10 March 2010

Military Procurement's One Size Fits All Disease

The United States military is close to trying to start the process of developing a major new weapons system called the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Initial proposals are due in April. The proposal has deep conceptual flaws and should be scrapped before it starts.


There has been discussion of it being as heavy as 70 tons, about the same as an M1 Abrams heavy tank, and 50 tons is well within the range of possibility. The draft request for proposal requires that it be transportable on a C-17 or C-5 military transport, which is an effective cap on its size of about 70 tons. But, it would not be required to be small enough to be C-130 transportable (like the Stryker or most models of the MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) vehicle, or like a previously planned Future Combat system manned ground vehicle (MGV)). There isn't even a requirement that two of them could be fit on a C-17 (i.e. 35 tons), which would double the number that could be moved to places with only air transportation and make it more capable of being shipped by rail or crossing civilian bridges.

M1 Abrams tanks have been left behind in places like Afghanistan and Kosovo, but it is hard to get them to the scene in a timely fashion and they are hard on local infrastructure once they arrive.

Multiple Expectations

The temptation to make it big will be great, however, because it is supposed to have a great many capabilities.

The expectations for the vehicle are also perhaps more than should be expected of a military vehicle. While it isn't expected to be amphibious like the troubled Marine Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, a lot is asked of this proposed next generation Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. According to an Army General in charge:

Our goal is for the GCV, 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.

The planned crew is three to run the vehicle and nine Army soldiers as passengers. It is also supposed to have a more powerful canon, active defenses as well as armor, an integrated non-lethal weapons system, air conditioning and more speed than an Abrams tank or a Bradley.

Realistically, given the demands for off road capabilities, it must have tracks rather than wheels. A major motivation for the program is the limited off road capability of wheeled MRAP and Stryker vehicles.

Positive Points

One key idea behind the program isn't necessarily a bad one. The vehicle is supposed to be designed to take extra armor when circumstances warrant, and to shed it when they don't.

The requirements that the vehicle have air conditioning and be "networked" also seem reasonable.

Other procurement ideas in this program are also not bad. The plan is to have at least three bids and to have at least three competing designs until late in the design process, "all GCV technologies must be . . . proven to work in a simulated operational environment" and it is supposed to be operational in seven years.

Conceptually Flawed

The problem with the Ground Combat Vehicle program is that it simply tries to do too much in one vehicle. A vehicle with integrated non-lethal technologies has its place; but not in the same vehicle that is capable of withstanding on onslaught of fire from autocanons, provides 360 degree protection from rocket propelled grenades and has defenses against heavier anti-tank guided missiles and sabot rounds.

The need to have all nine members of an infantry squad in a single vehicle (in addition to three vehicle crew) is not obvious.

Speed and the kind of off-road capabilities that you can only get in a tracked vehicle aren't good companions.

The strong desire for off-road capabilities doesn't seem to be a good fit with how the Army uses its vehicles in practice. The primary design feature of the Humvee was off-road capability comparable to that of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. It delivered, but in practice was almost always driven on road anyway, even in places like Iraq where there are extreme threats of bombs buried in roads.

A focus on a bigger canon doesn't necessarily make sense against the backdrop of a military environment where the trend has been heavily towards missiles for technological reasons. For example, in the Gulf War, Bradleys which have infantry squad sized anti-tank missiles instead of the heavy tank round of the Abrams tank, proved just about as effective as Abrams tanks which are designed for anti-tank warfare, at destroying Iraqi tanks.

Too Hard For Army Procurement?

The simple truth is that U.S. military has a hard enough time making single purpose vehicles. The Army's non-line of sight launch system (NLOS-LS), which was salvaged from the Army's old Future Combat System, is far less complex than the proposed Ground Combat Vehicle. It is supposed to be an easily deployable guided missile system, no armor, no infantry squads, just missiles.

But, the current design, after six years of development efforts, is widely inaccurate. Its infrared target seeker doesn't work. And, it costs $466,000 a missile, far more than anything even remotely comparable in service today.

Its older laser designated target system works better but can be done with far less expensive technology. Yet, we already have GPS guided artillery shells in the field, smart bombs in the Air Force, guided missiles deployed by fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and drones, and guided missiles that are deployed from ships.

The last time the Army tried to design an active defense system from scratch it ultimately gave up and modified one that the Navy had managed to make work for its ships instead.

The truth of the matter is that the Army has been utterly vexed at even much less ambitious projects like upgrading the M4 carbine and M16 rifle using commercial off the shelf technologies.

The Marines have pretty much failed at coming up with a light armored troop carrier capable of crossing water at landing craft speeds by itself, called the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, comparable in clout to the Army's Stryker vehicle, despite seemingly endless efforts to make it work.

The Navy ultimately had to abandon the advanced gun system railgun concept that was to be a central feature of its Zumwalt class destroyer and had to kill the ship design after only a couple of units because it was so far overbudget.

The F-35 joint strike fighter program was designed to replace all of the various Air Force, Marine and Navy fixed wing fighter programs. The result is far overbudget, struggling to meet the existing short takeoff, vertical landing capabilities that the Marines and foreign navies want in their F-35B version, not a top priority for the Navy, and a plane that the Air Force doesn't like as much as the more narrowly focused air dominance fighter, the F-22. And, on top of that it is a poor substitute for the A-10 which proved its worth as a robust purpose built air to ground aircraft in Iraq. Just because stealth and jet speed are sometime desirable does not mean that they need to be capabilities of every single fighter jet; those are very expansive capabilities that often aren't needed. The Ground Combat Vehicle is coming perilously close to replicating the problems of the F-35 by trying to fit too many missions into one vehicle.

We are learning the same thing about the Marine's V-22 Osprey. A vertical takeoff and landing medium transport that can convert to a fixed wing mode has its place in niche applications like special operations insertions and evacuating expatriots from countries gone to hell. But, that niche is pretty narrow. Most of the time, a comparably sized fixed wing helicopter, or a comparable sized short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft, is a perfectly good alternative. A short takeoff and landing fixed wing aircraft with the Osprey's modest cargo capacity can manage with a surprising short and primative field airstrip.

Asking the impossible with conflicting priorities is a way to be certain that a project will come in above budget and behind schedule. One size fits all doesn't make sense for the nation with the world's largest military budget and fewest concerns about economies of scale, particularly for Army vehicles which aren't nearly as expensive as aircraft or ships.

The Case For A Less Ambitious Approach

Rather than ask for everything in a single vehicle, the Army should consider how the tasks it is requesting can be distributed. This is the whole point of having a networked force, after all.

Urban terrain and transportability should put a practical limit of 35 tons on the new vehicle even when fully armored, perhaps with C-130 transportability when its heavy duty armor and full suite of active defenses, designed to be modular, are removed. The non-lethal weapons suite could be designed for use only as an alternative to removable armor in the infantry carrier vehicles. It also needs to have smaller dimensions than the Abrams tanks to fit the reality that urban and mountainous terrain in much of the world doesn't fit extra-wide vehicles.

Why not use four vehicles per squadron of infantry deployed instead of one?

Three vehicles could carry three soldiers as passengers each. One could carry the heavy offensive weapon that the DOD wants, which wouldn't be restricted to a canon.

It doesn't necessarily make sense to have a light version of a heavy offensive weapon vehicle at all; situations that require heavy firepower rarely call for light armor. It has been forty years since the U.S. military has made use of a medium weight tank that is not expected to carry an infantry squadron, and perhaps the time has come to add that kind of vehicle to our arsenal.

Rather than insisting that every vehicle have off-road capability, the Army should consider buying a small number of slower, off-road capable tracked vehicles, and a large number of faster, more fuel efficient wheeled vehicles, not necessarily with shared designs.

Perhaps we the modular armor feature doesn't even make sense. The Army is simultaneously commissioning a more lightly armored, mined resistant vehicle to replace interim solutions like the armored humvee and the MRAP. Perhaps the Army should simply stick to the less ambitious project a creating a vehicle that is always heavily armored, rather than a modular design. The integrated non-lethal weapons capability could be made a version of the already in the works lighter vehicle proposal.

Yes, that means more (perhaps four) smaller, less versatile programs: a thirty-five ton or less three soldier carrying heavy infantry fighting vehicle with off road capability with heavy armor; a thirty five ton or less three soldier carrying heavy infantry fighting urban vehicle with heavy armor; a thirty five ton or less medium tracked tank; a thirty five ton or less medium wheeled tank.

Each of those program would have a greater chance of producing something useful, on budget, in a reasonable time frame. And, all four could be built by different contractors if different contractors came up with the best proposals in different categories. There is no reason for different military vehicles to have particularly high levels of parts compatibility, beyond having compatible fuels.

Also, rather than mandating capabilities, which ultimately depending on the ability of engineers to develop new technologies, the Department of Defense should consider mandating weight and price and delivery dates and general purpose, and letting the most capable and feasible proposal win.

Seven years is too long. It assumes significant R&D effort, rather than something that can be built with current technology. The technology we have already in 2010 is pretty good. If something better comes along in 2015, we can buy more vehicles in a new model. Car companies introduce new models every few years. The U.S. military could do the same. If there is less of an R&D commitment, the need to commit to a large buy of the vehicles isn't as great.

Anyway, realistically, many important technologies are simply a product of advances that would be made anyway in the civilian sector, rather than technologies developed specifically for the military. One of the main networking tools of the first Stryker battalions was Microsoft Outlook. Defense contractors hadn't come up with better solutions. Similarly, civilian satellite phones, cell phones and GPS systems proved at least as well suited to the needs of the battlefield as purpose built military designs.

One of the problems in F-22 and F-35 development and ship based active defense systems in the Navy has been that civilian computer systems had grossly outstripped the original military designs in the time the elapsed from the start of the project to the end.

How much force protection and speed can you get in a thirty-five ton diesel fueled tracked vehicle that costs less than $4 million a unit that can be delivered in four years or less? Let's find out, instead of presupposing an answer.

If a contractor can do the job with three vehicles of under thirty-five tons, two with five carried soldiers each, and one medium weight tank, let them propose it as an alternative. Let contractors put more than one set of vehicles into the competiton so that procurement officials have more choices closer in time to the final decision point with vehicles that are closer to viable.


Dave Barnes said...


You wrote way too many words to say: "This is the stoopidist idea ever".


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Analysis matters. I often read very well done books and academic articles that are spot on until the conclusion. I am nobody in military policy, but my ideas might have some weight.