Army Equipment Buyers Could Borrow a Few Ideas From Foreign Peers
The U.S. Army is the world’s richest and best equipped, but as it ponders how to modernize for the future, it could learn a few tricks from its foreign counterparts, a new study suggests.
At a time of exploding technological innovation around the world, the Army has to face the reality that other nations’ military forces soon could have access to advanced equipment that is comparable or even better than what it currently has.
As it prepares for future conflicts, the Army also ought to consider buying lighter, easier-to-transport vehicles and should find new ways to equip infantry soldiers so they are not having to carry 100-pound rucksacks — a challenge that several foreign armies are tackling successfully.
These recommendations come from a group of analysts in a RAND Corp. study titled, “Comparing U.S. Army Systems With Foreign Counterparts.”
The U.S. Army is the fourth largest and best equipped in the world, the study said, but there are a few niches where militaries may have “selected advantages.” As far as overall capability is concerned, the U.S. Army remains in a league of its own. That said, there are areas where capability gaps are appearing as other armies modernize.
In areas like logistics equipment, robotics and bomb countermeasures, the Army is falling behind compared to other nations’ armed forces, although it maintains a significant edge in armored fighting vehicles and rotary-wing aviation, said the RAND study, which was funded by the Army deputy chief of staff for force development to help inform the 2014-2019 budget.
A key concern for the Army is that its tactical ground vehicles have been loaded with protective armor and grown too heavy. “The increase in protection, size, and weight of tactical ground vehicles has influenced other existing support vehicles, such as the landing and amphibious craft used to deliver ground vehicles,” the study said. Armored trucks that often weigh more than 25 tons are not readily deployable and lack mobility in combat operations.
Other countries have tackled this problem by procuring smaller fleets of well-armored vehicles for high-threat environments and a larger fleet of soft-skin logistics vehicles for more permissive circumstances. The United Kingdom and France, for instance, are buying logistics vehicles that can be configured with armor packages that can be quickly added or removed.
The add-on armor approach makes it easier to update vehicles as material technologies improve. The U.K. military, for example, uses Tarian lightweight fabric armor which is 85 percent lighter than steel and half the weight of aluminum systems, as well as more effective than heavier bar armor in protecting against rocket-propelled grenades.
Because of weight and mobility concerns, many countries are choosing to buy mixed fleets of off-the-shelf and tactical vehicles. “The U.S. Army could benefit from taking a mixed-fleet approach to its logistics vehicles and support vehicles,” the study said. “Highly protected logistics vehicles may be needed in some situations, but not all.”
To protect troops from mines and improvised explosive devices, the Army has developed — and continues to pursue — an array of classified countermeasure technologies. But there might be better systems available elsewhere. Germany’s COMPACT-R IED countermeasure system is one example cited in the study. It detects the signal frequency and responds by transmitting real-time jamming signals based on the detected hostile frequency band. Compared to many U.S. systems, the study said, this one increases power efficiency and decreases the potential for inadvertent jamming by focusing only on the necessary signal frequency.
The Army has been successful at using robots to find and disarm IEDs. Despite the experience gained in recent conflicts, “there are a number of important areas within the field of military robotics where the United States does not lead,” RAND noted. The Israeli Defense Forces are increasing the use of armed robotic vehicles. That is an area where foreign militaries are currently ahead of the U.S. Army. American policymakers have been hesitant to permit armed robotic systems, especially for missions where relatively high levels of autonomy would be needed, said the study. “In the area of bipedal, walking, humanoid-like robots, others are clearly ahead of current U.S. capabilities. Japan, in particular, leads this field.”
Greater use of robots could help dismounted infantry move its gear faster. “The robotics field is currently wide open; new military entrants could quickly achieve a relatively high level of capability by capitalizing on civilian robotics research,” the study said. “The bottom line is that in the rest of the world, there is a clear move toward military robots. Therefore, the Army should, to the extent possible, support research and development in this important new technology field.”
Analysts point out that current investment in driver-assist technology has been primarily led by civilian firms such as Google Cars in the United States, Volvo Truck Train in Europe, New Energy and Industrial Technology Development in Japan, and Guardium in Israel. The U.S. military has a driver-assist procurement program, but a number of countries are testing appliqué kits and new vehicles that enable human, remote or fully autonomous control. British logistics officers told RAND that their army is moving in the direction of driver-assist technologies, including autonomous vehicles.
Compared to unmanned aircraft, most ground-based military robots have not yet transitioned into the mainstream, the study said. “The overwhelming majority of unmanned ground vehicle capability still resides in the science and technology domain.” The budgets tell the story. According to Defense Department data cited by RAND, between 2007 and 2013, military spending was projected to reach $22 billion for unmanned air systems and only $800 million for UGVs. This disparity in funding hurts the Army because unmanned ground vehicles that operate with a high degree of autonomy are more technologically complex than aircraft. The study suggests more research, development, testing, and evaluation may be needed to increase robots’ proficiency.
The Army’s persistent focus on equipping soldiers with more advanced technology has created the unintended problem of troop overload. The study calls on the Army to consider new approaches to “deburden infantrymen.” Foreign armies, too, have seen soldier loads exceed 100 pounds, and want to reverse this trend. One solution might be to bring small vehicles to carry part or most of the load of a squad, including robotic systems.
“A number of programs from around the world provide some institutional lessons that can be applied by U.S. Army equipping solutions,” said the study. Other armies have opted for “modular” or flexible setups for squads depending on their mission. The Army also could benefit from working more closely with the Marine Corps’ Gruntworks squad integration facility, where Marines test and optimize the human interaction with equipment and vehicles.
The Army also could draw lessons from other countries as it mulls over the procurement of a new ultralight direct-fire combat vehicle that can be airdropped to support the infantry. Countries like
Russia, China, France and Germany all have airborne light-armored vehicles that have many of the features the U.S. Army wants.
The study found the U.S. Army's heavy armored fighting vehicles compare well with their foreign counterparts. Nonetheless, the Army should improve its existing forward-looking infrared systems or pursue other sensor technologies in order to maintain the current advantage of its tanks and Bradleys.
Other points highlighted in the study:
• The U.S. Army leads in size and capability of its helicopter fleet, but attack and medium-lift Helicopters around the world have increased in sophistication.
• U.S. attack helicopter platforms have dominant target systems, but foreign attack and medium-lift helicopter platforms do have some niche advantages.
• The Army's heavy-lift helicopter, the CH-47F, has greater digital connectivity than its foreign counterparts, but has a lower payload capacity than the equivalent foreign systems.
• U.S. rocket systems are falling behind the increasing range of similar Russian and Chinese systems.
• The existence of foreign rocket launchers that fire well over 100 kilometers has implications for the U.S. Army's fires system, including counterfire and target acquisition. A large portion of the Army's current stock of rocket munitions will have to be replaced when the 2019 limitations on submunitions take effect.
• The Army should study the need for a new specialized manned reconnaissance aircraft in light of global trends and the increasing ability of combinations of attack helicopter and reconnaissance drones.