When defense secretary Robert Gates recommended cancellation of the Army’s planned family of future combat vehicles last April, he emphasized the need to develop vehicles that incorporated the operational lessons of recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those lessons, which center on the threat posed by improvised explosive devices, tend to drive vehicle designs to heavier use of armor — which impedes rapid deployability to war zones and mobility once the vehicles get there. But when the now-canceled Future Combat System family of vehicles was first conceived, the service was more concerned with getting to the fight fast, so it proposed vehicles that were light enough to be transported on C-130 cargo planes and relied more on awareness than armor to survive.
The problem with the latter approach, as then vice chief of staff Richard Cody admitted to one stunned group of pundits, was that “if you get hit, you die.” Thus, once the IED threat got serious in Iraq, the amount of armor the service planned to use on the FCS family of vehicles began rising. By the time Gates shut the program down, the weight of the vehicles had roughly doubled, from 20 to 40 tons. After Gates told the Army to go back to the drawing board, it conceived a new “Ground Combat Vehicle” that might weigh as much as 70 tons, according to Andrea Shalal-Esa of Reuters. That’s about what an Abrams main battle tank weighs, and it doesn’t sound like anybody’s idea of a system that can be deployed quickly to places such as Afghanistan. It appears the Army is spinning its wheels (or its treads), because the laws of physics won’t allow it to design a system that is both easily deployable and highly survivable against emerging threats.
The obvious way out of this dilemma, as Army officials have frequently stated, is to come up with new vehicle protection technologies that don’t weigh so much. Items like lightweight ceramic armor and active defenses that can either absorb or deflect the kinetic energy of enemy weapons without disabling vehicle and crew. But most of those technologies are not going to be mature in the near future, and so the service is forced to choose between fielding a more conventional, heavier vehicle relatively soon, or a more futuristic, lighter vehicle much later. Insiders say “later” means something like 2025, given the time required to develop new technologies, integrate them into a vehicle design, test the results and then ramp up production.
Unfortunately, the threat may evolve considerably during the intervening period, and nobody is betting that the fiscal situation is going to improve. So although a solicitation for the new Ground Combat Vehicle may be released soon, the plan is looking increasingly tenuous. If the proposed system really weighs 70 tons as Reuters reported, then policymakers will want to know what’s so great about the new vehicle that makes it a better investment than simply upgrading the existing fleet of Abrams, Bradley and Stryker vehicles. And even if it is a clear leap ahead in terms of capability, there is the question of what to do about the elaborate battlefield network Boeing developed to link together the family of future combat vehicles. It may look world-class today, but how will it look in 15 years, when the new vehicle finally starts reaching the troops in quantity? This seems to be one program where the vision of future warfare is dimming fast.
Find Archived Articles: