upgrades, which means a maxed-out GCV might someday weigh roughly 80 tons. The GCV will also have a heavier cannon than the Bradley, probably 30 mm instead of 25, to allow it to fire “airbursting” smart rounds that know the optimal moment to explode for maximum effect on the target and minimal collateral damage. (GCV will have the option to carry a missile launcher like the Bradley’s, but it won’t come standard). Finally, GCV will carry more passengers, nine foot soldiers instead of six, a 50 percent boost in close-quarters combat power.

So yes, Col. Kmiecik acknowledged, a lot of people do look at GCV and say “that vehicle is way too big.” But, the Army argues, it must protect the troops inside. The Bradley could get away with putting most of its armor on the front and skimping elsewhere, because it was designed to fight off head-on attacks by the Soviet hordes. Fighting in a city like Baghdad, however, you can get hit from the sides, from the rear, from below by roadside bombs, or from above by enemies on the upper floors of buildings. Even if the attacking weapons hadn’t gotten more powerful, which they have, a vehicle would need more armor to survive.

The GCV also needs more interior space to carry larger numbers of larger soldiers, because Americans keep getting bigger. Counting the 9-man squad in back and the 3-man crew in front, the vehicle must accommodate “12 guys that are all 95th percentile 2015 males,” BAE vice-president Mark Signorelli told Breaking Defense. “A 95% 2015 male is somewhere around 6’5″, 6’6″….They printed out a silhouette and taped it to the wall, and I can’t touch the top of his head.” Then that larger soldier also needs more headroom and more room below his feet than in past vehicles to help diffuse the shockwave from roadside bombs.

More volume to protect means more armor, which means more weight. One way to economize would have been to put the GCV’s weapons in a small, remote-controlled gun turret, which BAE had been proposing. But the Army nixed that idea in favor of a large, traditional turret with room for the gunner and GCV commander to sit inside.

Indeed, the Army has been consistently conservative in the technology it wants built into the GCV. That’s in stark contrast to the failed Future Combat Systems vehicles, which crammed in all sorts of unproven gadgets to substitute for heavy armor (and still grew from about 20 to 26 tons before cancellation). Everything on GCV has to be rated, at worst, Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 6 on a scale from 1 (“basic principles observed”) to 9 (“proven through successful mission operations”). TRLs come from the space world: Something rated TRL 6 is just about ready to go into production and should involve relatively little risk.

“It allows me to sleep at night,” said Bob Sorge, General Dynamics’s GCV program director, in an interview with Breaking Defense. “FCS was a troubled program because they had requirements that you couldn’t meet…. On GCV the army resculpted the requirements after the first proposal” — which the service scrapped and rewrote — “and said ‘we’re giving the contractors the trade space to make a solution that is affordable.'”

That said, there is some innovation in GCV. BAE is building its model with a hybrid-electric engine first developed for FCS, but Signorelli insists it’s TRL 6 “at a minimum.” General Dynamics is using a traditional diesel, but they’re working on another TRL 6 spin-off from FCS, a so-called “active protection system” to shoot down incoming projectiles before they hit the armor. The Army isn’t asking for an active protection system on the initial GCVs, because of the cost, complexity, and novelty of such a system, but it wants the ability to add APS later as the technology matures, as a way to stop ever-more powerful weapons without adding ever more armor.

The GCV will even have its armor designed in “modular” plates for easy removal and replacement when better and hopefully lighter protective materials such as carbon nanotubes or nano-crystals come along. And the GCV will be able to just get heavier if it has to — as it almost certainly will.

New inventions can change the world, but you can’t count on them happening when you need them. Army researchers are certainly looking for “order of magnitude improvements” in military technologies, said Maj. Gen. Hix, but “you have to temper that ambition… what is achievable.”

No less an expert than Andrew Krepinevich, advisor to the Pentagon and head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has argued that the Army should hold off on buying armored vehicles until there is some kind of breakthrough in protective technology. Without such a revolution, Krepinevich argues, the enemy can always build bigger IEDs or rockets more easily than the Army can add more armor. Hix, obviously, does not think the Army can afford to wait.

“Given where we are, with the state of technology that is at a level of readiness to be manufactured, and given the challenges that we have with the Bradley fighting vehicle, GCV is an appropriate investment,” Hix said. “In fact, it’s an essential investment.”

The question, of course, is whether the budgeteers in the administration and Congress will agree. The Army has already delayed the program on its own. Then, in January, Acquisition Undersecretary Frank Kendall ordered the Army to choose between the BAE or General Dynamics designs at the end of the current “technology development” phase (which he extended by six months) rather than to pay both companies to build prototypes — even though such “competitive prototyping” is generally considered the best way to avoid ugly and expensive surprises later on. With tightening budgets already forcing such short-term cost savings at the expense of procurement best practice, the temptation to kill GCV altogether will only grow.

What do you think?