Army, Marine Corps Face Pitfalls When it Comes to Modernizing Equipment
Envisioned as a replacement for 1970s-era assault vehicles, the Marine Corps put almost all its eggs in the EFV basket. Starting from the late 1970s, the service’s pursuit of a platform that could be launched from a ship as a boat, then land ashore and transform itself into a speedy fighting vehicle consumed much of its research and development budget for ship-to-shore systems.
After three decades of work, and only a handful of prototypes to show for the $3 billion spent on the program, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced his intention in January 2011 to cancel the program.
The Marine Corps was left with aging assault vehicles, and no replacement for them in sight.
“It’s a cautionary tale and we’re seeing the Army make the same choice that the Marines made 10 years ago,” said Russell Rumbaugh, co-director of budgeting for foreign affairs and defense at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
As the Army and Marines continue their quest to improve their vehicles and other battlefield technologies, it has two paths to choose from: evolutionary, incremental improvements to existing platforms, or a “Big Bang” — the revolutionary introduction of new technology that is several orders of magnitude better than what it is replacing.
The “Defense Budget: Priorities and Choices” document previewing the 2013 proposal provided clues on which way the services want to go.
“The kind of troop transport vehicles needed to succeed and survive in an irregular warfare environment are included in the Army and Marine Corps modernization plans,” the document stated. The Army wants to continue with its goal of developing an all-new ground combat vehicle. It also scrapped preliminary plans to refurbish aging Humvees. Instead, it will attempt to invent a new tactical wheeled vehicle.
That is where there are potential pitfalls, said Rumbaugh, the author of a report, “What We Bought: Defense Procurement from FY01 to FY10.”
In it, he argues that as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued, and new capabilities were required to fight tough adversaries, the services used the large amount of supplemental funding to upgrade their equipment. Whether by happenstance or design, incremental changes to hardware have resulted in improved technologies for soldiers and Marines.
“Especially the major weapons programs that constitute the heart of the services’ capabilities,” he wrote.
As for ground forces, “The Army has higher quality and more modern tanks, fighting vehicles, supply trucks, small arms, helicopters and support equipment than it had at the start of the decade,” the report said.
The Marine Corps did not modernize its forces as completely as the Army, but it did use its supplemental funding to start upgrades on the Light Armored Vehicle and the Amphibious Tracked Combat Vehicle. It purchased 500 new howitzers and 5,000 supply trucks, the report said.
Retired Col. Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., a former Army acquisition program manager, said in a rebuttal to the report in the January issue of National Defense that a distinction must be made between “modernization” and “recapitalization.”
“New or recapitalized equipment without capability enhancement doesn’t qualify as modernized,” he wrote. The question must be asked whether the capabilities that were acquired during the past decade will be relevant to the current or future fight.
Telling was the choice to proceed with plans to create the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, a Marine Corps-Army program, along with the scrapping of the Humvee recapitalization program.
Adrian Lewis, a retired Army major, and now a professor of history and director of the University of Kansas’ office of professional military graduate education, said ground forces have traditionally ended up on the short end of the modernization stick.
“The country almost has a fear of not being the most advanced technologically on the planet. That probably goes all the way back to the 50s with Sputnik,” he said.
But that fear mostly drives the development of high-end platforms such as bombers, jet fighters and submarines. Ground forces and their equipment don’t always figure into this equation.
Two senior officers recently iterated the commitment to modernize ground forces despite budget pressures.
The Marine Corps needs “new and innovative ways to move from ship to shore,” Lt. Gen. Richard P. Mills, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, said at the Navy Surface Association in early January. The days when the Corps could land 3,000 yards off a coastline and land in a straight line are over, he said, referring to the long-standing goal of having troops launch their landing craft over the horizon.
“The development of technology, the development of anti-access weapons is only going to speed up in the years ahead. We have got to be reactive to those developments,” he said.
“The [Landing Craft Air Cushion hovercraft are] running out of shelf life. We are working to replace those. What’s it going to look like? What’s it going to be cable of? We are a heavier Marine Corps these days. Our vehicles weigh more.”
In the Army, Chief of Staff Raymond T. Odierno also signaled his service’s desire to continue pushing new capabilities and technologies to the forefront.
“We prevent conflict,” he said at a Pentagon press briefing. “We do this by maintaining credibility based on the Army capacity, its readiness and modernization to prevent miscalculation by potential adversaries.”
The budget request will reflect the modernization priorities, he said. Those include the network, a ground combat vehicle, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and soldier systems, he said.
The Army intends to push development of the Ground Combat Vehicle back one year to accommodate an industry protest, which has now run its course, he said.
“We’re moving forward with the Ground Combat Vehicle. And we’re comfortable with the program,” he said.
The new fighting vehicle is seen as the Army’s consolation prize after the termination of the Future Combat Systems. That program was envisioned as a major leap in capability — a networked fleet of manned and unmanned fighting vehicles, tactical vehicles and mobile artillery. After struggling for years to make progress on the project, it was canceled in 2009. It joined the Comanche and follow-on efforts to field an armed scout helicopter as one of the service’s many failed efforts to field next-generation technology as opposed to incremental upgrades.
Less well known is the Army’s goal to outfit soldiers with a suite of high-tech communication and network gear. First known as Land Warrior, it has undergone several iterations, with bits and pieces making it into the field, but has a goal line that seems to be constantly moving back.
Radically transforming the devices ground forces rely on to communicate have also run into difficulties. The Joint Tactical Radio System is intended to replace analog radios with digital systems that can be periodically upgraded with new software as it becomes available.
Like the soldier ensembles, parts of this program have been fielded despite cost overruns, missed deadlines, and cancelation of some of the systems. The devices are meant for all four services, but the Army is the executive agent on the program. Since last year, the Army has conducted a series of Network Integration Evaluations that endeavors to speed up the acquisition of state-of-the-art communications systems. (See story here).
Rumbaugh argues that the “daily barrage” of negative news about cost overruns and canceled programs has overshadowed the fact that the military, including ground forces, now has the most advanced technologies in the world.
And the Marine Corps did have one revolutionary, next-generation program come to fruition, the V-22 tilt-rotor Osprey, which can move troops on the battlefield faster than ever before. As for the traditional helicopters that support these troops, the two services have opted for incremental changes with new capabilities being added to almost every block buy.
The question is now, given all these upgrades of the past decade, and the need to cut costs, should the services take a pause and slow down modernization efforts?
“We have a lot of nice stuff,” Rumbaugh said, reacting to the budget document. “But if you don’t maintain it, if you don’t develop it, if you don’t plan for the future, that goes away. And it goes away somewhat quickly.”
The Army, having all the facts in front of it — and being fully aware of its poor record in acquisition programs — has chosen to end Bradley and Humvee upgrades, he said.
“That is a defensible position. But the Army will have to acknowledge there is risk,” he said. If it comes up short, it will have no one to blame but itself.
If JLTV doesn’t hit its mark, Army officials won’t be able to complain that they didn’t have the resources. It will be how they chose to spend their resources, Rumbaugh said.
Michael O’Hanlon, director of research and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said as far as the Ground Combat Vehicle, it is not expensive to start a modest research and development program, but in his mind, a full-blown program is an unnecessary expense.
“To me this is a program that should not be reincarnated. … We already bought the Strykers. We already bought the MRAPs. We already upgraded the Bradleys and Abrams. The limits on technological breakthrough are stark enough. It’s not really worth rushing it,” he said.
Modernization and innovation accounts have indeed enjoyed a “very healthy decade of progress.” But recapitalization funds for resetting worn out equipment have been less robust, he said.
The new capabilities that have been added over the past decade have gone to top of the line equipment, and they are not evenly distributed among the forces. In car terms, O’Hanlon said, the Ferraris and Porsches are looking pretty good, but there are a lot of Chevys people are counting on to get them around safely that aren’t in good shape.
Retired Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen A. Cheney, now executive director of the American Security Project, said neither of the services have a big acquisition program in hand to replace the majority of their ground equipment. Yes, they received a lot of new, nice equipment during the past decade. But they got used, he noted.
“As almost any soldier and Marine will tell you, they have been driving these trucks and Humvees into the ground, so I think there is a huge concern about recapitalization,” Cheney said.
When compared to jet fighters, ships, submarines and the like, “it’s not a large amount of money to invest in the next generation rifle or ground combat vehicle,” he added.
Lewis said ground forces are entering a cycle that has played itself out over and over again since World War II. Troop drawdowns similar to the ones being proposed, along with equipment shortfalls, can cost lives when the next conflict comes along.
The recently released second edition of his book, The American Culture of War: A History of American Military Force from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom, recounts how these booms and busts have resulted in failures.
This is why American troops at the outset of the Iraq invasion in 2003 were using equipment bought at RadioShack and didn’t have proper body armor. That’s why only five years after World War II, troops didn’t have the bazookas they needed to defeat Soviet-made T-34 tanks in Korea, Lewis said.
“We do the same thing again and again,” he added.
“Yes, we have a lot of new stuff. But is it what you need?” The mine resistant-ambush protected vehicles sped into the field to counter roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan is one example. Will they be useful in a conflict on the Korean Peninsula?
“Probably not,” Lewis said.