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Magazine / FEATURE STORY

The Army Looks Beyond Afghanistan

The service has struggled with weapons purchases in recent years.

December 12, 2009

While Army combat troops get ready to ramp up the current war, their comrades in the acquisition corps are quietly preparing to buy weapons for the next conflict, whatever and wherever it may be. On November 24, as the nation headed into Thanksgiving amid rising anxiety over President Obama's plan to escalate in Afghanistan, senior officers held a closed-door meeting with more than 350 defense contractors from 247 companies to discuss the still-evolving requirements for the Army's next Ground Combat Vehicle, already known by the Pentagon shorthand GCV.

The vehicle will not enter service until 2017, six years after Obama's deadlines to complete the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and begin a drawdown in Afghanistan. Compared with timetables for past weapons purchases, that's a tight schedule. The Army had been working on new armored vehicles since 1999 as part of what grew into the unwieldy, $200 billion Future Combat System program. But in April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates summarily canceled the FCS's armored vehicles and ordered the service to start over. The reboot has forced the Army to rethink a decade of assumptions -- and to rein in its ambitions for new technology.

 

"If you look at the GCV timeline, the technology has got to be there now," said Donald Kotchman, a retired Army colonel who works on the vehicle for defense contractor General Dynamics. "This program can't be about technology development."

The Army wants to design and build the Ground Combat Vehicle quickly because its fleet of armored vehicles is aging. But assuming that the first GCVs arrive on schedule in 2017, the Army will need years to buy them in quantity because of budget constraints, and even then, the baseline GCVs will replace only one type of vehicle now in service, the tanklike Bradley infantry carrier.

So, in tandem with developing the new machine, the Army must redouble its efforts to overhaul and update its old armor. Existing Bradleys and M1 Abrams tanks, designed in the 1970s and built in the 1980s, must last until 2030. Contractors and the Army are rebuilding the M109 Paladin howitzer, a self-propelled artillery vehicle that travels on tracks, by placing the gun turret on a new chassis, and the vehicle is supposed to stay in service until 2060 -- a century after it was introduced in 1963.

The Army has twice tried to replace the Paladin. First came the Crusader artillery vehicle, which designers slimmed down from 60 tons to 40 before then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld canceled it in 2002 because it was still too heavy to be shipped to a battlefield by air. Then there was the cannon variant of the Future Combat System vehicle, which grew from 19 tons to 26 before Gates canceled it this summer, deciding that it was still too lightly armored to survive roadside bombs. Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, one of the intellectual fathers of the now-gutted Future Combat System, fumed, "You can't keep up with the changing fashion."

Being whiplashed by changing Defense secretaries, however, is not the sole source of the Army's modernization problems. It was the service's own chiefs who canceled the Comanche stealth helicopter in 2004 and the Armored Gun System light tank in 1996 to free up money to keep other, aging-but-necessary hardware in operation. Indeed, since 1996, the only new armored vehicles to enter Army service have been the Stryker armored troop transport and the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected trucks, both of which are modest modifications of vehicles already for sale on the world market rather than original designs.

The other services have had their share of procurement problems. The Air Force's F-22 Raptor fighter, the Marine Corps's V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship have become bywords for cost overruns and schedule delays caused by overly ambitious technology. Ultimately, however, all of them are being built, if only in reduced quantities. Only one service consistently invests so much time and money but has nothing to show for it: the Army.

The Army's Problem

So, what's wrong with the Army? As the largest service, with 500,000 active-duty personnel and as many reservists, the Army is not only the most bureaucratic but also the most divided. The Army is less a cohesive culture, like the much-smaller Marine Corps, and more a confederation of tribes. They're officially called "branches," and they range from armor to artillery, infantry to intelligence, and engineering to supply corps, each with its own insignia, doctrinal manual, training programs, and sacred cows. Some Army chiefs muddle through, mediating between the branches over piecemeal changes; others gamble that they can unite the service behind common bold programs.

When Gates canceled the Future Combat System's tanks in April, he did not just reject a vehicle -- he also rejected a vision of future war and a plan to reorganize and re-equip the force for that future. The service had been following that course for a decade, ever since then-Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki imposed it on an ambivalent leadership in 1999. Gen. Shinseki reversed 50 years of Cold War investment in ever-heavier vehicles and ordered the development of lightweight, high-tech alternatives that forsook the impermeability of armor in favor of long-range sensors and precision weapons to win battles. His manifesto ultimately gave rise to both the relatively successful, technologically modest Stryker, which has seen heavy use in Iraq, and the ambitious but disastrous Future Combat System. Shinseki soon found that his embrace of this "revolution in military affairs" was at once too radical for traditionalist tank and infantry officers and too moderate for his new boss, Rumsfeld. (See "The Counter-Revolution in Military Affairs," NJ, 12/5/09, p. 33.)

Now Gates and a new generation of Army leaders are throwing out not only the Future Combat System but also its underlying assumptions. "A lot of these ideas have been thoroughly discredited by recent experience and our rediscovery of history," said Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, an Iraq combat veteran.

Even before he deployed to war, McMaster publicly challenged the then-dominant "revolution" thesis in a 2003 paper he wrote while he was at the Army War College; its title is "Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War." Today, the former rebel oversees the writing of an "Army Capstone Concept" -- a foundational document that will guide future training and doctrinal manuals. A widely circulated draft of the concept explicitly rejects the logic behind the Future Combat System, which was designed to be a high-tech "system of systems" that would use high-speed computer networks to connect foot soldiers and armored vehicles to ground- and air-based sensors.

"Overall, it's the best Capstone Concept I've seen out of the Army in quite a while," said retired Col. Richard Hart Sinn-reich, who helped develop the definitive "AirLand Battle" concept that guided the Army buildup in the 1980s, when the Abrams and Bradley tanks were introduced as the latest technology to defeat a Soviet land army. "It's written in English, and, thankfully, largely forswears the repeated deployment of unwanted assumptions... that marred many of its predecessors."

Above all, McMaster said, the Army has abandoned the idea that you could minimize the risk to soldiers by firing at your enemy from such a long range -- with the aid of high-tech sensors -- that your foe couldn't find you and fire back. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the Army, or maybe reminded it, that, in McMaster's words, "you're always going to have to develop the situation in close contact with the enemy."

The requirements for the Ground Combat Vehicle remain in flux, but it is clear that the program is placing its trust in the protection of old-fashioned armor first and high technology second, much as the Capstone Concept does. "They've turned the FCS order of priorities upside down," said Robert Sorge, General Dynamics's former director for the Future Combat System vehicles.

The war is on within the Army over not only what soldiers will fight with in the future but also how they will fight. "Just as the Abrams and Bradley... defined operational maneuver in the 1980s, GCV will define mounted maneuver for another generation," Scales said. "It's not just about a vehicle; it's about something that's going to define your culture for a generation."

The Illusion Of Certainty

Technology has changed the tools of war. What seemed revolutionary 10 years ago is now routine: reconnaissance drones such as the Predator; digital Global Positioning System maps in Humvees and tanks; wireless networks linking manned and unmanned vehicles to command posts through electronic displays. But what has not changed is the nature of war: confusing and chaotic.

The new technology was "fantastic," said retired Lt. Col. Steven Russell, who led a heavy battalion in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 with what were then the latest digital systems. "But it did not replace the need to still close with the enemy and fight."

Lt. Col. Charles Hodges, whose Stryker unit served in Iraq in 2003-04 and 2006, agreed. The new technology allows you to "know where your guys are, but you don't know where the bad guys are.... While we've lifted some of the fog of war, we still haven't eliminated all of that."

Lifting the Fog of War was the title and promise of a book published in 2000 by the highest-ranking apostle of the "revolution in military affairs," Navy Adm. William Owens, who had retired as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff four years earlier. "Technology can give us the ability to see a 'battlefield' as large as Iraq or Korea," Owens wrote. "By 2010 -- and earlier if we accelerate the current rate of research and procurement -- the U.S. military will be able to 'see' virtually everything of military significance in and above such an area all the time, in all weather conditions, and regardless of the terrain."

On the eve of 2010, with 115,000 U.S. troops still engaged in Iraq, Owens's virtual vision rings hollow. "It was not that technology has failed us, it is that technology was never going to be able to provide what was being claimed for it," Sinnreich, the retired colonel, said. "This confidence that we could see, know, and understand everything that mattered on a ground battlefield was just ludicrous -- and so indeed it has proved.... It's like [Werner] Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Uncertainty is built into the structure of subatomic physics; well, uncertainty is built into the structure of the land battle."

The Army's forthcoming Capstone Concept, McMaster said, explicitly rejects "the belief that technological capabilities had essentially lifted the fog of war... [and] that the development of these technological capabilities would substitute for traditional elements of combat power, fighting power, especially on land. Now we see the limitations of these technologies."

Stryker Not Ideal

Some members of Congress have asked the Army why it doesn't just build more Strykers, which travel on huge rubber tires rather than tracks and have gotten decent reviews in Iraq for their survivability and maneuverability. The Stryker does meet one of the key goals set for the future Ground Combat Vehicle. Because the Stryker carries nine soldiers into battle instead of the Bradley's six, it injects 50 percent more combat power where it counts most: at the lowest fighting level, the squad.

All else being equal, more passengers means that a bigger, heavier, and more expensive vehicle is needed to protect them. But with the Stryker, all else is very much unequal: It weighs about half as much as a Bradley, while carrying half again as many troops, because it has far less weaponry and armor. Shinseki's vision was that superior technology would make up the difference, allowing Stryker units to see the enemy coming on their sensors, avoid being hit in the first place, and supplement their own light weapons by calling in long-range precision strikes from artillery or aircraft.

As the next step in Shinseki's program, the now-canceled Future Combat System infantry carrier was supposed to combine Stryker's nine-soldier capacity with even more electronics, a bigger gun, and better protection than the Bradley -- while maintaining the Stryker's weight. But the revolutionary lightweight technologies that were supposed to make this possible never materialized. The FCS was delayed repeatedly, and the vehicle grew steadily heavier, from less than 20 tons to more than 26, until Gates canceled it outright because it still lacked adequate underbelly protection to survive roadside bombs.

Now the Army wants the Ground Combat Vehicle to carry nine infantrymen while providing better protection than the Stryker or the Bradley -- but it cannot rely on discredited ideas of substituting technology for armor, or wait for the development of ultralight materials. That is the engineering challenge the Army put to the defense industry on November 24.

New Armor For Old

While the Army and the industry struggle to design the Ground Combat Vehicle, they are feverishly overhauling the machines the service has. Since 2004, more than 5,100 vehicles that roll onto the battlefield on tracks have been "reset" to zero miles on the odometer, as have more than 44,000 trucks, in a collaboration between Army repair depots and the vehicles' manufacturers. The total cost of these rebuilds so far is $25.3 billion. The overhaul "takes it literally down to the frame," explained James Dwyer, the Army Materiel Command's reset chief. "We take basically all of the parts off... to include the track, the road wheels, the engine, and the transmission. We take the turret off the hull" -- then put it all back together again.

"Resetting" a single M1 tank costs $3.3 million; taking the opportunity to upgrade to the latest electronics boosts the price tag to $5.2 million -- but that's still less than the cost of a new vehicle. The same process on an M2 Bradley costs $1.5 million, or $2.7 million with new electronics. Because a reset replaces the moving parts that wear out over time -- some 30,000 of them on a single tank -- "on average, the usage-age of an M1 tank is only about four years.... The M2 fleet is about five to six years old," Dwyer said. "To be quite honest with you, the health of the heavy fleet is really very, very good."

The Pentagon is counting on that because it has not bought any new tracked combat vehicles since 1995. Instead, it has invested in vehicles that travel on rubber tires: Strykers, up-armored Humvees, and, above all, the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles that Secretary Gates rushed into service for Iraq. Spending a total of $23.3 billion, Gates has bought 16,000 MRAPs in a dozen models, ranging in weight from less than 15 tons to more than 40. But these vehicles have proved too heavy for Afghanistan's poor roads, let alone for highway-less terrain. So Gates has ordered 6,000 M-ATVs -- Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected, All-Terrain Vehicles, relatively nimble at 12 tons -- from Oshkosh Corp. for $5.5 billion, and he has told Congress he might buy 4,000 more.

Meanwhile, after canceling most of the Army's Future Combat System program, the secretary ordered the service to start over with tracked-vehicle development. "The opponents of FCS," Scales, the retired major general, said pointedly, "many of them have in the back of their minds that either the Bradley or the MRAP will suffice, so all we need to do is gussy up those two things." But Scales considers further Bradley upgrades to be long past the point of diminishing returns and calls MRAP "a technological disaster." "It's not a fighting vehicle," he said. "I interviewed several soldiers who were in that platform in Afghanistan, and they all said the same thing. One called it a 'panic room.' It's where you go to hide, but you can't fight from it because you can't get off the road."

Among the soldiers interviewed for National Journal's ongoing oral history project of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, only four had firsthand experience with MRAPs; their opinions differed but in a revealing way. Two engineers tasked with driving along Iraqi roads clearing improvised explosive devices -- or getting hit by them -- loved their MRAPs. Two advisers whose job was to circulate among the local population and security forces preferred Humvees. Even in Iraqi cities, "there are some routes you can't get through in MRAPs" because they're too big, said Lt. Fernando Garcia, currently with an adviser brigade in Muthanna province. Although the new M-ATVs may change the Afghan equation, said Maj. Andrew Ashley, a former adviser in Helmand and Zabul provinces there, "for the day-to-day patrols, the MRAPs were too big, too heavy, too immobile."

The Bradley's Shortcomings

As a tracked vehicle, the Bradley still does better cross-country than the MRAP, and with a 25 mm automatic cannon and anti-tank missiles, it has far more firepower than the MRAP's machine guns provide. But the Bradley has its own problems, some of them the unintended consequences of three decades of upgrades.

"I'm 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, and I was very cramped inside the commander's hatch of the Bradley," Russell, the retired lieutenant colonel, said. "And reloading our machine guns was a real chore because the access doors to the machine gun were blocked by the screen" for the new digital displays. "You just have no room in the Bradley turret.... It wasn't designed to have all that stuff in there."

The Bradley's electrical system has not kept pace with the added electronics, nor has its engine been modified to handle the extra weight. "We've put armor on the sides, put armor on the belly... [and] that has all come at a cost," said Roy Perkins, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who heads the heavy-vehicle team at BAE Systems' land and armaments division, the contractor modifying the Bradleys. "It's not as fast as it used to be, it takes a little longer to stop, and the ground pressure's a little bit higher," which raises the risk of bogging down in sand or mud.

BAE plans to outfit the Bradley with a mini-generator along with a more powerful engine, which would boost the vehicle's electrical output from an anemic 11 kilowatts to 70 kW. A more elaborate installation being considered would kick that up to 140 kW and possibly even 200 kW. That is still less than the 420 kW capacity of the canceled Future Combat System vehicles, which were to have a hybrid-electric drive. But the Ground Combat Vehicle's requirements for power-hungry high technology are more modest: At least 40 kilowatts would be available for new communications networks after all other systems on the vehicle have been fully powered.

Could an upgraded Bradley be the new vehicle that the Army seeks? "BAE can submit anything they want," said Col. Bryan McVeigh, the Army's project manager for the Ground Combat Vehicle, but "the technology on the Bradley is getting pretty long in the tooth, and its ability to be upgraded to provide enough power to support the network is limited."

Even if a better Bradley could muster the necessary kilowatts and horsepower, it would still have to meet the fundamental requirement that the GCV transport more troops with better protection. The current Bradley carries three crew members and six passengers (with a seventh theoretically crammed into what even BAE's Perkins calls "the hellhole"). BAE did build a test model of a three-crew, nine-passenger Bradley by replacing the bulky two-man turret with a slimmer, unmanned weapons station remotely controlled from inside the hull. Meeting the GCV's protection standard, however, would probably require adding still more armor to the Bradley's underbelly and changing the suspension to lift the hull away from ground-based blasts. "We are looking for something that has the IED protection of an MRAP," McVeigh said, "but we also have to make sure that it's a mobile vehicle."

Rebuilds For Abrams And Paladin

The Bradley's burden is not unique. The new Tank Urban Survival Kit for the M1 Abrams main battle tank adds some 6 tons of side and underbelly armor, plus additional hardware, bringing the total weight to more than 75 tons. The Stryker, originally intended to be light enough to deploy on C-130 turboprop transport planes, has gone from 21 tons just seven years ago to 26 tons for the latest models now operating in Afghanistan with no increase in horsepower, which impairs cross-country mobility in the very war zone where it is most essential. A 30-ton Stryker is in the works, with a more powerful engine that will partially restore its original performance.

Is the Army at risk of upgrading its armored vehicles into the ground? An alternative approach is the radical rebuilding of the Vietnam-era M109 howitzer; BAE expects to complete the first five prototypes by January. The Army has overhauled the M109 before: In 1979, the howitzer got a new cannon; in 1992, it got a larger turret (with the same gun) and the nickname "Paladin." Now, under the modest title of Paladin Integrated Management, the Army and BAE are removing the Paladin turret, replacing its electronics and hydraulics, and installing it on an all-new chassis -- built largely with parts from the Bradley to save on development costs and spare parts. The cost per Paladin: $1.7 million.

The rebuilt howitzer will lack the weapons improvements planned for the canceled Crusader and Future Combat System cannons, such as longer range, greater accuracy, and a tireless automatic loader to replace human muscle in chambering shell after shell during long barrages. But it will have 24 percent more horsepower per ton to improve its lackluster mobility. And it will have four times as much electrical power for high-tech systems -- courtesy of the new, water-cooled mini-generator built by BAE that will also go into the renovated Bradleys.

Heavy And Adaptable

BAE declined to discuss what it might propose for a Ground Combat Vehicle. General Dynamics, which does not have an existing infantry carrier to build off of, was more forthcoming. "If you want to go up against the 30 millimeter cannon" -- standard on cheap, Russian-made armored vehicles in service around the world -- "you're probably in the 40-ton range, or mid-40s," Kotchman said.

Scales reluctantly agrees. "If you build what we're building into this thing -- all the self-protection and all the enablers and all the mobility -- and you still need to operate in primitive terrain like Afghanistan, and you follow the laws of physics, then in all probability, the vehicle will cut in between 35 and 40 tons," he said. "I wish it were less."

Indeed, there is a remarkable consensus among Capitol Hill staff, retired Army officers, and the defense industry on the new vehicle weighing in at 40 tons. That is the weight, incidentally, of the heaviest, best-protected MRAPs and Bradleys in service. It continues a trend of ever-greater weight not just in U.S. combat vehicles but also abroad. Having faced Hezbollah fighters with sophisticated anti-tank missiles in Lebanon in 2006, the Israelis have not only up-armored their Merkava tanks to 72 tons but are also building a Merkava variant, the Namer, as a super-heavy infantry carrier. (General Dynamics is bidding to build Namers in the U.S. for Israel.) Even the cost-conscious Russians have begun to up-armor their historically middleweight tanks after debacles at the hands of Chechen guerrillas armed with rocket-propelled grenades.

Whether it starts at 40 tons, or more, or less, the Ground Combat Vehicle is intended to keep growing heavier. To avoid often-awkward retrofits, the Army wants the GCV to be built from the start with electrical power, horsepower, and space to spare. Even the GCV's armor will be easily replaceable bolt-on plates (a technique pioneered on the Stryker and refined for the canceled Future Combat System vehicles). "It's making sure that you've got a design in there that can accept plug-and-play technology, that can accept upgraded armor," McVeigh said. "We know what the threat is today, but we know the threat will be ever-evolving over the next few decades."

This room for growth on the Ground Combat Vehicle is just one reflection of the Army's new emphasis on the need to adapt. Instead of the "revolution in military affairs," with its quest for certainty, the Army Capstone Concept emphasizes "flexibility of thought and operational adaptability" in the face of uncertainty. "If you try to optimize your force for a particular type or category of armed conflict," McMaster said, "you're just about guaranteeing that that's not the kind of fight you're going to have -- because the enemy will adapt."

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