Don’t Rush to Buy New Vehicles, Army and Marine Corps Are Warned
The traditional approach to updating U.S. military hardware — spending years and billions of dollars on next-generation designs — is no longer working for the Army and the Marine Corps as they seek replacements for their combat vehicles.
A new study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “The Road Ahead: Future Challenges and Their Implications for Ground Vehicle Modernization,” warns the Army to avoid the pitfalls of past high-tech weapon programs such as the Future Combat Systems. It also suggests that in the face of shrinking budgets, it might make more sense for the military to invest in science and research, rather than rush to procure vehicles that may not deliver a significant leap in technology.
Despite recent cutbacks in Pentagon spending, the Army and Marine Corps still have considerable funding for new vehicles — the budget request for 2013 includes nearly $2 billion. CSBA analysts contend that deferring new vehicle development and procurement might be a smart move. They posit that sinking too much money into a program today could be too risky considering the Army’s track record of making the wrong technological bets.
One reason for the military to hold off on buying new vehicles is that there are no technological silver bullets to make military trucks, tanks and personnel carriers less vulnerable to enemy weapons, the study says. Adversaries can acquire and deploy antitank weapons and roadside bombs much faster and at far less cost than the U.S. military can build countermeasures and survivable vehicles, CSBA President Andrew Krepinevich says at a news conference. In the wars of the past decade, he notes, the United States spent at least $64 billion on armored trucks and bomb-detection equipment and still U.S. and allied troops have suffered more than 7,000 fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, most as a result of roadside bombs and small-arms attacks.
It’s not clear that the Army or the Marine Corps can “get out of this box,” Krepinevich says. Outspending the enemy in this case is a losing battle. “You don’t want to play that game in an age of austerity,” he adds.
“Adversaries’ use of guided weapons, relatively cheap and rapidly fielded anti-armor weapons … threatens to increase significantly the costs incurred by U.S. ground troops in accomplishing their assigned missions,” the study says. The services might be better off fixing current vehicles and keeping them until better technologies come along or until they have a clearer sense of what the future battlefield might look like, the report recommends.
The Army and Marine Corps should pursue “recapitalization and off-the-shelf solutions whenever possible, upgrading existing systems, and undertaking ambitious developmental efforts only when there is a high assurance that the new system will provide a discontinuous boost to ground forces’ combat effectiveness,” the study says.
U.S. military vehicles, most of which were designed in the 1960s and 1970s, and built in the 1980s, have been workhorses and continue to prove their mettle, Krepinevich says. “They tend to last 20 to 30 years.”
Also, the past 10 years of runaway military spending have eroded the military’s fiscal discipline, and until the scope of future budget cuts is settled, the services should weigh their options carefully, the study suggests.
The Army’s procurement bureaucracy is still reeling from the failure of its $200 Future Combat Systems. Although the follow-on program, the Ground Combat Vehicle, is far more modest, it is not clear that it could offer a substantial technological boost compared to existing vehicles that can be purchased on the global market. The Army has budgeted $6 billion for the development of GCV over the next five years. The first phase of the program seeks a new infantry vehicle to replace the Bradley, which Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno has repeatedly bashed for being too vulnerable to bomb blasts.
The study’s co-author Eric Lindsay, says that even though foreign vehicles could meet many of the U.S. military’s requirements, he does not foresee the Army buying a non-U.S. vehicle, as it would be a major blow to U.S. manufacturers.
Krepinevich says he worries that Army buyers might still be somewhat deluded by the thinking that doomed the Future Combat Systems. At the time, FCS officials touted the program for its advanced information network, which would give commanders an instant view of the battlefield and allow them to see the enemy without being detected.
After the termination of FCS, the Army continued the push for an advanced communications network, which is now billed as the services number-one modernization priority. The problem, Krepinevich says, is that the Army still assumes it can deploy a network at will. “The assumption is that we are operating in a permissive environment … that once we set up the network, nobody is going to tear it down,” he says.
This is yet another consequence of the past decade of war, he says. Krepinevich cites U.S. Central Command chief Gen. James Mattis, who has warned that recent conflicts against technologically inferior foes has made U.S. forces “militarily lazy.” Future enemies might pose bigger challenges, he says, both by kinetic and non-kinetic means.
In the face of such uncertainty, the study says, “It makes little sense to spend time determining what capabilities will be needed for an unseen and unknowable future.” Ground warfare planners should set realistic expectations, instead of attempting to incorporate thinking about the more distant future, the study says. “These arguments often highlight the failure of the Army’s Future Combat Systems program as a cautionary tale of what can happen when visions of the future play too large a role in vehicle procurement decisions.”
The downfall of FCS “was not that its proponents had spent too much time thinking about the future, but rather that they had spent too little time thinking about how the future could deviate from their anticipated course of events. … Army planners fell into the trap of placing heavy emphasis on a single, relatively favorable vision of the future, while discounting other plausible futures.”