Army in No Rush to Buy New Combat Vehicles
When the Pentagon was flush with war funds a decade ago, buying new tanks and armored fighting vehicles was not a pressing priority. At the time, it was believed that tank warfare was a thing of the past, and even if the Army had wanted to buy new systems, procurement officials were disillusioned by the state of technology and gun shy to invest in new ventures after the colossal failure of the multibillion-dollar “future combat systems” program that was launched in 2002 and terminated in 2009.
In the newly released “U.S. Army Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy,” the Army lays out a 30-year plan to beef up its formations with new and improved vehicles. But officials are letting it be known that projects will be limited in scope and technological reach in the near term, while the more ambitious efforts are being pushed to 2030 and beyond.
Officials have made it clear that there is no money for whiz-bang programs.
“Years ago we were limited by technology. Now are limited by money,” Brig. Gen. David G. Bassett, Army program executive officer for ground combat systems, told reporters Oct. 13 at the
Association of the United States Army annual conference. “I see a lot of great technology and ideas but we are constrained by budget,” he added. At the projected production rates, it will take more than a decade to field any of the upgrades that are now under way for the Abrams tank, the Bradley fighting vehicle and other platforms.
“We are only going to [field] one brigade of vehicles every 18 months,” Bassett said.
According to the new strategy, “Resource availability cannot dictate the ends required for the Army, but it defines both the ways and the means to achieve those ends.”
An immediate priority is to install heavier weapons on the Stryker wheeled troop carriers for the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based in Germany by 2018. The Army has $411 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget to equip 81 Strykers with more lethal weaponry such as 30mm cannons and Javelin antitank missile launchers.
Col. Glenn Dean, program manager of the Stryker brigade combat team, said this is an “urgent requirement.” Responding to criticism of the $4.5 million per vehicle price tag, Dean said this was the result of buying in small numbers, and his office is studying options to lower the cost.
In the long term, the goal is to add more firepower to the remaining eight Stryker brigades in the Army by replacing .50 caliber machine guns with a 30mm gun, but the details of the modernization plan are still being hashed out. “Certainly a cannon solution will be part of that mix,” he said. “We are going to have to neck down solutions to something we can afford.”
The Army is expected over the coming decade to update a portion of its 1,600 Abrams tanks and 2,500 Bradley infantry combat vehicles. The Stryker upgrade, however, is receiving more attention as it is viewed as a litmus test for how the Army responds to emerging military threats like Russia.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has cautioned that the service should not rush to equip itself to fight any particular enemy because threats tend of be unpredictable. “Some suggest that perhaps we have lightened the Army too much over time. Others have suggested we’ve become a motorized wheeled vehicle army and lost our light capability. There are fair arguments on all sides,” Milley told the National Guard Association of the United States annual conference in September.
“I have asked for a study on what is the right balance,” he said. “We’re a global power. We have global interests. We don’t have the luxury of fighting a singular opponent,” Milley stated. “We don’t want to have an imbalanced Army.” With respect to Europe, “obviously it’s an increasingly tense situation” but the Army could be called to deploy anywhere, he added. “I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. I don’t know the exact mix of heavy and light forces. I intend to study that one hard,” Milley added. “We have to be able to respond in various parts of the world.”
Since taking over as chief of the Army, Milley has been reluctant to put out a wish list of top modernization priorities as previous chiefs have. He often mentions readiness as his number-one priority, before modernization.
Defense analysts have questioned Army leaders’ statements on equipment modernization as being a bit out of touch. “While the Army doesn’t have one, two, three iconic platform modernization programs, it is looking at very different threat environments that have arisen from Russia’s actions in 2014 and 2015, and capabilities its forces have demonstrated in Ukraine,” noted defense industry analyst Byron Callan, of Capital Alpha Partners. “This isn’t quite all back to the Cold War,” he wrote in a research note, but it does not appear that the Army is ready to rearrange its equipment priorities quite yet.
At the AUSA conference, “there was lot of emphasis on upgrades,” said Callan. “A lot of what was displayed centered on technology upgrades or augmentation.” General Dynamics Land Systems showcased an Abrams tank with upgraded armor, an auxiliary power unit and line replaceable units for vehicle electronics, as well as a Stryker armed with a laser that could shoot down enemy drones and rockets.
The takeaway from AUSA was that technology requirements are “still in flux,” Callan concluded.
Bassett commended his office’s accomplishments thus far in improving the Abrams, Bradley, Stryker and Paladin artillery vehicle fleets. The work is being done in stages known as “engineering change proposals” that tackle different parts of the vehicle that need to be modernized, including engines, transmissions, electrical power systems, communications networks, sensors and weapons.
Bassett also highlighted the upcoming procurement of a new armored multipurpose vehicle to replace Vietnam-era M113s. “We just completed a preliminary design review, getting a good understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the design.” BAE Systems is under contract to deliver prototypes in 2017.
The theme of the combat vehicle modernization strategy, Bassett said, is that the Army has “requirements for additional protection, mobility and firepower across all formations.”
Manufacturers are anticipating the start of a new program to build a light tank for infantry brigades. It is too early to say what specific features the Army will seek, Bassett said. “We are still trying to lay out some options for the leadership,” he said. “It’s still premature, we are still gathering facts, seeing what is in the marketplace.”
The Army is deliberately taking it slow in major weapon modernizations because it is trying to avoid the mistakes of the past, said Gen. David Perkins, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command. “Our combat vehicle modernization strategy is not a plan to buy things,” he told officers at the Maneuver Warfighter Conference in Fort Benning, Georgia. “We do not want technology for technology’s sake,” he said “It’s technology combined with soldiers in formation.
The strategy is to build capabilities not just buy things,” Perkins added. “When we come up with plans to buy things, we haven’t always done well at that.”
High on the list of needed capabilities is to boost the firepower of light forces and to deploy Strykers in Europe to “deter Russian adventurism,” Perkins said.
“In the last 15 years of war we have emphasized protection over mobility and lethality,” said Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. “What we’re trying to do is ensure that every formation in the Army has the appropriate combination of mobility, protection and lethality.” McMaster said the tendency a few years ago was to describe the future force as “lean and nimble” but that vision has been overtaken by events.