Vehicles Strut Their Stuff in Desert Trials

By Dan Parsons
For several weeks, soldiers have been trundling around the New Mexico desert at White Sands Missile Range in a variety of armored vehicles — both foreign and domestic. They’ve been taking notes on what capabilities the Army should seek in its new infantry fighting vehicle.

The evaluation of non-developmental vehicles is part of a larger analysis of alternatives mandated by the Defense Department to ferret out available commercial technologies that might fit the bill for variants of the Ground Combat Vehicle. With this round of vehicle testing, Army leaders are taking the novel approach of teaming with the Network Integration Evaluation process — an effort to test and field new secure battlefield communication systems.

Non-network program managers have taken notice and less than a year after it was created, the NIE has become a case of “if you build it, they will come,” with vehicle manufacturers lining up to have their designs tested. Aircraft and weapons could be next, Army officials said.

With an entire brigade out testing radios and other equipment, Army ground system program managers saw a cost-effective way to gain real-world feedback from the personnel who will eventually drive and ride in the infantry fighting vehicle, one variant of a wider program called the Ground Combat Vehicle.

Scott Davis, program executive officer for Army ground combat systems, ventured to say the ultimate decision could be to buy an existing vehicle, though other officials from both the Army and industry sides say that is unlikely without significant modifications.

“The point is to take a look at different components of these vehicles and systems and ask how they can inform the analysis of alternatives,” said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army program executive office for integration. “You’ve got a full brigade, an operational construct and a system of data collection. The Army asked vehicle program managers, ‘Can we get more out of this?’”

The Ground Combat Vehicle is the Army’s program to replace armored vehicles attached to its brigade combat teams. Plans are to begin fielding a platform by 2017 that can carry at least nine soldiers, plus crew in improvised explosive device threat environments. The Army wants eventually to purchase about 1,800 of them in several variants.

The IFV model will eventually replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley, as a fleet, is in fairly good shape, said Davis. All of the Bradleys the Army owns have been fully reset within the past three years. There are about 6,500 in the Army’s inventory.

The Army is simultaneously advancing on three fronts to address reset and replacement needs within its armored vehicle fleet. Development of a new GCV will “replace fundamental capabilities and take a leap ahead,” Davis said.

Another program, the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle, or AMPV, is slated to replace the M113 family of armored personnel carriers of which the Army has about 6,000. Contracts will go out to replace the 3,000 currently attached to heavy brigade combat teams in the current fiscal year.

Next, Army leaders are looking to improve engineering for old and new vehicles alike to regain space, weight and power lost over a decade of combat, especially as those improvements enable integration of its new combat network.

“What we’re doing is trying to buy back the margin we had before the war,” Davis said.

On the GCV front, the Army has launched the assessment of non-developmental vehicles — existing platforms from the United States and various allied nations — to determine specific attributes and capabilities it would like to include in the design of its new infantry vehicle.

The vehicles, most of which are being evaluated at White Sands Missile Range as part of NIE12.2, include the Israeli Namer, the Swedish CV-90, the Stryker Double-V hull, and a turretless Bradley.

“We’re doing both selected technical and user assessments of a subset of vehicles that are in existence today as well as some vehicles that will be a permutation of those platforms,” Col. Andrew DiMarco, Ground Combat Vehicle program manager, said at the Association of the United States Army’s winter symposium in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in February. “We’re continuing technical assessments both live and virtual to feed into our system books and other documents to inform the analysis of alternatives.”

DiMarco and his staff are “leveraging the infrastructure” of the NIE, which will give them access to a brigade of about 3,000 soldiers who will drive, test and evaluate each vehicle from May through June.

Other vehicles, like the German Puma and French armored personnel carrier, called the VBCI made by Nexter, will also be evaluated but not physically at White Sands.

The Army was unable to bring those vehicles for testing during the NIE, DiMarco said.

The Army met directly with the German government concerning the Puma. Its manufacturer, Munich, Germany-based Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, was left out of the loop when U.S. troops test drove the Puma. U.S. vehicle manufacturers have been involved in the NIE trials from the start, providing field technicians and technical support for their offerings. Krauss-Maffei officials want to get in on the action.

“The Army has chosen to deal directly with the German government, though we don’t know why,” Jack Richardson, director of U.S. programs for Krauss-Maffei, told National Defense. “So far industry has not been involved, though we certainly hope to be able to sit down with the Army to discuss the Puma.”

DiMarco said it is unlikely that any one of the vehicles being evaluated will fulfill the GCV requirements on its own, but he left the possibility on the table.

“Given a full and open competition, if the requirements set was opened up enough to allow an existing vehicle to enter into the fray, that certainly is a potential scenario,” DiMarco said when asked if the Army could wind up buying an existing vehicle to satisfy its GCV needs. “I don’t know that an existing vehicle, without some level of modification will fit the bill. At the very least it would need to be retrofitted with certain parts and equipment to be interoperable with the Army’s existing fleet.”

Each of the vehicles being evaluated has strengths and weaknesses and will be measured against the Army’s current requirements for an infantry fighting vehicle — primarily that it carry a squad of nine and be highly resistant to roadside bombs. To meet those and speed specifications, Army officials have accepted that the vehicle could weigh as much as 60 tons, just shy of an Abrams main battle tank.   

The Namer is designed to be highly survivable. Stryker, while a wheeled vehicle among heavier tracked ones, is specially shielded against improvised explosive devices. Some have more powerful engines. Others carry more troops but sacrifice speed for improved armor.

Each will be checked out in several critical areas — survivability, capacity, modularity, lethality, interior space, operational capability and how they interact with the Army’s new communication network, Mehney said.

“This is not a formal test,” Mehney said. “This is not an evaluation with the intention of purchasing one or the other of these vehicles. The program office itself is doing the operational assessment and collecting data that will inform the [analysis of alternatives].”

The Bradley M2-A3, retrofitted with armor and other after-market technologies that have been added over a decade, will serve as the control for baseline capabilities, said Roy Perkins, director of business development for its builder BAE Systems. The 1st Armored Division is providing those Bradleys, several thousand of which are already in the Army’s inventory.

The Army pays shipping and operational costs, while vehicle manufacturers are responsible for preparing the vehicles for testing and providing field technicians.

“We fully don’t expect that the Army will buy a vehicle off the bat like that,” Perkins said. “But the process could potentially change the requirements for GCV to include aspects of a candidate vehicle that the Army would like to have in the GCV.”

When the Army eventually releases an updated request for proposals for the vehicle, it could cherry pick capabilities and systems and fold them back into the requirements list.

Perkins gave the example of a protective coating that BAE’s Swedish division developed for the CV-90. He said the rubber-like coating has proven effective against fragmentation weapons and bomblets.

“That could be something they want to see in a new vehicle,” he said.

When the tests are completed in June each company will receive a detailed analysis of how its design performed in field trials. Later in the process, participating manufacturers will be told how information gathered at the trials has influenced program requirements and development. The Army will not share performance information with competing manufacturers.

That information, Perkins said, will be valuable as participating contractors tweak their offerings for the Ground Combat Vehicle. That program was held up until December by an industry protest launched by SAIC, which partnered with Boeing, KMW and another German company, Rheinmetall Defence. Their design, based on the Puma, lost a competitive bid for nearly $900 million in development contracts that were awarded to BAE and General Dynamics Land Systems.

General Dynamics, which builds the Double-V hull Stryker and has a contract with the Israeli government to build Namers, did not respond to an interview request.

On Dec. 5, the protest ended and development work by both General Dynamics and BAE began anew.

“Both companies, in my view, have completed the systems requirements reviews very successfully,” DiMarco said.

The industry protest delayed the seven-year goal to bring the GCV from drawing board to program of record, DiMarco said. But a reenergized initiative from both the military and participating contractors has put the program back on track to make it to the field sometime in 2017, he said.

Perkins expects the competition to be reopened once the analysis of alternatives and resultant request for proposals are released, which could happen later this year.

Marrying vehicle development with the NIE, which will put soldiers in the driver’s seat much earlier in the process, has been favorable to industry, Perkins said.

“In my personal opinion, it has been a good process because it allows us to see what works and what doesn’t work early,” he said. “When we move to the next phase, we can adjust our offering based on the things we and the Army have learned through these evaluations.”

Expanding the NIE to include vehicles is likely a harbinger of things to come, said Mehney. Within the next few years, as the integration program gains speed and becomes a regular, cyclical event, everything from unmanned systems to weapons could be field tested at White Sands, he said.

“What you’ll start seeing is an expanded NIE resulting in non-network programs of record,” Mehney said. “We’ll be utilizing the venue and mechanisms already in place to allow an operational assessment of various new technologies. I think we’ll start to see a focus on operational energy initiatives and increased participation from aviation program offices.”

Recognizing that future conflicts, as those of the past decade, will be fought in concert with allies, international partner nations will increasingly be involved in future NIE events, he said. The first 2013 event, called NIE 13.1, will be the first in which coalition partners will be directly involved in the evaluation process.

“It will help us to ensure that systems are compatible not only between services but between different militaries we work with,” Mehney said.                                         

Topics: Procurement, Land Forces

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