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Speed Up Light Tank, Heavy Armor Modernization, HASC Tells Army

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

The troubled M551 Sheridan was the Army’s last light tank, retired in 1996. The Army now wants to build a Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) vehicle to fulfill the same roles of supporting airborne troops and light infantry.

WASHINGTON: Congress wants the Army to get its tanks in gear. Today, the House Armed Services Committee released its draft of the 2018 defense policy bill, which all but begged the Army to accelerate its air-deployable Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle. MPF would fill a void in light tanks that’s existed since the M551 Sheridan was retired in 1996. A separate provision would order the Army to report on its plans for modernizing its heavy armored forces across the board, including “the development of a next generation infantry fighting vehicle and main battle tank” to replace the M2 Bradley and M1 Abrams respectively.

Army photo

M1 Abrams tanks of the 1st Cavalry Division fire during a NATO Atlantic Resolve exercise in Latvia.

By contrast, the Army’s current focus is low-cost, short-term upgrades of existing weapons. Incrementalism has been the Army’s strategy for at least four years, since it had to cancel the Ground Combat Vehicle program and replace it with a Next Generation Combat Vehicle initiative that may or may not deliver a new design in 2035. That’s too slow for HASC, which wants the Army report to include “an accelerated long-term strategy for acquiring next generation combat vehicle capabilities” (emphasis ours).

HASC’s call for a review echoes a white paper released by Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain in January. McCain urged the service invest in new technologies and new designs for its Armored Brigade Combat Teams. The Senate hasn’t released its draft bill yet, but we imagine the two chambers will easily come to agreement on this provision.

McCain’s white paper did not address the Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, however. That’s in part a matter of focus: MPF would bulk up airborne brigades and other light infantry units, rather than serving with the heavy armor brigades, which McCain — and for that matter HASC — see as critical to deterring high-end adversaries like Russia.

Army photo

Army troops dismount their M2 Bradleys in a simulated assault.

HASC, however, is clearly enthusiastic about the light tank, too. “The committee recognizes that the Army Chief of Staff has made MPF a high priority modernization program (and) believes the Army is developing strategies to potentially accelerate the MPF schedule given that the current projected schedule has MPF fielding beginning in 2024,” the draft language states. “Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of the Army to provide a briefing… by October 5, 2017, that outlines potential opportunities for MPF program acceleration. The briefing should include a review of testing requirements and potential areas for consolidation; funding required in fiscal year 2018 and beyond to accelerate the program; and any areas of legislative relief that would be required in order to accelerate the program.” In congressional terms, that’s a wide-open invitation to ask for more money and legal leeway.

The language directing the report on heavy armor is not quite so warm. It begins by discussing how budget cuts — particularly the Budget Control Act — have slashed Army R&D and procurement, leaving the service with an aging and potentially outgunned armored force. “The committee is concerned that the tactical overmatch that U.S. ground forces have enjoyed for decades is being diminished, or in some cases, no longer exists,” the draft language states, before lamenting the lack of a ground combat vehicle modernization strategy next to the Army’s much more clearly articulated — and funded — approach to helicopters.

Raytheon Quick Kill Active Protection System

“The committee believes there is an immediate need for a more accelerated ground combat vehicle modernization strategy that should include the development of a next generation infantry fighting vehicle and main battle tank, while also looking for ways to accelerate needed upgrades for legacy combat vehicles in the near term to address immediate threats,” the draft language says. While the draft doesn’t specify, one key upgrade would be Active Protection Systems (APS) to jam or shoot down advanced anti-tank missiles.

The draft goes on to prescribe that “Elements of the report should include: the Army’s combat vehicle modernization priorities over the next 5 and 10 years; the extent to which those priorities can be supported at current funding levels within a relevant 15 time period; the extent to which additional funds are required to support such priorities; detail how the Army is balancing and resourcing these priorities with efforts to rebuild and sustain readiness and increase force structure capacity over this same time period; and explain how the Army is balancing its near-term modernization efforts with an accelerated long-term strategy for acquiring next generation combat vehicle capabilities.” Besides the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley, the report would also encompass other elements of the Armored Brigade Combat Team such as

A separate provision in the bill calls for upgrading the Army’s Heavy Equipment Transport (HET) trailers to handle the latest uparmored Abrams, the M1A2 SEPv3, which weighs in excess of 80 tons. That’s the kind of attention to detail that modern mechanized warfare requires. As Clausewitz wrote, “everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

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