Everyone pines for the golden age of Army weaponry. That was four decades ago, when the ground warfare industrial complex conceived and delivered the “Big Five” programs that, to this day, are the mainstay of the force: The Abrams tank, the Bradley infantry vehicle, the Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, and the Patriot air-defense system.
Various attempts over the past decade to develop better weapons have failed, and Army officials are reminded of that every time they show up for hearings on Capitol Hill.
“With the arguable exception of the Stryker [light armored vehicle], the Army has not successfully brought a major system from research and development through full production since the so-called ‘Big Five’ … in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., laments during a hearing.
The aura around the Big Five is understandable as it stands in sharp contrast to the collapse of major programs over the 1990s and 2000s, such as the Future Combat Systems, the Comanche and Armed Scout helicopters, and the Land Warrior. An Army-funded study documented the service’s tortured procurement track record of the past decade, when it spent on average about $3 billion a year on programs that ultimately were terminated.
Still, the time has come to debunk the mystique of the Big Five, says Army Col. David Trybula, a procurement expert and senior fellow at the Institute for Defense Analyses.
Excessive glorification of that era, he contends, clouds important facts about the history of these five programs, which was not unblemished.
“Like most legends, the legend of the Big Five grows grander as memories of missteps, challenges, and problems fade,” Trybula says during a presentation last month at a Brookings Institution conference.
“The belief in the purity in the origins of the Big Five belies the fact that three of these programs were built on the top of failed programs.”
Few people remember that the Advanced Attack Helicopter program, which became the Apache, was designed to replace the failed Cheyenne helicopter, he says. The Bradley was built on the failed Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle-65 program, and the M1 Abrams tank came on the heels of two failed efforts, the MBT-70 and the XM803.
“Easily forgotten decades after the acquisition, cost growth was a significant factor,” says Trybula.
Nunn-McCurdy did not exist back then, he points out, referring to the 1983 law that allows Congress to terminate weapon systems that exceed their projected cost by more than 25 percent. “If it had, according to the historical data reported to Congress in the quarterly select acquisition reports, all five of the Big Five programs would have had Nunn-McCurdy breaches and would have required termination or defense secretary certification.”
Even after they were developed, there was much skepticism about the future of these five systems, Trybula says. Doubts about the Abrams led to a mandatory competition with Germany’s Leopard 2 tank. The live fire tests of the Bradley compelled congressional hearings and required the personal involvement of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe to avert its cancellation in 1986.
Trybula also reminds today’s leaders that the five programs emerged from the integration of available technology, not through revolutionary discoveries. “The Big Five were not produced as the optimal systems,” he says.
The struggles experienced by those programs might not have been acceptable today, he suggests. But what helped them survive is something that does not exist today: A compelling military threat.
“During the development and production of the Big Five, the threat was clearly understood as a massive Soviet conventional attack in Europe,” says Trybula. Whereas whatever threats exist today are not “clearly defined in a compelling manner that supports the determination or the justification of specific requirements.
Another factor that shaped the success of those five programs was a competitive environment in the defense industry, which is absent today following two decades of corporate consolidation that left the military with a handful of monopolies. “While the argument can be made that the competition was traded for health and viability, the byproducts are greater risk aversion and co-dependence,” says Trybula.
In the absence of a sense of urgency to build new weapons after the Cold War ended, the Pentagon’s bureaucracies and Congress created a regulatory maze that did not exist when the Big Five were coming of age. Over the years since, there was a gradual buildup of milestone reviews, layers of oversight and the Goldwater Nichols law that created separate acquisition executives and pulled the service chiefs out of the acquisition process.
The Big Five also were aided by in-house government expertise that has diminished since that era. “Before the request for proposals went out for the M1 prototypes, Army engineers understood the tradeoffs … between the width of a track on speed and maneuverability as components of mobility,” he says. Because much of that acquisition art and science have vanished from military agencies, there have been examples over the last two decades of programs that specified technical requirements that were physically unachievable, Trybula says. Contractors, happy to oblige, promise to meet specifications even when they know they are unrealistic.
Army leaders in recent years have sought to reverse the damage and have assured lawmakers that they are making up for lost time.
Congress remains skeptical, however. During a March 27 hearing of the air-land subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., asked Army officials to explain why the cost of two of the services’ top modernization programs, the Ground Combat Vehicle and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, are projected to be double or triple that of the systems they are intended to replace: the Bradley and the Humvee.
Senior acquisitions officials Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox and Lt. Gen. William Phillips, insist that both programs are under control and will not lead to a repeat of the failed Future Combat Systems.
Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, who oversees weapons requirements, also assured senators at the hearing that the Army is mending its ways. “We've adjusted the way we write requirements so that … we don't end up painting ourselves into a corner early in the process when we don't know enough about that capability that we seek to develop,” Walker says.
Trybula, for his part, does give the Army some credit for several success stories that rarely are mentioned.
In the decades following the Big Five, he says, there are a number of weapon systems that the Army managed to bring to fruition, including the Stryker, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, the Avenger air-defense systems, the HIMARS rocket launcher, the Lakota helicopter, and new generations of the Chinook and Kiowa Warrior aircraft.