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Army Tries Again For A New Tank

Defense Secretary Robert Gates gutted the confusing and expensive Future Combat System last year.

Counterintuitive but true: It's actually fairly easy for an Army tank to execute a 180-degree turn. Instead of making a J-turn as you would in a car, you just put one track in reverse, put the other in forward, and pivot in place. That's an apt metaphor for how quickly and completely the Army has reversed course on its efforts to develop an armored fighting vehicle. In April 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gutted the sprawling Future Combat System program and ordered the service to start over. This September, the Army will award almost $1 billion in development contracts for a new Ground Combat Vehicle, or GCV, that takes the opposite approach to the Future Combat System in three critical areas.


• The Future Combat System attempted to develop a suite of interdependent equipment, from mobile networks to robotics to a family of armored vehicles. The GCV will focus, for now, on building a single type, an armed and armored troop carrier; variants for other missions, if any, will come later.

• The FCS contract was awarded in 2003 to a "lead systems integrator," a corporate team that was given broad discretion to develop equipment starting from broad concepts, unproven technologies, and PowerPoint slides. The Army will take a more traditional approach with the new vehicle: Competing teams will produce designs first and then full-scale prototypes before the Pentagon selects a final winner in 2017.

• The FCS demanded breakthroughs in a dozen areas to realize its vision of a high-tech, lightweight force whose agility, sensors, and smart weapons would make up for the lack of heavy armor. The GCV program restricts industry to thoroughly tested technologies and demands that each vehicle be able to survive a hit the old-fashioned way -- by sheer weight of metal.


The new vehicle's more modest ambitions should result in fewer dollars spent, fewer years in development, and heftier weight. Before Gates stepped in, the Future Combat System had struggled in development for a decade, delivering only a few prototype items to the troops, even as its projected cost swelled to $200 billion -- $87 billion of that for the vehicles alone -- and the supposedly lightweight vehicle designs grew from less than 20 tons to nearly 30 tons. By contrast, the GCV program intends to start full-scale production within seven years, and Gates wants it done even faster. Pending an official figure from the Pentagon's cost-analysis division, unofficial cost estimates range from $35 billion to $55 billion for about 1,450 vehicles. And the weight of each vehicle, with all the optional add-on armor, will be 70 tons.

That's not just twice as much as the canceled FCS machines; it's also heavier than anything in the U.S. inventory except the M1 Abrams main battle tank. Seventy tons is about the weight of 12 up-armored Humvees or three midsized MRAPs, the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles that have replaced the Humvee in Afghanistan.

Even the Army's chief of staff, Gen. George Casey, is publicly skeptical of the heavy weight: "I keep saying, 'Look, man, an MRAP is, you know, about 23 tons, and you're telling me this is going to be 70 tons, which is the same as an Abrams,' " Casey told Defense News in June. "Surely we can get a level of protection between [those two extremes] that is closer to the MRAP than it is the M1."

The irony of the Ground Combat Vehicle is that the massive size of the machine is the direct result of the reduced scope of the program as a whole. By requiring an individual GCV to be able to survive a hit using only existing technology, instead of the Future Combat System's reliance on a network of high-tech systems to (somehow) prevent a hit in the first place, the Army forced industry to go for heavy armor.


Initial speculation predicted that the new vehicle would weigh in at about 40 tons, the size of the latest, best-protected models of the Army's current tracked troop carrier, the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle. But industry proposals came in at 50 tons for just a bare-bones vehicle; add-on armor for the most-dangerous missions -- such as carrying a squad of nine soldiers through enemy fire -- brings the weight to 70 tons.

The 70-ton solution is the latest in a trend that has seen every Army vehicle gain weight since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, with up-armor kits bolted on to everything from Humvees to Bradleys to M1 tanks. The threat driving this change is the roadside bomb and homemade land mine known as improvised explosive devices, particularly the Iranian-designed Explosively Formed Penetrators that fire an armor-piercing slug of molten copper. IEDs became the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq and, later, in Afghanistan.

The Future Combat System vehicles were designed to deal with conventional threats such as cannon shells and missiles, not blasts from below. So the Army resorted to developing up-armor kits for them because they could not change the basic design. Secretary Gates concluded that was not enough: He cited inadequate protection against IEDs as his principal reason for ending the Future Combat System.

On the FCS, "at the end of the program, we were looking at what kind of add-ons we could make to the vehicles" for IED protection, said Mark Signorelli, a retired Army officer who heads development for the Ground Combat Vehicle at defense contractor BAE. In contrast, Signorelli said, "this vehicle is designed from the ground up for that IED, mine-blast, underbelly threat."

That imperative affects everything from suspension to chassis to seats. Conventional armored vehicles such as the M1 Abrams and the M2 Bradley are built low to the ground, to make them smaller targets for enemy guns; they have flat-bottomed hulls and armor concentrated on the front. Vehicles optimized against mines, such as the MRAPs, have elevated suspensions to lift their heavily armored, v-shaped underbodies as high as possible above the blast, while crew and passengers ride in shock-absorbing seats suspended from the ceiling.

Even this sophisticated engineering, however, cannot substitute for sheer weight of metal. MRAPs are far more massive than the Humvees they replaced, and the Ground Combat Vehicle will be heavier yet. Has the pendulum swung too far?

"The traditional wartime trend toward gigantism has taken effect," said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, who as commandant of the Army War College laid the intellectual foundations for the Future Combat System. "I think that's unhealthy.... In peacetime, the trend is to favor speed, mobility, and transportability over heaviness, protection, and firepower. Then once the bullets start to fly, the trend goes in the other direction."

Scales fears that the extra armor will come at the cost of mobility and maneuverability. Heavier vehicles are not only harder to deploy on cargo planes or ships: Once deployed, they require more maintenance technicians, spare parts, and, above all, fuel for each mile they move. The Army has made fuel efficiency a criterion for the competition, and BAE's bid tries to square the circle by offering a hybrid diesel-electric engine, making its vehicle a kind of giant Toyota Prius. But a 70-ton tank will never get great mileage. Given what transports, supply lines, and bridges in developing countries can bear, said Scales, "an optimal weight for a vehicle in an irregular warfare environment is 40 or 45 tons."

The counterargument is that the "irregular warfare environment" has become so lethal that armies need to forget about sweeping maneuvers and concentrate on making it to the next village alive. In Iraq, 70-ton tanks routinely led the way in the worst urban battles because nothing lighter would survive.

"We would go out there, and they would hit a tank with an IED, and we would keep rolling, nobody hurt," said Lt. Justin Seehusen, who led a platoon of four M1 Abrams tanks in the 2007 "surge" into Baghdad. "You kind of expected and almost hoped to get hit.... I knew every time that an IED or an EFP went off near my tank, that that was one less Humvee that got hit."

Even in Afghanistan, one of the most difficult places on the planet to ship heavy equipment and fuel, Canada decided that tanks were worth the trouble. After heavy fighting against dug-in Taliban insurgents in August 2006, the Canadians rushed 47-ton Leopard I tanks to Afghanistan within six weeks, and then borrowed even heavier 70-ton Leopard IIs from Germany expressly for Afghanistan. (Both Leopard designs are German.)

"Leopard tanks and their crews deployed to Afghanistan survived numerous IED and anti-tank mine strikes and, recently, recoilless rifle, RPG-7, and suicide attacks that may have been catastrophic to other fleets of vehicles," declared Canadian Lt. Col. Trevor Cadieu in a 2008 study. What's more, contrary to fears that heavy vehicles would prove unmaneuverable, Cadieu wrote, "the Leopard fleet of vehicles has restored tactical mobility." Heavy armor allows the Canadian tanks to bull through IEDs and obstacles that would stop a lighter vehicle (literally) dead, much as Seehusen found in Baghdad. And although Afghanistan lacks Iraq's modern road network, even heavy tracked vehicles do better cross-country than wheeled ones, which bog down in soft sand or mud. A wheeled vehicle puts all its weight on the relatively small patches where its tires flatten against the ground, like a woman in heels, but a tracked vehicle spreads its weight over the entire area of its treads, like a woman in flats: A 70-ton Abrams exerts just 15.4 pounds of pressure per square inch, while an eight-wheeled Stryker vehicle exerts 30.

Unfortunately, both the American Abrams and the Canadian Leopard are battle tanks with no room for passengers, so foot soldiers have to follow in less well-protected vehicles. The only country to build a fleet of tracked, heavily armored vehicles specifically to carry eight to 12 soldiers is Israel.

As early as their 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis found that their standard infantry carrier, the American-built M113, weighing about 12 tons, was vulnerable. So they took old tanks, popped off their turrets, and rebuilt them with heavily armored passenger compartments. Most successful was the conversion of several hundred Russian T-55s, captured from Arab armies, into a 48-ton transport called the Achzarit.

Then, in renewed fighting in Lebanon in 2006, Hezbollah militia confronted the Israelis with anti-tank missiles and the tactical skill to use them in long-range ambushes. "They had the ability to reach out and touch you a couple of kilometers away," said Rand scholar David Johnson. Only heavy tanks could take a hit and at least save the men inside. So, in the aftermath, the Israelis developed an even heavier troop carrier, a turretless version of the 65-ton Merkava tank, known as the Namer. "I saw one last October when I was there and went inside of it," Johnson said. "It's designed to do one thing, which is to bring people into environments that are high-threat and guarantee their survival."

The Israeli focus on that one mission might be smarter than the already extensive Army wish list for the Ground Combat Vehicle. The Army, some critics say, has begun cluttering the basic concept with high-tech, high-cost add-ons. A House Armed Services Committee report warned, "Once again, the Army may be asking the defense industry to build a 'gold-plated' vehicle that may take longer to develop than planned and prove to be extremely expensive." Instead, the committee urged "a more incremental approach that separates 'needs' from 'wants.' "

Most puzzling is the Army's requirement that the GCV fire long-range anti-tank missiles. By contrast, the Israeli Achzarit and Namer make do with nothing more than machine guns. Given how thoroughly the U.S. devastated Iraqi armored units in both 1991 and 2003, and how few of America's remaining adversaries actually have significant numbers of tanks, putting long-range missiles on the new vehicle may be unnecessary.

Fortunately, the Army's wish list for the new vehicle remains a draft open to revision, so the service will at least have the opportunity to adjust its demands based on what industry says it can affordably deliver. Better yet, and to the delight of even such skeptics as the House Armed Services Committee, the GCV program forces industry to keep competing past the PowerPoint stage. September's decision will commit the Army only to funding two or three corporate teams to refine their designs and test technologies. A second round in January 2013 will select two teams to build working prototypes. Even if the current 2017 deadline is moved forward, the Army will have time for real-world tests with competing vehicles before making a final decision.

Then, if the chassis selected for the new troop carrier proves adaptable enough -- and if budgets are big enough -- the Army may develop variants. But the Army has abandoned the FCS concept of equipping an entire brigade with eight variants of a single armored vehicle. Instead, the new vehicle will likely serve alongside a variety of older war machines for decades to come.

"They only have a certain amount of money, which is not getting bigger," said James Hasik, an independent defense industry consultant. At most, he estimates that the Army will buy 1,200 Ground Combat Vehicles, including both infantry carriers and any variants. "That's a healthy production run, these days," he said. If, that is, the Army can sell the administration and Congress on the idea that its new armored troop carrier is worth the money.

This article appears in the August 7, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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