Army Backstops Futuristic NGCV Program With Prudent Armor Upgrades

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It is clear that the U.S. Army is going all in for its modernization priorities. It hopes to have an array of transformative capabilities ready for deployment by the mid-2020s. But the Army has missed the mark on previous technology bets. So it is a good thing that the Army also is investing in upgrades to the existing force structure, particularly for its fleets of armored fighting vehicles.

The Army is putting its money where its dreams are regarding modernization. It has created Futures Command which is responsible for developing the concepts and technologies that will underpin the entire modernization effort. Senior leaders have publicly voiced their determination to harvest significant resources from existing programs - as much as $25 billion over the next five years - to spend on prospective new capabilities.

If successful, the Army's modernization program would mark the greatest change in capabilities in at least a half-century. There are plans for a cannon that can fire a shell 1,000 miles, for long-range precision rockets and hypervelocity missiles. There are prototype aircraft that can fly at nearly twice the speed of today’s helicopters. Advanced tactical air and missile defenses will include directed energy weapons. All of these systems will be networked together and supported by advanced artificial intelligence (AI) programs.

One of the most challenging modernization priorities is Next Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCV). The Army has already gone through two failed attempts to develop new armored fighting vehicles, the Future Combat System and the Ground Combat Vehicle. The mandate of the NGCV Cross Functional Team (CFT) is to restore the close combat overmatch of peer competitors that U.S. armored fighting vehicles enjoyed for decades.

The NGCV CFT’s top priority is a replacement for the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The new fighting platform must exceed current lethality, maneuverability and survivability capabilities. It also must have the ability to be remotely-operated, be light enough so that a C-17 can airlift two, possess sufficient size, weight, architecture, power and cooling to allow for growth as new systems and weapons become available, make use of synthetic training environments and be significantly easier to sustain.

The NGCV CFT also has two other futuristic programs in its portfolio. The first is to develop a family of ground robots that will operate in tandem with current fighting platforms as well as the future optionally-manned systems. The second is an eventual replacement for the Abrams main battle tank. This may be the CFT’s most difficult task. As one senior CFT official observed, a complete replacement for the Abrams would only make sense if a breakthrough is achieved in one of three critical technologies: lightweight armor materials, active protection against solid shot anti-tank rounds or AI good enough to take humans out of the vehicle.

Even replacing the Bradley by the mid-2020s is a tall order requiring parallel advances in multiple technologies and their successful integration on a platform that will have to carry six or more soldiers, operate in extremely complex terrain, employ advanced sensors and not break the bank. Building a new tank that is lightweight while still carrying a big gun and providing protection against advanced anti-tank weapons seems the stuff of science fiction.

So, it is a good thing that while pursuing options for next-generation combat vehicles, the Army also is actively investing in upgrade programs for many of its existing armored vehicle fleets. Most recently, the Army signed a contract with BAE Systems for the first 297 of what will eventually be thousands of Armored Multipurpose Vehicles (AMPV). This may be the most important of all the upgrade programs because the heavily-armored AMPVs will replace the 1960s-vintage, thin-skinned and extremely vulnerable M-113s that still populate the armor brigade combat teams.

Even while dreaming of hover tanks armed with death rays, the Army is upgrading its highly-effective M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks. Thanks in large measure to support from the White House and Congress, the Army has funded programs in the last few years to bring more than 300 tanks up to the M1A2(SEPv3) configuration. Continuing this effort at the same rate through the mid-2020s would allow the Army to upgrade virtually its entire Abrams fleet.

Given the importance, the Army attaches to improving its long-range fires capabilities, upgrading the Paladin self-propelled artillery makes eminent sense. The Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) program will enhance the mobility, reliability and responsiveness of both the artillery vehicle and its accompanying munitions carrier. The new artillery vehicle will include digital displays, enhanced power generation and a drive train and transmission that is the same as that on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The PIM vehicle may be the platform for the Army’s futuristic Extended Range Cannon Artillery.

The Army is funding a set of upgrades, and new procurements of the Stryker wheeled combat vehicle. European-based Strykers are getting the Dragoon variant with a new, more lethal 30mm cannon. Additional units may receive this upgrade or even a more capable version with a missile launcher in addition to the cannon. The Army is also on its way to enhancing all its Strykers with the Double V-Hull configuration to protect them from underbody explosives. Finally, the Army plans to deploy up to four battalions of the Mobile Short-Range Air Defense System, a missile and gun-armed turret atop a Stryker vehicle.

The Army is looking to pull off the proverbial hat trick: increasing its readiness to fight today, upgrading many existing platforms and systems to meet tomorrow’s challenges, and investing in transformative capabilities to defeat peer competitors well into the 21st Century. The future may be one filled with robot tanks and directed energy weapons. But in case it takes longer than expected to achieve its modernization goals, it is a good thing that the Army has a robust effort underway to modernize existing capabilities.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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