The Army's Combat Vehicle Mood Swings
Army Stryker vehicles on patrol near Mosul, Iraq (Department of Defense)
What is it with the U.S. Army and its inability to manage major acquisition programs? The history of Army acquisition over the last twenty plus years is littered with failed attempts to define, develop and build new armored fighting vehicles and tanks. Does anybody remember the Future Combat System (FCS), the system of systems which promised to deploy a set of lightly-armored vehicles that would rely on superior situational awareness and mobility rather than armor for survival?
The Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) is what emerged from the collapse of the FCS. The Army had to withdraw and reissue the RFP for the GCV when it concluded that the requirements for this successor to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle would result in an impossibly expensive and unwieldy system.
Even on the Army’s second attempt, the result was an armored leviathan that was estimated to cost somewhere between $10 and $20 million apiece. After the Congress reduced funding for the GCV from half a billion to $100 million in its December omnibus funding bill, even the Chief of Staff, General Raymond Odierno, had to admit his service’s signature new armored fighting vehicle program to be terminal, if not yet terminated.
The Army’s one successful program across decades of effort is the remarkable Stryker. Initially, the Stryker was called the Interim Armored Vehicle because it was supposed to be a temporary solution to the requirement for a light, mobile, air-transportable armored fighting vehicle until the FCS became available. Even though the requirement for the Stryker to be transportable on a C-130 could not be achieved, the vehicle proved itself highly effective in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are 10 different Stryker variants equipping seven brigade combat teams.
Now, the pendulum is reported to be swinging from the large, heavy, high-powered and heavily-armed GCV to the other end of the spectrum. The Maneuver Center of Excellence is asking industry if it can build something called the Ultra Light Combat Vehicle (ULCV) which would be deployed with the Army’s Infantry Brigade Combat Teams. This vehicle would have to carry a full nine man squad and yet be light enough to be carried internally by a CH-47, slung under a UH-60 and droppable from a C-130 or C-17. In a “back to the future move,” the ULCV would rely for survivability on high mobility to avoid contact with the enemy, just like the ill-fated FCS. It would have medium caliber weapon support squad operations. In many ways, this sounds like little more than a “Stryker Lite.”
To be fair, the ULCV is not yet even an R&D program. It is always good for the military to dialogue with industry over the art of the possible. But it does raise the question why the Army seems incapable of defining a reasonable, achievable armored vehicle program and seeing it through to production. The ULCV seems as fanciful in its own ways as has the alphabet soup of earlier programs. In addition, after pouring its talent, IRAD and corporate resources into the FCS and GCV, why should industry lean forward on ULCV, assuming it could meet the technical requirements?
The Army’s inability to deliver on a new armored fighting vehicle may also reflect a bigger problem: its ever-changing concept of future land warfare. The Army has radically changed its views on land warfare at least three times over the past decade. Instability of strategic thought doesn’t provide a secure basis on which to build a force structure or define the requirements for a new armored fighting vehicle.