Uber-connected defense consultant and analyst Loren Thompson reads the tea leaves, and a recent Reuters news article, and concludes that Army plans for a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) may be unraveling. Apparently, DOD’s chief weapons buyer, Ashton Carter, didn’t like what he saw when shown the Army’s GCV plan earlier this month and told service leaders to go back and try again.
The GCV request for proposal was supposed to hit the street later this month. Thompson thinks it will be delayed. Even if the RFP does come out on time, he sees the new vehicle program running into real headwinds.
If this Reuters story is to be believed, and I’m not sure it is, the Army’s pitch had the GCV weighing in at 70 tons, which is as much as the M-1 Abrams main battle tank weighs. I can see how that would give Carter fits.
The GCV is supposed to be an infantry fighting vehicle. At 70 tons, that would make it the heaviest infantry fighting vehicle in existence; heavier even than the Israeli military’s heaviest infantry carriers such as the Achzarit, a chopped down T-55 tank weighing 44 tons or the Nagmachon, based on the Centurion tank chassis, which weighs 55 tons.
The Israeli’s can get away with extremely heavy infantry carriers because they drive down the highway to their battles. The U.S. Army must either fly or put their vehicles on ships to get them to where they fight. While protected mobility is clearly important, and a costly lesson learned on Iraq and Afghan battlefields, strategic mobility must factor in at some point.
The Army’s stated goals for the GCV, according to Army chief Gen. George Casey’s just released Brigade Combat Team Modernization Plan, is “carrying an infantry squad, to equal or surpass the under-belly protection offered by MRAP, the off-road mobility and side protection of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and operational mobility of the Stryker.” Casey acknowledges that getting all that in a single vehicle will be a tall order.
Getting MRAP level under-belly protection is more a matter of hull design, the now industry standard V-shaped hull, and ground clearance than armor thickness. The Bradley, like the proposed GCV, was designed from the outset to allow “block” improvements, and it has received a number of new armor packages. According to armor vehicle expert Steven Zaloga, the Bradley’s appliqué steel armor provides protection up to 30mm auto-cannon. Reactive armor tiles would add protection against rocket propelled grenades. All of which adds up to a vehicle weighing at least 40 tons.
One of the problems, as Thompson sees it, is the proliferation of precision, heavy anti-tank guided missiles of the Kornet and TOW variety. The only solution he sees is technologically advanced armor packages, including an active-protection system of some kind. Thompson’s “insiders” tell him those needed technologies won’t really be available in mass production terms until around 2025. As Thompson puts it: “It appears the Army is spinning its wheels (or its treads), because the laws of physics won't allow it to design a system that is both easily deployable and highly survivable against emerging threats.”
Then there is the whole issue of the much vaunted battle command network that was such a big part of FCS. “Even if it is a clear leap ahead in terms of capability, there is the question of what to do about the elaborate battlefield network Boeing developed to link together the family of future combat vehicles. It may look world-class today, but how will it look in 15 years, when the new vehicle finally starts reaching the troops in quantity?” Thompson says.
Both the Abrams and Bradley have a lot of life in them. The Army claims its battle fleet is outdated. To use the Israelis as an example again, they have continually upgraded and modified really old fighting vehicles - the Centurion, T-54/55, M-113, they even used Shermans in the ’73 war – to keep them relevant and useful on modern battlefields. The Army plans to buy at least two more brigades worth of the Stryker wheeled vehicle, its medium-weight platform.
Facing a very uncertain fiscal future, and having done a questionable job of identifying the capability gap for a new, heavily armored IFV in the era of irregular wars, the Army is likely to have a tough job pushing ahead with one big and heavy GCV.