The veil will be partially lifted next week but almost nobody outside a small group in the Army knows what the service's new Ground Combat Vehicle will look like or what it will be expected to do.
Earlier this week at the Army's annual conference in Washington, Chief of Staff Gen. Gorge Casey said it's still too early in the process to know what it will look like, though he did leave people guessing if he was right about its weight being 25,000 pounds.
Since the Army isn't talking until next week's industry day, we spoke with an array of senior industry leaders at the Association of the US Army's annual show. They know there's a lot of money at stake. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed Future Combat Systems earlier this year, he said around $90 billion that would have gone to develop the FCS vehicles would be walled off and made available for the Army's follow on fighting vehicle effort.
(Even when the Army speaks next week there may not be much detail. No requirements document will be presented then. A draft requirements document is likely in early November.)
About all we know officially is that Gen. Casey told reporters two days ago that the first version of the vehicle "would probably" be "too heavy" and he acknowledged those who say the Army is risking much as it plans to deploy the first vehicles within five to seven years. But he answered those critics, saying "it just makes sense that we ought to be able to do this."
The only other detail: the new vehicle will bear "nine to 10 troops," Casey said.
About all the Army has said is that it wants an infantry fighting vehicle, that it must carry around ten troops and that it must be resistant to IEDs.
Greg and Colin spoke to a number of industry folks who have been in the armored vehicle business for a long time and got their best guess of what the GCV might look like.
To build IED resistance into a vehicle requires ground clearance, shaped hull and specially designed armor. To protect against underbelly blasts, the vehicle floor must be at least 18 inches off the ground. A V-shaped hull will deflect the blast out and away from the crew compartment. A combination of reactive armor tiles, spaced armor and composite materials has proven effective in defeating the deadly Explosively Formed Penetrator IEDs that fire a molten slug of copper into the side of a vehicle, most often from about a foot or so off the ground.
The major departure from the FCS vehicle design in the new vehicle effort will be "integral survivability," said Mark Signorelli, BAE vice president for new combat vehicles. The FCS vehicles were supposed to rely on situational awareness provided by electronic sensors and speed to survive on the battlefield and were not heavily armored for close combat.
The Army now says networking and sensor technology can improve a vehicle's survivability, but real survivability must be inherent in the vehicle, he said. In other words, the vehicle must be able to take and survive a hit. MRAP-like survivability doesn't get you combat survivability, which means the ability to survive kinetic hits from auto- and larger cannon, Signorelli said. For that you need heavy armor.
As for weapons systems, to fit both a turret bustle, such as that on BAE's Bradley fighting vehicle, and a squad into a vehicle, would require a very large vehicle. That may push industry into going with an unmanned turret, Signorelli said. The most likely weapon is an auto-cannon and coaxial machine gun, and probably anti-armor missiles.
To get both cross-country mobility and vehicle survivability in the same package, "leads you to a tracked solution," Signorelli said. As the Marines and other have learned, many of the MRAP wheeled vehicles weigh in at more than 30 tons and have almost no off-road mobility.
Other industry sources Greg spoke with agreed that the GCV will be tracked. It will probably be required to have the mobility of a Bradley, the sustainability of a Stryker and the lethality of a Bradley, one source said. "MRAP objective threat" protection on the bottom and all-around armor protection against at least 30mm auto-cannon, said another. That means a vehicle in the 40- to 50-ton range.
Armor may be the area with the greatest number of surprises, one industry source said. The increasingly modular approach to armor may well mean vehicles are designed with a base level of protection and then deploy with bolt-on kits to make them easier to transport and to give troops flexibility once in theater.
The main gun version of GCV (closest thing to a tank) may be the most heavily armored base model so it can deploy to theater and roll right into battle, said one industry source. However, armor advances of the last three to four years may allow development of vehicles that are lighter than 40 tons. Other versions may well go into battle with lighter armor able to resist a wide range of IEDs and carry armor kits to beef up their protection.
Mobility wise, the Army is expected to specify a mission mobility profile of 40 percent of the time off-road, 40 percent on semi-improved road and 20 percent on paved roads. Again, that drives the vehicle towards a tracked solution, the sources said.
Getting a new fighting vehicle fielded by 2017 limits the number of technological solutions industry can propose, Signorelli said. "Given the time line they're talking about, there's not time to say here's the Chinese menu of technological solutions you go figure out what you want." As for how far along BAE got with its FCS vehicle design before the program was terminated, he said the company was still at least two years away from a prototype fighting vehicle.
BAE is confident they can leverage their decades long experience building the Bradley and win the competition if the Army goes with a tracked solution for the GCV. BAE says the Bradley chassis can also be used as the basis for a family of vehicles, ranging from field ambulance to command vehicle, to replace the Army’s ubiquitous but ageing and thinly armored M-113 collection of vehicles, which the service intends to do soon.
Colin Clark contributed mightily to this story.