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Glimmers of Son of FCS

UPDATED: Testifying before the SASC AirLand Subcomittee Tuesday, Vice Chief Gen. Peter Chiarelli said it is "entirely possible" that the new combat vehicle program will be a family of vehicles, like the original FCS vehicle program, although he did not say how many or what type. He also said that while strategic transportability might be an important design feature for planners, for troops in the field, vehicle survivability is most important.

What has the Army learned in the past seven years of war? Chiefly, that it is fighting a “competitive learning battle” against a collection of very adaptive enemies who fight by rules of their own making while mixed amongst the local population. In such wars, the side that adapts more rapidly typically wins, according to an Army white paper summarizing lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lessons were compiled by Task Force 120, part of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, charged with developing requirements for the service’s new ground combat vehicle. Yesterday, the Army hosted a “Blue Ribbon Panel Workshop” to solicit ideas for the new vehicle from over 100 experts drawn from academia, think tanks and active and retired military. Input from the panel members, all of whom signed non-disclosure agreements, will be given to Task Force 120 “for consideration,” according to Brig. Gen. Michael Harrison, from the Army’s G8 shop.

The lessons listed in the white paper are highly specific to counterinsurgency operations, as would be expected when compiling lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. But are they the correct lessons that should determine requirements for what Harrison said would be the Army’s “premier fighting platform in the 21st century”? If the future operating environment is populated by “hybrid threats,” adaptive adversaries armed with advanced anti-armor weapons, as the Army’s own analysis of that future operating environment confirms, then perhaps not.

The paper’s recommended changes deal mostly with training and organization and are familiar to anybody who has closely followed the Army’s struggle to adapt to fighting shadowy guerrillas instead of massed armored formations. Those lessons that speak to future combat vehicle development are, again, very counterinsurgency specific, and deal almost exclusively with countering IEDs. For example, it says vehicle survivability must be increased to “allow protected mobility along predicted routes.” Also, in the spirit of adaptive warfare, it proposes an “incremental approach” to vehicle development to allow adding digital networking and new technologies such as advanced armor as they become available.

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the FCS ground vehicles, he said the main reason he did so was because he didn’t believe their design adequately captured lessons from the IED fight in Iraq; the flat bottomed hull design was too vulnerable to mine blasts. If the Army designs its future fighting vehicle specifically to counter IEDs, it may not be well suited to survive on a battlefield swarming with hunter-killer teams armed with heavy anti-tank missiles staking out predicted routes, like the Israelis faced in south Lebanon in 2006 and the Russians faced in Grozny in 1994-1995.

The challenge confronting the Army as it designs its next generation combat vehicle is to avoid over-optimizing for a single threat environment. As noted analyst Frank Hoffman points out in the forthcoming July issue of Armed Forces Journal, specializing ground forces for either low or high intensity combat in the face of profoundly asymmetric hybrid threats would create serious risks.

Other lessons learned from the Army’s white paper include the need to combine armored formations with dismounted infantry in urban areas for mutual protection; improved command and control networking to allow for better air-ground integration, and the need for responsive, persistent and precise fire support to counter fleeting targets and reduce collateral damage. “Irregular operations and hybrid threats pose major challenges to technologically advanced militaries,” the paper says. “Clear objectives, networked forces, responsive intelligence and trained and rehearsed units” along with skilled leaders, are essential to countering those threats in urban environments.

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