COMBAT VEHICLES

Ground Combat Vehicle Program May Not Yield What Army Intends, Analysts Say

3/1/2011
By Grace V. Jean
As the Army pursues its latest effort to develop a new ground combat vehicle, analysts say that the high-stakes program may already be headed for technological disappointment.

Army officials are evaluating proposals for a prototype infantry fighting vehicle intended to replace aging Bradleys beginning in 2017. They expect industry offerings to yield an innovative personnel carrier that is protected from roadside bomb blasts and can transport a full infantry squad into battle. It must be able to operate in a wide range of combat scenarios, including missions in the urban environment to counter insurgents or on an open field to fight enemy tanks and heavy artillery.

But analysts predict that given the way the program is structured, the Army may just end up with a tricked-out Bradley or a mine-resistant ambush-protected truck on tracks.

“You can’t get these leap-ahead, revolutionary programmatic objectives in place if you’re going to go with a short timeline, low-risk, fixed-cost development approach. So you have to align your expectations with the realities of the type of program that you’ve put in place,” says Dakota Wood, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.  

Still smarting from its failed attempt to produce the now-defunct Future Combat Systems after a decade and billions of dollars worth of development, the Army is employing a new procurement tactic for the ground combat vehicle. Blending traditional defense acquisition with the rapid-equipping model spawned by the war effort, Army officials are demanding that industry come up with designs that can be built as prototypes in a fast two-year timeframe.

“This is a collision of two very different approaches to acquisition,” says Daniel Gouré, vice president at the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy research organization. “It’s biased against anything innovative,” he says. “A spiffed-up Bradley is about what you’re going to get. Or a souped-up [mine-resistant ambush-protected all-terrain vehicle] on tracks.”

The two-year development period means that subsystem test articles would need to be completed three to six months prior to the deadline, Gouré explains. So in reality, the program is on an 18-month schedule, which means companies will have to be ready to place orders the day they’re awarded the contract and start bending metal. They simply won’t have time to innovate, he says.  

The Army previously tried to develop the vehicle in a lengthier and more technically challenging acquisition program, but that plan last year was shot down by congressional and Defense Department leaders as being too risky and unattainable.

The revamped program, which was unveiled in December, pushes cost and schedule as key concerns and lays out several technical specifications while leaving many other requirements open-ended. That has caused some considerable angst and confusion in industry, which is accustomed to the Defense Department delineating specifications for every component and feature in new weapon systems.

Army officials insist that the requirements for GCV are clearly laid out.

Their top priorities include: force protection technologies to shield vehicle occupants from threats including roadside bombs and artillery; the capacity to carry an infantry squad with its kits and armor; adaptability for full spectrum operations, meaning that the Army wants a versatile vehicle onto which it can add newer features to suit future missions; and swift production to incorporate the vehicle into the fleet within seven years.

“The shortfalls are here now. We need this vehicle,” says Rickey E. Smith, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center-Forward.

Besides the four must-have items, the solicitation denotes second- and third-tier features that the Army eventually wants on the vehicle. It is up to the companies to decide which ones to incorporate into their proposals. By not directing specific material solutions to industry, the Army is emphasizing maximum flexibility for the vendors to make trade-offs, officials say. The idea is to encourage industry to propose vehicle designs that integrate existing technologies and innovative solutions in a “best-of-breed” system, Smith explains.

In theory, the tactic ought to work, analysts say.

“Those with an entrepreneurial spirit or a great engineering team can come up with creative solutions with items they can piece together,” says Wood. “They will have some pretty good offerings. Others that have been dependent on answering a highly specific, highly detailed government requirement may be a bit more challenged,” he adds.

Gouré says vendors may try to incorporate as many of the 38 trade-off items on the Army’s secondary and tertiary wish lists as they can. “You’re going to get clever integration and maybe some interesting options in terms of trades,” he says.

Industry reactions to the new solicitation so far have been mixed. Some are embracing the change from last year’s stringent vehicle specifications, which did not allow vendors any trade space.

“It gives industry the opportunity that we have asked for, which is, allow us to help you make some of these technology and design decisions so that you are achieving an integrated capability at a low risk and a designated cost,” says Mark Signorelli, vice president and general manager of the ground combat vehicle program at BAE Systems, which is leading a team that includes Northrop Grumman Corp. and iRobot as partners.

For others, the new paradigm is causing trepidation and concern. Some companies worry that making the wrong trade-offs, such as proposing a tracked versus a wheeled vehicle, may ultimately lock them out of the competition.

Not so, says the Army’s Smith. Just because a vendor wins a spot in the coveted top three during this initial phase does not mean its vehicle design can ride all the way to the end and be procured. “They’ll have to be competing. This is not going to be a one-shot wonder,” he says.

Still other industry insiders voiced concern about the requirements being left up to the vendors’ discretion.

“It’s okay for program officials to say that they aren’t sure what they want, but in the mean time, other specs can and should be determined,” said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity. He worried that the Army would eventually blindside vendors with changes in requirements.

“As we move forward, we will try our best to not let specifications ‘creep’ go in, but we are already beginning our assessment of operational requirements,” says Smith.

There is also fear that the Army will not be able to afford the planned purchase of more than 1,800 infantry combat vehicles.

“If you know you can’t buy them all, say so,” said another industry expert who asked to remain anonymous.

The Army has many competing programs such as joint light tactical vehicle and Stryker fleet upgrades that could interfere with its GCV plans.

“Could things change? Sure,” says Smith. But the Army is hedging against all those factors by setting a strict timeline on GCV and cost targets of $9 million to $10 million per vehicle.

“The real question is, can you really afford a $10 million platform even if it gives you everything you want?” says Gouré. “Is this going to be a cost shoot-out above all else?”

The Army likely will receive help from congressional leaders who are sympathetic to the service’s need to replace its aging and battle-worn inventory of equipment, Wood says.

“For all the complaining about reduced budgets and all that, Congress … knows you need an effective, viable military for a variety of reasons, so you will see supporters and advocates who will make sure that a sufficient budget is available to replace key items,” he says.

Still, observers worry that this program may be destined to end up like FCS.

“What is the Army’s Plan B?” wonders one defense insider. “If the service cannot afford the ground combat vehicle, then will it buy more Strykers or modify Bradleys, or go back to the drawing board and start over?”

Regardless of budgets, the onus will be on industry to prove that GCV can — or cannot — be done. And the odds appear to be stacked against it.

“We have never known how to be really innovative while meeting a very tough vehicle cost and life cycle cost cap,” points out Gouré.

“The real question is, can industry do the impossible? The record doesn’t give reason to be optimistic. By and large, everyone playing in this game one way or another was a major player in FCS. In FCS, you had a lot of time and money, but they didn’t do it. There was no holy grail. There was no pot at the end of the rainbow here. They didn’t produce the miracle vehicle … Why do we think we can do it in the next two years?”

The Army is going to see offers that tout modified combat vehicles that are already in production as a huge advantage to the program, Wood says. But the service might also see some innovative proposals from companies that in the past could not compete well with the “big boys” — the traditional defense contractors that have dominated the combat vehicle landscape. “You could see some teaming arrangements that take these innovations married up with the production capacity from a larger player,” says Wood. “This is like a monster garage-type partnership that could spur a lot of innovative stuff.”

But already one of the small businesses has decided to drop out of the competition. The Army’s seven-year development timeline is simply too long, Michigan-based Advanced Defense Vehicle Systems states in a company announcement. James LeBlanc Sr., chief executive officer, says, “This drawn-out Army process does not fit with ADVS’ rapid development and fielding capabilities.”

The withdrawal could be a harbinger of the program falling into the hands of the usual vendors once again. But that may not spell disaster for the ground combat vehicle, some say.

BAE’s Signorelli disagrees with analysts who foresee a lack of innovation in the program.

“I don’t agree that the result will be a shinier Bradley if you do meet the Army’s intent and you meet their tier-one requirements,” Signorelli says. “Those requirements drove us to take a forward-facing approach rather than a new version of a legacy capability,” such as the Bradley, manufactured by United Defense, which was acquired by BAE in 2005, he says.

BAE intends to incorporate a hybrid-electric drive into its offering.

“We think that this presents the Army the kind of opportunity that the Air Force had when it bought the first jet fighter instead of the last propeller-driven fighter airplane,” Signorelli says. “Once you make that transition, you open up a whole new range of potential uses, applications, capabilities that weren’t inherent in the other technology.”

Army officials say that industry and the service deserve a chance to prove the skeptics wrong.

“I wouldn’t underestimate us,” says Smith. Though the Army does not have a stellar track record with vehicle programs, it has produced some successes. The Stryker, an eight-wheeled light armored vehicle, was developed in a relatively short period and was sent into battle soon after. Officials hope to do the same with the ground combat vehicle.

“As we work our way through this, there will be hard calls,” says Smith. “It will be a tough time because we’re going to make trades and things are going to get bounced out. At the end of the day though, if it puts the best capability in the hands of soldiers, then we’ve achieved our objective.”      

Topics: Combat Vehicles

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