Amid uncertainty about the prospect of its ambitious "future combat systems" program, the Army is forging ahead with plans to deploy up to 35 new armored brigades.
Each of these units will be equipped with 60 Abrams tanks and 125 Bradley armored fighting vehicles, many of which will be substantially upgraded with new hardware, officials said. Between 2005 and 2007, the Army will pour at least $7 billion into this effort.
The 35 "heavy brigade combat teams" are one piece of a much broader plan-estimated to cost $69 billion-to reorganize the Army into self-deployable brigades. In addition to heavy armored brigades, the Army will field six Stryker light armored units and at least 30 light and air-assault brigades.
Army officials publicly have stressed that the creation of these self-deployable "modular" brigades, for the most part, is a realignment of existing assets, and does not compete for funds with the mammoth "future combat systems." The FCS program is a family of high-tech vehicles and weapons connected by a single command-and-control network. The Army wants to deploy 15 FCS brigades during the next decade, at a cost of $127 billion.
But a looming defense budget crunch, compounded by the Army's escalating personnel costs and Iraq war expenses, has, for all intents, created an internal struggle for funds that may force the Army to forgo or delay FCS in order to get its modular brigades equipped and ready to fight in the coming years.
War-equipment repairs alone will consume more than $26 billion over the next five years, the Army has estimated.
The upshot is that a "tremendous pull and tug" has developed between FCS and the current force, Maj. Gen. William M. Lenaers, head of the Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, told defense contractors at a recent conference. "We have not dropped off our commitment to FCS," he said. But he acknowledged that the Army may have to make tough choices in the future.
Regardless of what fate awaits FCS, the Army appears to be on a path toward fielding 35 heavy brigades by 2008 or 2010. Depending on how far FCS progresses, the Abrams and Bradley vehicles in these heavy units would become the test platforms for the advanced FCS technologies, officials said.
Modernization projects for the Abrams and Bradley vehicles are "bigger than they've ever been," said Kevin Fahey, the Army's top program executive for combat systems.
The heavy brigades also will include M113 armored personnel carriers and Paladin armored artillery guns, Fahey said at the industry conference. While the Army plans to buy several hundred new Bradleys, it will have to make do with the existing fleet of Abrams, M113s and Paladins, many of which are more than three decades old.
"We'll continue to have an obsolescence program," Fahey said. "We'll take advantage of what FCS is doing."
Each brigade will have a combination of older "analog" and newer "digital" versions of the Abrams and the Bradley, said Col. Larry D. Hollingsworth, who oversees the heavy-brigade reorganization and equipment upgrades.
Approximately half of the heavy brigade combat teams will have the digital Abrams, known as the M1A2 System Enhancement Package, and the newest Bradley, the A3. The remaining units will have the earlier variant of the Bradley, called ODS (Operation Desert Storm) and the analog M1A1 AIM Abrams.
"The Army plans to fund an increased number of completely refurbished Bradley A3s and ODS vehicles," Hollingsworth told National Defense. "There are also plans to produce a lesser number of completely refurbished Abrams tanks. The effort will completely overhaul older Abrams variants into virtually new SEP and AIM tanks.
All tanks will continue to run on the aging AGT-1500 engine, which the Army had intended to replace more than five years ago, but cancelled the program to free up funds for FCS.
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abrams tanks have been accumulating nearly 10 times more miles per year than during peacetime.
Hollingsworth said the engines are in working order, although they need to be overhauled in order to make them less prone to breakdowns. "The Abrams engine is undergoing an intensive improvement program to increase the durability to about 1,400 hours meantime between depot repairs," he said. Current engines run for approximately 700 hours before they must go back to the repair shop. "The fundamental engine design is a sound design," said Hollingsworth. "However, there are things we can do to forecast components that have a high failure rate."
Heavy armored vehicles also will require new sources of auxiliary power, so they can operate the myriad of sensors and electronic devices they carry onboard, with the engine turned off. "We have to operate our vehicles for extended periods with our engines off-in the silent watch mode," said Hollingsworth.
Tank units currently employ diesel-fueled generators as auxiliary power sources, but these tend to be bulky, noisy and unreliable, Fahey noted. This is one area, he said, where suppliers stand to earn lucrative contracts if they can come up with a lightweight, efficient, low-maintenance power unit.
The Bradley already has become a test vehicle for a 6-kilowatt fuel cell that promises to deliver what the Army wants, said Charles E. Lucius, vice president of Battelle. The company developed the fuel cell with Army funds, and claims that the fuel cell finally has moved beyond the hype and closer to a functional technology. In Iraq, tank and Bradley batteries so often get drained when the vehicle engines are turned off that they have to be replaced every three months, Lucius said.
Diesel generators are not ideal, but they often are favored because they are easier to repair. "Fuel cell technology hasn't reached the level of reliability and robustness that is needed for military use," he said. "The fuel cell world has been dominated by rhetoric and hype. But I'm convinced the technology has reached a maturation curve" and could be ready for military use in about five years.
Another logistics and maintenance problem that surfaced during the conflict in Iraq is that the vehicle tracks, which were originally designed for off-road use but mostly have been running on paved roads, rapidly wear down. New track designs, with improved durability, will be added to the fleet, said Hollingsworth.
"What we are finding, because of the different environments and operational modes we fight in, is that we are spending 70-80 percent of our time on hardball roads," he said. "It makes sense to make the tank and Bradley track as reliable on a hardball surface as the track is in the open plains."
The fight against Iraq's insurgency, meanwhile, has exposed the vulnerability of U.S. heavy armor, as several vehicles and their crews were lost to rocket-propelled grenade attacks and other man-portable antitank munitions. The Army intends to counter that by equipping the Abrams and Bradley with "active protection systems," which currently are being designed for FCS. The Army would like to acquire lighter armor for the Abrams, Fahey said, "but we haven't been successful."
An active protection system defends a tank or armored personnel carrier from incoming fire before it hits the vehicle's armor. There are two general categories: soft kill systems, which use jamming to confuse a missile's guidance system, and hard kill systems, which attempt to detect and destroy incoming projectiles.
Active protection systems are used by many armies worldwide, but have not been embraced by U.S. commanders for fear of fratricide. "Active protection will have an effect on our tactics," Hollingsworth said. "It will require us to do things differently." In the 1980s, he explained, "we were training for the European theater, where the standoff distances were a lot greater. Now we find ourselves in an environment with a greater concern about collateral damage . But the benefits of the active protection system will far outweigh some of the concerns we have today."
An extensive series of upgrades to the Abrams and Bradley, additionally, is in the offing, as part of what the Army calls "FCS spinouts."
When it became clear that the current fleet would need hardware improvements much sooner than the planned timeline for introducing FCS-in about 2010-the Army decided to accelerate a number of technologies and bring them into today's vehicles regardless of when FCS delivers a replacement for the tank and the Bradley.
"FCS spinouts will be initially incorporated on the Abrams SEP and the Bradley A3," Hollingsworth said. "Both have a very capable digital architecture."
So far, the Army has agreed to four spinouts, he noted.
According to the Boeing Co., the prime contractor for FCS, the spinouts consist of several technologies: