Debate Over Army’s Future Vehicle Raises Question: Why Heavy Armor?
Army officials and manufacturers of combat vehicles have shifted into damage-control mode as the service’s flagship armor-modernization program comes under attack on multiple fronts.
The ground combat vehicle, or GCV, is intended to replace the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are increasingly doubting the Army’s buying strategy for the GCV. Budget analysts have challenged the Army’s decision to pursue a new GCV design instead of opting for existing, less costly, alternatives. And military experts are raising more fundamental questions about the GCV’s raison d’être. They wonder why the Army is spending billions of dollars on heavy armor for an era that presumably will be dominated by cyberwarfare, surgical-strikes and low-intensity conflicts.
A Congressional Research Service report published this month warns that Congress should consider the “role and need for the GCV in a downsized Army that will likely have fewer armored brigade combat teams.” The administration’s strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region, the report says, “presents questions as to the necessity for armored brigades and, by association, the GCV.”
The estimated $29 billion GCV program illustrates the dilemma that confronts the U.S. military as it contemplates how it should equip its forces to fight future enemies, says Frank Capuccio, an industry consultant and a former executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Corp.
The Army wants to end production of Abrams and Bradley, but it is about to start a program that seeks basically improved versions of 70-ton vehicles. “Where is the GCV going? Where are you going to put this tank?” Capuccio asks. When one looks at the areas of the world where the U.S. military is fighting, and likely to fight in the foreseeable future, it is hard to see how heavy armor fits in the picture, he says. “Roads can’t handle the weight of the tanks,” says Capuccio. The Air Force’s cargo planes that must transport these vehicles to combat zones have limited capacity, he adds. Moving 70-ton vehicles by ship takes weeks. “Will enemies stand down for six months until we get our equipment there? I don’t think that is going to happen,” he says. “People don’t ask those questions because they do not like the answers.
The GCV is an example of the military’s proclivity to buy an incrementally better version of what it already has because Army leaders are afraid that, if they don’t start a program now, they are not going to have another chance to buy something, says Capuccio. “The services don’t know how to handle this.”
The Army in the 1990s decided it would replace its heavy vehicles with a much lighter “future combat system.” It sought a 20-ton vehicle that would become the centerpiece of the Army’s transformation to a more agile and quicker-to-the-fight force. The FCS was derailed by its rising price tag — former Defense Secretary Robert Gates terminated it in 2009 — and by the realities of the wars of the past decade, when Army thin-skinned vehicles became easy targets of enemy bombs.
A 20-ton vehicle cannot protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices, rockets and low-cost missiles. Even Bradleys had to be retrofitted with additional protection.The GCV, which is being designed to be heavily armored and will weigh at least 70 tons, is the descendent of the FCS.
Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer and president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has suggested the Army end the GCV program and, instead, invest in next-generation technology. Some armored forces are needed — although much less than the Army’s goal of 25 heavy combat brigades — as an insurance policy, Krepinevich writes in a CSBA study. But he argues that spending tens of billions of dollars on a new heavy vehicle is hard to justify. It is not clear that GCV gives the military anything but a “marginal improvement in capability,” he says during a conference call hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. “And why you would spend all that money to get a marginal improvement when there's really nobody racing against you in this area is a bit beyond me,” Krepinevich says. GCV is the “sort of program that bears greater scrutiny.”
Capuccio predicts the Army will stand by GCV, even if the rationale for the vehicle is questionable, because it needs its suppliers to stay in business. “They keep building the same stuff to keep the industrial base alive,” he says, but that approach is short-sighted because it does not necessarily lead to innovation. “If you are going to keep the industrial base, it doesn’t mean keep the old industrial base,” Capuccio says. “Keeping the industrial base is not about factories; it’s the intellectual power.”
Today, industrial base means jobs in a congressional district. Which explains the forceful backlash against a Congressional Budget Office study last month that recommended the Army should consider existing foreign designs — such as Israel’s Namer or Germany’s Puma — as alternatives to starting a new vehicle from scratch. It also suggested an upgraded Bradley would perform most of the functions that a new GCV would.
Army leaders and GCV contractors have been pushing back. Secretary John M. McHugh says the CBO analysis was based on outdated data and did not reflect recent changes to the design specifications.
An industry consultant who asked to not be quoted by name because his clients work on GCV, says the CBO report was highly damaging to the program even though it is unthinkable that the Army would ever buy a foreign vehicle. The Army’s key objection to other designs is that they would not accommodate a nine-soldier squad — a non-negotiable requirement.But even if foreign vehicles met every single Army specification, Congress would never allow the Pentagon to buy them at the expense of domestic suppliers.
Two companies, General Dynamics and BAE Systems, have been working on GCV concepts for about 18 months under $400 million contracts. The Army recently extended the agreements by six months and awarded an additional $180 million and $160 million to each company, respectively.
Robert V. Sorge, senior director of the GCV infantry fighting vehicle at General Dynamics Land Systems, says the Army needs a GCV to stay relevant in future wars. “Airlift is not a new problem,” he says in an interview. As far as mobility in combat zones, he notes that tanks do not need roads. For the Army, the important thing is to keep the squad together as a unit, which is why it is not willing to compromise on the requirement that the vehicle accommodate nine soldiers.
Sorge, who worked on the FCS program since its early days, agrees that 20-ton vehicles are “not reality.” The Bradley in Iraq was “not very survivable,” he says. The Army added reactive armor tiles and belly protection, and casualties went down significantly. “But they stopped using the Bradley outside the compounds,” he says.
The Army has set realistic goals for GCV to avoid the mistakes of FCS, says Mark Signorelli, vice president and general manager of vehicle systems at BAE Systems Land and Armaments.
Both companies anticipate a design review of their GCV proposals in October. The Army had initially planned to select a design in December, but delayed the decision until June 2014.
An influential lawmaker whose district includes General Dynamics’ Abrams plant, has challenged the Army’s decision to choose only one GCV design. He contends that eliminating either General Dynamics or BAE Systems could cripple the industrial base. The Army says it plans to select one design, but will later reopen the competition for production orders to any qualified bidder.
“We need to ensure that the Army has enough knowledge before they down-select to one contractor in order to minimize the cost schedule and performance risk to the government and the taxpayer,” Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, says during a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces subcommittee, which he chairs.
Turner has chastised Army leaders not only for the GCV procurement strategy but also for not seeking funds for continued production of Abrams and Bradley vehicles. Army assertions that foreign sales can keep the tank production line in Lima, Ohio, alive until 2018 are not credible, Turner says. “I hope that you work with Congress to sustain this unique and critical capability.”
Turner also has chided Army officials for seeking to suspend Bradley production at the BAE facility in York, Penn. “I'm very concerned that the assumption that these facilities can remain viable, specifically of course relying on the foreign military sales, is such that may need congressional action,” says Turner. “In the last two years, Congress has put funding back in because of a lack of belief that foreign military sales alone are sufficient, or that these facilities can be turned on and off like a light switch. … We don't see in your budget any alternative plan. How is it that you think that the industrial base will be able to operate just on foreign military sales?”
Lt. Gen. William Phillips, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, informs Turner that budget constraints have forced the service to make tough decisions. The Army actually has more Abrams tanks than it needs, Phillips says. There are 67 tanks being built through December 2014. Congress added $181 million that would fund another 20 to 24 tanks. Up to 466 vehicles could be sold to foreign countries after 2016.
The Army requested $178 million for Abrams and $158 for Bradley in 2014. But the funds are sought for upgrades, not for production of new vehicles. Both General Dynamics and BAE Systems have launched lobbying efforts in hopes that Congress will boost funding.With thousands of jobs on the line, their case is receiving attention on Capitol Hill. “One of the things that we're going to be looking to is a greater understanding from the Defense Department as to its responsibility to manage its acquisitions so we don't have these spikes and peaks, putting these facilities at risk,” says Turner.
The Army, meanwhile, also has mounted a public-relations campaign to counter critics who question the role of heavy armor in future wars. One of the nation’s most recognized ground warfare analysts, David E. Johnson, was hired last year by Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno as a special adviser.
"With deep budget cuts imminent, the U.S. Army has been under pressure to demonstrate a valid need for heavy brigade combat teams in the future security environment … an environment in which many believe that such teams will be largely irrelevant,” Johnson writes in a RAND Corp. study.
“These perceptions and pressures have made heavy brigade combat teams an increasingly attractive target for cost cutters,” he cautions.
In the RAND study, Johnson contends that heavy forces are a “crucial U.S. hedge against what is likely to be a very complex and lethal future security environment.” Heavy forces, Johnson says, will be needed to combat “hybrid” adversaries that are likely to engage in both low-tech guerilla warfare but also will have precision-guided weapons that would defeat light-skinned vehicles.
Photo Credit: Defense Dept.