Army procurement people are getting stupid again with its Ground Combat Vehicle program designed to replace the 1980s vintage Bradley fighting vehicle.
Bradley fighting vehicles were used in the field over the last few decadees far more than M-1 Abrams main battle tanks because they didn't weigh 72 tons (a Bradley is about 35 tons), because they moved faster and more nimbly on ordinary roads where they operate 95% of the time, and because they still had some offensive punch (e.g. due to TOW missles), while being better armored than Humvees and Strykers.
The result we are starting to see is an animal designed by committee that will strain technical capabilities, will be a jack of all trades and a master of none, and will be very, very expensive when a little common sense could have done a much better job with the same amount of money and a much quicker delivery time as a result of less technologically ambitious goals.
The problem: 84 tons is too heavy.
Size matters. But, big isn't always good.
Last fall, the Congressional Budget Office, projected that the GCV could weigh as much as 84 tons, making it heavier than an M1 Abrams and twice as heavy as the current Bradley.
An 84 ton vehicle is so heavy you can barely fit one on our biggest plane. It will get less than 0.5 miles to the gallon which means a long and vulnerable supply line. It is too heavy to be transported by rail across rail bridges in most of the world. It is too heavy to drive over civilian grade bridges in most of the world. It is too heavy for some ships designed to carry smaller military vehicles like the Bradley. It will be slow in a battlefield full of fast moving opponents. It will be too big to make it through narrow mountain passes and the narrow urban streets found in many potential war zones.
Our allies in South Korea, where armored vehicle warfare is a real possiblity, are making their tanks lighter, not heavier. Experience has proven in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan that forced to choose, Army troops will opt out of a 72 ton main battle tank, in favor of a 35 ton Bradley, and a lot of that choice is driven by weight and supply lines.
Why is the GCV too heavy? Look at the requirements.
You need look no further than the Request for Proposal requirements to see what is going on.
* They want it to "protect the nine-man squad and crew from the powerful blast effects of enemy improvised explosive devices. “It’s fairly easy for us to make a thicker underbelly plate or add a V-shaped hull to make the vehicle survivable, but what that does not address is the accelerated forces that come with that blast,” Col. Rocky Kmiecik, director of the Mounted Requirements Division at the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence, said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Winter Symposium. “Right now the best way to protect the soldier is by having adequate space inside.”
Kmiecik said the extra space allows for specialized features such as floating floors for blast deflection and extra headroom above the soldier."
* Army planners want the "GCV to be tracked instead of wheeled to meet the Army’s cross-country mobility requirements."
* "The GCV also has a requirement for a main gun that’s larger than the Bradley’s 25mm cannon. 'There’s a requirement for a larger-than 25mm, most likely a 30mm gun or above weapon that’s based not only on our ability to reach out and engage enemy armor … but that caliber of ammunition also allows you to go to an airburst round . . . It allows you to have that precision firepower to engage a small dismounted threat with minimal collateral damage and a minimal use of rounds.'"
It's All About Choices
There is nothing wrong with wanting a system will allow its occupant to survive a big IED blast. In many circumstances, it seems to be a necessity.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a system that has off road capability. Sometimes the bad guys hide in the wilderness.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a system that can engage enemy armor. Everybody likes a system that can pack a powerful punch now and then.
There is nothing wrong with wanting a system that can engage infantry with minimal collateral damage.
But, there is something wrong with trying to squeeze all of that, for nine passengers plus the crew, into one vehicle at the same time.
The Swiss Army knife mentality has got to go. We can have all of those capabilities. But, we can't have all of those capabilities in one vehicle at the same time. Army procurement officals need to start thinking about how to make choices.
We have procurement engineers in the Army who understand this fact. But, so far, they seem to be losing the fight to manage our procurement sensibly to Christmas listers who claim that they can please everybody.
What would choices look like?
Do we really need another quasi-tank when we have thousands of real ones?
If you need a big cannon that can engage armor, fine, make a tank. But, honestly, the linkage of a big main gun with a purpose to engage armor is itself troubling.
War is not about playing fair. War is about using asymmetry to your advantage before someone else does. Never fight fire with fire if you can help it. There is a certain amount of paper-scissors-rock guesswork that goes into figuring out how to have the right forces in the right places to win asymmetric conflicts. But, it can be done.
The point of a tank should not be to engage other tanks. The point of a tank is to engage opponents that are much lighter than tanks from a position of absolute superiority. We have helicopters and airplanes and infantry based missiles and drones that are perfectly capable of blowing up slow moving, hard to conceal enemy armor while putting the soldiers engaging enemy armor less unavoidably in harm's way. We don't need tanks to kill tanks. We need tanks to intimidate infantry and unarmored vehicles and break through walls.
There is also a reason the military has fewer and fewer big cannons. Missiles are more accurate, weigh less for the punch they pack, require lighter launch systems, and have greater range. A 25mm to 30mm round is approaching the line where small missiles become competitive with big bullets.
Don't question the intentions of someone who wants big slug throwers, but suggest better options when possible. The genius of the Bradley was that it didn't have a big main gun because it had anti-tank missiles that did the same job when necessary instead and just as well or better with less weight. Somebody planning a military vehicle who is worried about not having enough ammunition stockpiled for a slug thrower in the vehicle is probably not at the top of his game in terms of military planning. The goal is to hit a greater percentage of the time so that you need less ammunition, not to fire large numbers of rounds indiscriminately.
Also, we already have more, perfectly good, 72 tons tanks that are barely used than we could ever need. We do not need yet another vehicle with a big gun. If we need one we can order one from the central tank depot and we'll be fine.
Those 72 ton tanks are also tracked and can fill a decent share of our current requirement for extreme off road mobility.
It is not important that everybody in the squad be in the same vehicle at the same time.
If you need a vehicle that can carry soliders around you can make a well armored vehicle to do that. But, the vehicle that you carry soldiers around in doesn't have to be the same vehicle that you use to engage armor. And, the requirement that the members of a square fit in one vehicle, instead of two or three, is not very important, relative to the requirement that the vehicle be light enough to deploy.
It it takes 84 tons to transport nine soldiers safely with a big anti-armor gun, then maybe you need three vehicles that are 42 tons each that have three passengers and one crewman a piece instead (since a weapons operator for a heavy gun isn't needed and the passengers can earn their keep), and a fourth vehicle with a big gun or missile battery that weights 42 tons with two crew men. This may mean twice as much total weight and a couple more soldiers to do the same job. But, that's O.K. There are a lot of purposes for which maximum total vehicle weight is an important constraint. A 42 ton vehicle can go places and do things that an 84 ton vehicle just can't, no matter what.
Also, if you are going to insist on engaging enemy armor with tracked ground vehicles with big guns, there is no good reason whatsoever to do so in a glorified bus. Why expose any more people than is absolutely necessary to your best armed opponent by going to them and engaging them? Soldier transportation and engaging enemy tanks are not very compatable missions.
Be realistic about off road requirements.
In how many wars since the invention of the automobile has the U.S. military had insufficient off road capability? How badly we were short even then? Would we have that problem today with our current stockpile of miltiary systems?
Maybe we need some vehicles to have extreme off road capability. But, in twenty-twenty hindsight, the last time the Army did this, it wildly overestimated what percentage of traffic needed to be off road. The reality is that the vast majority of travel for all kinds of military vehicles is on roads and the Army wildly overestimated how many vehicles with extreme off road capabilities it needed.
In the real world engagements that the Army has participated in, and it has had a vigorous series of engagements since the Bradley was designed, we have sucked at having vehicles well suited for urban combat and close quarters and have fought almost nobody with heavy armaments in the middle of the wilderness. If more than 20% of the ground warfare in the military's stockpiles consist of tracked vehicles or vehicles that are optimized primarily for extreme off road environments that highly rugged wheeled vehicles (which have much better fuel economy leading to shorter supply lines, less weight, greater speed and much better urban environment performance), then somebody in Army procurement has eyes bigger than their stomach and is probably making a mistake.
Ground combat doesn't happen mostly in the boonies any more. Heavy opposition forces in the middle of nowhere are far more vunerable to drones and helicopters and missiles and satellite imagry, and smart artillery, than forces in urban environments where the environment and the people in it constrain your options.
In urban environments, mobility means thinking less about monster trucks and more about the kind of rides that Batman uses in the Dark Knight. You need to go off road in urban environments, but you don't need to get back to nature. You need to get over walls, across ditches, through narrow spaces between buildings, onto rooftops, under or through obstructions, through parks, and so on. It is less about keeping pounds per square inch under twenty than it is about keeping maximal dimension orthogonal to the direction of travel small and torque high. Urban off roading requires more thought and experimentation than back to nature off roading.
We have the biggest military budget in the world. We can afford to have both this and that more than any other force in the world. We should leverage that capacity. One group should put together a team to design a set of equipment for a war in jungles, because sooner or later, we're going to fight a war in a jungle. Another group should put together a team to design a set of equipment for war in third world cities, because sooner or later, we're going to fight a war in third world cities. A third group can solve the problem of desert warfare. A fourth can address snowscapes and mountains. A fifth can think about coastal area and major river basins.
The United States does not need to have heavy ground vehicles that are excellent at fighting in jungles one day and in mountainous snowscapes the next. We don't need a capability that is good at both. Having a vehicle that is excellent at one or the other, and sucks in other circumstances is preferrable when you have a U.S. sized military budget. Also, resist the temptation to go modular. A system that is designed for one purpose and one purpose only that does its job very well is always going to be better than something versatile. We can have some generalist systems, maybe even a lot of them. But, we should have some systems optimized for every plausible environment, even if we haven't had to fight in that environment lately.
Thinking outside the box
The Army has still not really scratched the surface of what it can do with remotely operated unmanned vehicles. But there are lots of benefits associated with getting people out of the boxes.
Unmanned ground vehicles are easy except for the autonomous operation part. But, as long as we can keep secure communications up between remote operators and the vehicle, it doesn't matter. Unmanned vehicles don't need the same level of armor, don't need the same level of "crew comforts" and in general can have a higher tooth to tail ratio and take more risks.
They can be in absolutely boring standby mode for forever with no degradation in capability. They don't get drunk and rape neighborhood women when prepositioned for years in forward bases for the next time that they're needed while waiting in some quite warehouse. They don't need to be fed when their not being used.
Integrating unmanned intelligence platforms can also make manned vehicles fight smarter.
Move people with a purpose
It would also make a great deal of sense to think about all of the different reasons that soldiers are moved around in Bradleys and Strykers today. The optimal patrol vehicle may not be the optimal vehicle for chasing down a lone terrorist suicide bomber or sniper, which in turn may not be the right vehicle for rushing loads of soldiers en mass to a big firefight in progress, which in turn may not be the right vehicle for rotating out soldiers from a forward operating base to headquarters and back for in country leaves and debriefings and ordinary troop rotations. The better the system can fit a particular purpose, the better engineers can optimize it for that purpose.
The more we can predict what purposes we'll need vehicles to fill, and with a record high number of veterans with combat experience there has never been a better time to call on their collective expertise to answer those questions, the better we'll do at making systems that help soldiers be effective in their jobs.