Readers Sound Off on Recent Stories
In the excellent story of the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle, (Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle: The Saga Continues, Oct. 2011, p.32) I very much enjoyed the opening line: “The Army’s quest for a new combat vehicle is one of the Pentagon’s longest running, most drama-filled procurement soap operas.”
The story then states that this “epic tale” spanned over a decade and began in October 1999 when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki announced that the Abrams and Bradley would be phased out and replaced by lighter vehicles. Sorry, but that’s not even half of it.
This woeful saga of failed replacement of the Abrams and Bradley fleets by lighter, faster and more fuel-efficient vehicles actually started back about 1984 with the Army’s Armored Family of Vehicles (AFV) program. At that time, the Army’s combat developers envisioned a family of 32 different armored combat and combat-support vehicles in three weight classes with emphasis on commonality in operation, training, and repair parts and components for the entire Army, to begin fielding about 1992.
Having little to show by about 1988, the program devolved into the Heavy Force Modernization of 24 vehicles in two weight classes for only about one-third of the Army with fielding delayed. Eventually it shriveled further into Armored Systems Modernization of only six vehicles, also for only one third of the force, with fielding pushed further back to about 2000 or beyond.
This effort was finally broken up into separate acquisition programs. The Future Combat Systems was soon dropped as it was no better than an Abrams. The Combat Mobility Vehicle engineer breacher was spun off into the “Grizzly,” an Abrams variant that was eventually cancelled due to its own lack of progress. The Future Infantry Fighting Vehicle and Line-of-Sight Anti-Tank were delayed indefinitely and forgotten. The Advanced Field Artillery System and its accompanying Resupply Vehicle sort of evolved into or paralleled (depending on whom you ask) the Crusader Field Artillery System, which was finally aborted under FCS.
But more important than reviewing history is learning from it. Why does this nonsense happen? How can such foolishness continue for almost three decades? Well, the explanation is simple, as Grace V. Jean’s story about the Army’s Robotic Mule being deployed to Afghanistan (Oct. 2011, p. 27) so well illustrates.
Light infantry soldiers are forever overburdened, carrying crushing loads. The impedimenta of modern warfare is simply too great to carry on one’s back. So after years of complaints and studies, the Army is finally sending four vehicles to a light infantry unit in Afghanistan whose soldiers are conducting daily patrols. But these are no ordinary cargo vehicles. These are robotic Squad Mission Support Module, autonomous cargo ATVs. According to the article, the squad module offers a lot of versatility. Among its unique characteristics is a “follow me” operating mode whereby it recognizes the optical shape and profile of the individual it is to follow. It will then track that individual and remain a certain distance away. Its usage will be studied for frequency of autonomous employment compared to remote control by soldiers (using the touch screen). The results will further help inform the service’s requirements for future robotic vehicles for squad-sized units.
It all sounds great until you consider the flawed reasoning behind the entire effort. Infantrymen carry heavy loads because they operate in areas inaccessible to vehicles. If vehicles could accompany them, then there is no reason to not have accompanying vehicles. It’s an old concept: “supply wagons.”
The only issue needing to be examined is whether these or other small utility vehicles could effectively accompany light infantry squads as they conduct their missions. To do this, simply acquire several commercial-off-the-shelf all-terrain utility vehicles and let the soldiers drive them. If results are good, go ahead and procure plenty more, modified as appropriate. If they cannot negotiate the terrain, all of that smart expensive robotics intelligence is utterly useless. You might still consider consolidating the vehicles at platoon or company level to provide supporting logistics, again an old concept: “supply columns.”
My point is that the Army should have long ago considered placing light utility vehicles into the hands of troops for assessment and never mind about all of that high-technology gee-whiz-bang computerization that will cost a fortune and will take years to field and debug, only to finally rediscover that there are some places where an infantryman can go that a vehicle cannot.
I predict that although on a much smaller scale, this program will eventually be cancelled just as FCS was and for exactly the same reasons: Failure to perform and unaffordability. Meanwhile, the obvious solution is ignored as soldiers strain and struggle under their unmanageable burdens.
The Defense Department is facing budget shortfalls (as National Defense Magazine has been reporting) that won’t be solved with small changes and sloganeering. Big steps are required.
Here are six:
- There are four air forces in the Defense Department. Eliminate one.
- Eliminate airborne infantry capability. Outside a few special ops missions, there are better ways to arrive on the battlefield than a silk canopy.
- Disband all service specific weapon acquisition organizations. Form a single Defense Materiel Command. Side benefit, less inter-service squabbles and better joint integration.
- Pilotless Air Force by 2040.
- Top to bottom review to eliminate grade and rank inflation.
- Retire early retirement. The nation can’t afford retirement at 37.