On Future Combat Vehicles, Army Takes Pragmatic Approach
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, USA
The Army for decades has been chasing the holy grail of land warfare: A combat vehicle that is light enough to travel by air but also has sturdy armor shielding to protect occupants against bomb blasts, and big enough guns to blow out the enemy.
The Army has poured billions of dollars into this pursuit over the past 15 years, and has failed every time. The latest effort, known as the infantry fighting vehicle, was terminated in 2014.
The lesson for the Army: It needs to set realistic goals and get on with modernizing the armor fleet before current vehicles become hopelessly outdated, said Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster Jr., deputy commanding general of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command for futures and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
“We are downscaling expectations, based on what we know industry can deliver,” McMaster said Feb. 19 during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.
The plan is to start updating existing vehicles and gradually progress to a new design as technology and budgets permit, McMaster said. “We are working on a combat vehicle modernization strategy,” he added. The document is still under review. One of its tenets is that the Army can no longer afford to design armored vehicles in isolation from broader tactical and operational realities, said McMaster. “The U.S. Army is not a boutique force,” he added. “We want every formation in the Army to posses the appropriate combination of protection, mobility and lethality.”
The new modernization strategy makes it a priority to sustain the fleets that are now in service. It also states that every brigade in the Army — light infantry, Stryker and heavy armor — needs some type of combat vehicle support. “We can combine formations based on the threat,” McMaster said. “We want more firepower for all formations.”
Vehicle upgrades, which the Army calls “engineering change proposals,” will include major overhauls and replacement of key components like engines, weapons and sensors. The Stryker armored personnel carrier, for instance, could be equipped with a powerful cannon. The Abrams tank would receive new sensors and electronics.
In the wake of the termination last year of the infantry fighting vehicle — a program intended to build a replacement for the Bradley — the Army has gone back to the drawing board. The designs that had been proposed by General Dynamics Land Systems and BAE Systems were technologically advanced but, at more than 70 tons, were too heavy and a huge logistics burden.
“We need a future fighting vehicle,” said McMaster. “The Bradley will be obsolete before we have a future fighting vehicle based on the long development cycle.”
The Army has requested $49 million in its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal to begin research work on a future fighting vehicle. It is also seeking $367 million in 2016 for main battle tank upgrades.
Combat vehicles, McMaster said, are “immensely important unless you are building a force to reenact World War I. They are part of our nation's asymmetrical advantage over enemies.”
As it prepares to roll out yet another modernization strategy, the Army wants to avoid repeating past missteps. “We have to inform the requirements based on a realistic understanding of what technologies are maturing,” said McMaster. The armor industry is offering new alloys that weigh less than traditional materials, for example. Other techniques for making vehicles lighter are to make them smaller and equip them with less bulky, more efficient engines. “There are all sorts of things you can do,” he said. The IFV required enough space to carry an Army squad. A future vehicle may only need to carry a fire team.
Also part of the combat vehicle strategy is to replace aging M113 personnel carriers with a new “armored multipurpose vehicle.” The current fleet is too old and unsafe, said McMaster. “It's a danger to our soldiers. We want to accelerate the armored multipurpose vehicle.”
The combat vehicle modernization plan bears the McMaster imprint of “collaborative requirements.” He has been hugely critical of the Army’s traditional hierarchical method for developing and producing weapon systems. The draft combat vehicles strategy has a section called "combat vehicle riddle,” he said. “It's about the thought process so we design vehicles to give us overmatch,” he said. “There will be tradeoffs. To say there will not be tradeoffs between protection, mobility and lethality is just not true.” Ground vehicle programs also have to be viewed through the prism of aviation and dismounted forces, he noted. “We want to make sure the infantry squad has firefight ending capability.”
The all-important “requirements documents” typically have been drafted by the Training and Doctrine Command in bureaucratic silos that McMaster characterized as “cylinders of excellence.” He wants to shift to a more inclusive process that involves TRADOC but also operational forces, technologists, logisticians and procurement officials. This approach was used in a new program called “mobile protected firepower,” an armored vehicle for infantry forces that come in close contact with enemy. “It’s collaborative from the beginning. … They have to stay together across the acquisition process.”