Army Begins Massive Makeover of Combat Vehicle Fleet
The Army has suspended purchases of new combat vehicles for the time being, but it is ploughing ahead with plans to gut aging tanks and equip them with fresh components and electronics, including a new powerful targeting sensor.
More than 1,600 Abrams tanks and 2,500 Bradley infantry combat vehicles would be overhauled over the next decade.
It will be a complex and demanding project, military and industry officials said. The Army is highly skilled at refurbishing older fleets, but this new effort could be the hardest one yet. It will test the Army’s engineering mettle at integrating state-of-the-art electronics into vehicles that were designed for the analog world.
The work will be done in stages. Each phase, called an “engineering change proposal,” or ECP, will tackle different parts of the vehicle that need to be modernized, including engines, transmissions, electrical power systems, communications networks, sensors and weapons.
This month, the Army expects to unveil the first Bradleys with updated suspensions and tracks. “It will bring the vehicle back to where it was before the war,” said Col. James W. Schirmer, Army program manager for armored fighting vehicles. The next ECP will deal with engines and transmissions, and will increase electrical power. Then comes the more challenging upgrade, called “lethality ECP,” when the Army will seek to install a new targeting sensor, known as third-generation forward-looking infrared, or 3rd gen FLIR. “This is the cornerstone of that ECP,” Schirmer said last month during a Defense News web forum. “We have to crack open the fire control electronics and do a lot of work to integrate that sight.”
The Army expects to release this month a solicitation for industry bids for the new sensor. FLIR technology detects heat and creates images from it, allowing operators to see through darkness, smoke, rain, snow and fog. Army leaders have touted the 3rd gen FLIR, which would replace current 2nd gen systems, as a killer app that will give commanders an unprecedented, sharper view of the battlefield. Tanks will get sensors for the gunner's primary sight and the commander's independent thermal viewer.
“It will allow us to see farther and with more clarity by incorporating higher definition and dual band technology,” said Lt. Col. Shane Sullivan, Army product manager for ground sensors.
Current ground platforms use a single-band FLIR that was designed in the 1990s, Sullivan said in an interview. “But with advances in technology we were able to incorporate an additional waveband — another band of the non-visible IR spectrum — to get more clarity. This allows the soldier not only to see through the dirty battlefield but also see more clearly.”
The sensor upgrade could be among the most significant technology enhancements as the Army prepares to fight in complex battlefields where targets are hard to identify. FLIR technology has evolved to the point where users can not only identify targets, but also discern their intent.
“If you can see farther, and you can see that it’s not a kid walking with a stick but an enemy combatant with an RPG, that’s important to the commander. And the fact that you can do it at greater distances is huge,” Sullivan said.
The new FLIR will be a “horizontal technology integration,” meaning that Sullivan’s office will develop a set of common components that will fit in different sights. There are two sights on the Abrams and two on the Bradley. The 3rd gen FLIR components will be common across the four sights. “This reduces the logistics tail,” said Sullivan.
One of the constraints is that the new sensor has to work within the same space, weight, power and cooling as the existing FLIR. “It’s a design across four separate sights,” he said. “So each time they tweak the design for one they have to verify that it works across the others.”
The Army soon will request industry bids and expects to award a 3rd gen FLIR development contract during fiscal year 2016. Production would begin in 2023.
The FLIR program is a significant opportunity for defense contractors. Industry sources estimate it could be worth more than $2 billion if all Abrams and Bradleys in the current plan are upgraded.
Vendors said 3rd gen FLIR technology is relatively mature and should not pose difficulties for the Army. “It is ready for engineering and manufacturing development,” said Clay Towery, business development manager at Raytheon. The company teamed with DRS Technologies for the new FLIR program. Both firms have spent their own funds on prototypes in preparation for the upcoming competition.
“We prototyped virtually every vehicle sensor with this technology,” Towery told National Defense. ‘We believe the risk is relatively low.”
Schirmer said the Army is not taking any chances with gee-whiz technology. “We need industry to bring us mature technology,” he said. The Army has been battered by acquisition failures, some of which were cause by “overreaching for technologies that did not exist,” he added. “We need to get capabilities that are mature and ready to be integrated into vehicles.”
Upgrading electronics onboard vehicles is a hard job, he noted. “Technology evolves much faster than automotive components. We face obsolescence problems with electronic components in vehicles we just finished designing.”
In addition to the Abrams and the Bradley, the Army is looking to upgrade its Stryker light armored vehicles and Paladin howitzers. It remains to be seen if there will be enough money to refurbish every vehicle, he said. “As we feel budget pressure, the Army tends to reduce the quantity of buys each year. That stretches out programs. And we have large numbers of older platforms.”
Abrams Upgrade Plan
Engineering Change Proposal 1a
ECP-1a will address the system architecture (power and data management systems) to support inbound technology, specifically the Army's network requirements. It is scheduled to begin production in fiscal year 2017.
Improvements include network compatibility, mass memory upgrade, power generation and distribution. Upgrades to the tank's electronic architecture and power distribution system enable integration of the Army's future battle command and communication systems. Protection improvements include armor upgrade and integration of counter radio-controlled IED electronic jammers. A new auxiliary power unit and advanced on-board diagnostics will improve sustainability by reducing the fuel usage and the cost of spare parts.
Engineering Change Proposal 1b
ECP 1b is scheduled to begin development in fiscal year 2016 and enter production in 2024. This upgrade will improve the tank's lethality through enhancements in sights and sensors that are centered on the integration of the next generation of forward looking infrared (FLIR) technology, a color camera and a laser range finder.
Bradley Upgrade Plan
Engineering Change Proposal 1
ECP 1 focuses on mobility and survivability, increases movement and restores lost ground clearance. A production contract award was made in 2014 and fielding will begin in the third quarter of fiscal year 2015.
Engineering Change Proposal 2
ECP 2 addresses embedded digital systems. A later effort will focus on integration of technologies currently in development: Mounted Family of Computing Systems, Net-Ready, Integrate Counter
Remote-Controlled Improvised Explosive Device Electronic Warfare (CREW) Duke v3 and Vehicle Health Management System. ECP 2 consists of a power pack upgrade to enable enough power to run the current approved counter IED and mission command components. ECP 2 production award is scheduled for fiscal year 2017 with fielding beginning in 2018.
Engineering Change Proposal 2b
ECP 2B is about lethality, and parallels the Abrams ECP1b program. They are being developed together to take advantage of as much commonality as possible. The Bradley ECP2b program includes the Improved Bradley Acquisition System and the Commander Independent Viewer with 3Gen FLIR, a color camera and a laser pointer that works at standoff distance.