The Army’s quest for a new combat vehicle is one of the Pentagon’s longest running, most drama-filled procurement soap operas.
The award in August of nearly $900 million in research contracts to two contractor teams to develop a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) is the latest chapter of an epic tale spanning more than a decade. It began in October 1999 when then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki shocked the arms industry and announced that heavyweights like the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle and the M-1 Abrams tanks would be phased out and replaced by faster, lighter, more fuel-efficient alternatives.
A dozen years, $18 billion in research costs and countless acquisition milestones later, no new vehicle is yet on the horizon. Bradleys and Abrams very much remain the mainstays of the heavy force, and with the Defense Department facing potentially drastic cuts in weapons programs, the Army’s dreams of a new vehicle may come crashing down.
Amid uncertainties over the extent of projected defense spending cuts that could begin in 2013, the Army still proceeded Aug. 18 with the award of two contracts of $445 million and $439 million to BAE Systems and General Dynamics Land Systems for “technology development” of the GCV variant — the infantry fighting vehicle — that is intended to replace the Bradley. The program currently is on hold pending the resolution of a protest by the losing bidder, a team of SAIC and Boeing.
The goal is to acquire about 1,800 new IFVs at a cost of no more than $13 million each, and to have the first batch ready for deployment seven years from now.
But even before it gets off the drawing board, the GCV already is under fire for its anticipated rising costs. Pentagon accountants have come up with their own estimates of $16 million to $17 million per vehicle.
The higher price tag — calculated by the Pentagon’s cost assessment and program evaluation office — is raising eyebrows because it approaches the cost estimates of the Future Combat Systems’ tracked combat vehicle, which was cancelled in 2009, among other reasons, because of its rising price tag. The FCS vehicles were expected to cost $18 million each.
The FCS program — which included a new combat vehicle as well as other pieces of equipment — began in 2003 and was terminated by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009. It morphed into the GCV, which the Army listed among its top two modernization priorities, after a tactical information network. Among the ills that plagued FCS were its soaring costs and its failure to “adapt” to emerging enemy tactics such as roadside bomb attacks.
Army leaders have insisted since the cancellation of FCS that the new vehicle would be put on a fast track, and not allowed to wallow in dysfunction as its predecessor did.
The Army’s new chief, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assured senators during his confirmation hearing that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.
One of the toughest critics of military procurement, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reminded Odierno that over the last decade, the Army “embarked on a number of developmental, procurement and modernization programs that were subsequently de-scoped, re-baselined or canceled outright.” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Odierno to explain the “operational urgency” to field a new combat vehicle in seven years.
Odierno did not offer a downright endorsement of GCV, but said it was one of the “potential vehicles” that are being considered for the future Army. “What we have to do is continue to assess, look at the requirements that we have established for the Ground Combat Vehicle to see if it will meet the future requirements that we see for our Army,” Odierno said.
At the same time that Odierno was addressing senators’ concerns, the Army’s GCV program was moving full-speed ahead. The Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board gave the program a green light July 21, and an “acquisition decision memorandum” was signed by the Pentagon’ senior procurement executive Ashton Carter on Aug. 17.
While these go-ahead reviews were important hurdles that the program cleared, GCV remains caught in a vortex of funding uncertainty. Carter’s memo says that “continuing approval” of the program will be contingent on the Army meeting “affordability and schedule targets.” The Army also must conduct a new “analysis of alternatives” and a market study of comparable infantry fighting vehicles that already exist and potentially could meet the requirements of the GCV program. Both studies were due Sept. 23.
The recent cost estimates of up to $17 million for the infantry variant of the GCV appear to have alarmed Pentagon budget officials, said James McAleese, a defense industry consultant and principal of McAleese and Associates. “OSD [office of the secretary of defense] is very concerned” about the affordability of GCV, he said.
Despite the Pentagon’s decision to allow the Army to move forward with technology development contracts, the program “is going to be very challenged,” McAleese said.
“There is clear disagreement between Army and CAPE [cost assessment and program evaluation] on GCV cost estimates,” McAleese said. “There is also clear OSD concern that current ‘non-development vehicles’ such as upgraded Bradleys or Strykers may ultimately be more-affordable, while still meeting most of Army’s big four GCV criteria: carry a full-squad; full-spectrum operations; $13 million procurement unit-cost and seven-years to production.”
Based on clues found in Carter’s memo and on the budget outlook for the Army, McAleese gives GCV only a 50 to 60 percent probability that is will reach engineering development in fiscal year 2013.
Army officials recognize the fiscal realities ahead, and acknowledge that GCV faces tough times.
“There are some big ugly decisions ahead,” said Rickey Smith, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center Directorate. “With the budget drill that’s been going on, we have our hands full trying to make rational projections and trying to do the right thing,” he told National Defense.
It is not just GCV that could be targeted for cuts, but just about every major program. The what-ifs are overwhelming the Army’s ability to plan and forecast. Procurement programs are at the mercy of bigger financial decisions, such as how much the Army’s overall budget might be reduced, and how much of the money must be allocated to personnel — possibly at the expense of new equipment. Within the procurement account, the choice will be how much should be spent on fixing existing hardware, as opposed to buying new items.
The Army strongly believes that it needs GCV and has
made a compelling case to
keep its budget intact, Smith said. But the budget crisis trumps the usual methods that the military services employ to secure funding for cherished programs.
If in the coming years the Army loses its procurement funds for a new vehicle, it may have to figure out how to fix up the existing fleet. “We want it to be a new vehicle. Our analysis shows that is the right thing to do,” Smith said. But under the worst-case scenario, upgrades would be considered, he said. “We haven’t crossed all those bridges yet.” Funding calculations are made more complicated by the timeline of the program. It’s not enough to secure funds in 2012 or 2013, because most of the GCV dollars would be spent beyond 2014. That creates a big problem for the Army because U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in 2014, and military budgets would then drop substantially.
“Those are the kinds of things we are wrestling with,” Smith said.
The protest by the SAIC-Boeing team, even if it delays the program by only a few months, could cause lasting damage to GCV because it would slow down the next phase — prototype manufacturing. SAIC’s protest in fact could derail the entire program because it would push the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) decisions from late 2013 into 2014, said McAleese. With the likelihood of defense budgets declining in 2014, a seemingly harmless protest is actually increasing the probability that the program will not survive, he said.
Congress also is exacerbating the GCV’s budget woes because it is forcing the Army to keep funding the Abrams’ production line, instead of allowing the Army to shift the money into the GCV program.
The politics of defense programs play in favor of the Abrams because there are assembly line jobs in Lima, Ohio, at stake, whereas GCV still has no political constituency, and the only jobs that would be at risk are held by a handful of engineers.
Although it would be politically a tough sell, outside experts believe the Army could save itself a lot of time and money if it decided to forgo a new-vehicle development and instead buy an existing infantry fighting vehicle from friendly foreign nations that already produce them in large numbers. Carter’s Aug. 17 memorandum hints that the Pentagon would be open to the idea of buying a vehicle from the open market, or even a non-U.S. system.
The question of whether to build or buy a combat vehicle was pondered in 2005 by former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In a “snowflake” to deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld contemplated the possibility of buying Slovenian armored personnel carriers. “There are a variety of these floating around the world,” Rumsfeld wrote. “My question is this: If we need more armored vehicles, why don’t we buy them instead of trying to make them faster than people apparently can make them?”
It is conceivable that a GCV-like vehicle already exists, although it would not satisfy every item on the Army’s wish list, said Christopher Foss, editor of Jane’s Armor and Artillery. Any of the available products on the market would require the Army to give up some of the features it wants. Israel, for instance, makes the Namer armored infantry fighting vehicle that is one of the world’s most advanced, Foss said. At 60 tons, though, it is heavier than what the Army would like, and cannot accommodate a nine-member infantry squad. U.S. Abrams tank manufacturer General Dynamics Corp. received a contract to help Israel develop the vehicle and will produce it in the United States with U.S. foreign-aid funds.
The SAIC-Boeing team that was knocked out of the GCV competition, incidentally, did propose a foreign design based on Germany’s Puma. At 32 tons, it is in the desired weight range, but it only carries five troops, Foss said.
If the Army decides to postpone buying the GCV, it could upgrade the Bradley but that might be a waste of money because that vehicle has limited potential to receive improvements, Foss said. “It was developed 30 years ago. There are limits on how much armor you can add.” The Army simply needs a bigger vehicle. It would make sense, however, to keep the Abrams alive, he said. “My view is that the Abrams is the best tank America has ever done. You don’t even need to think about replacing it yet. … I don’t see any vehicle out there that would take out an M1.”
A senior executive from Bradley manufacturer BAE Systems said that if the Army chose to upgrade the Bradley instead of buying a new vehicle, it would have to make major compromises. “You can’t upgrade Bradleys to meet GCV requirements,” said Mark Signorelli, BAE’s vice president and general manager for ground combat vehicles. The biggest issue would be vehicle protection. The GCV would be heavier and more survivable than a Bradley.
BAE’s design that was selected for the GCV program includes a “big margin for growth” so more armor could be added if necessary, Signorelli said in an interview. The original Bradleys weighed 25 tons, and are now approaching 40 tons when fully armored. The GCV would be able to exceed that, he said.
The Army’s GCV manager, Col. Andrew DiMarco, told reporters that his office is under pressure to cut costs but is not willing to compromise on most of the desired vehicle features. He practically ruled out the possibility that the Army would agree to buy an off-the-shelf vehicle. In the analysis of alternatives, he said, “We weren’t finding any vehicle that had the combination of the capabilities we’re looking for.” Some systems are “optimized for an under-belly threat, some are optimized for cross-country mobility, or speed on highways, some are optimized against direct large caliber threats.” Others offer adequate protection but fall short in off-road mobility, lethality and the capacity to carry an entire nine-soldier squad. DiMarco did not dispute the Pentagon’s $17 million cost estimate for GCV, but he implied that those numbers are based on different assumptions than the Army’s cost calculations.
For GCV officials, an even bigger concern is avoiding the traps that led to the downfall of the Future Combat Systems, analysts warn. Will the GCV program end up like FCS, with billions spent and nothing to show for it? It could, said Daniel Gouré, military analyst at the Lexington Institute. FCS failed because it was too expensive and technologically too ambitious. GCV does not overreach like FCS did, but budget pressures could lead to its demise, Gouré said. “Thirteen million dollars for a squad carrier? That seems like a lot.”
GCV was conceived as a vehicle that would be able to adjust to shifting threats. But it is now encountering an unanticipated and formidable foe: the nation’s fiscal crisis.