In April 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. At the time, he said that the FCS had been designed for a different environment than the one that the U.S. military now confronted. Secretary Gates tasked that service to come back to him with a plan to build a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), one designed to meet the needs of the wars the Army could expect to fight.
The FCS was designed in response to a vision of future land warfare that centered on engagements between mobile, armored forces – the kind of war the Army thought it would fight against the former Soviet Union. The FCS’s design emphasized the need for rapid strategic mobility and the use of information superiority to ensure the tactical success. Vehicle weight, including for protective armor that provides survivability, was minimized in order to enhance transportability and tactical maneuverability. Great reliance was placed on the network of sensors and communications systems to protect the FCS vehicles by allowing them to avoid dangers.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan undermined the basic vision for the FCS. The high tech U.S. military was all but brought to its knees by insurgents employing relatively unsophisticated technologies such as improvised explosive devices (IED) and rocket-propelled grenades. In response, the Pentagon began a crash program to put additional armor on virtually all its vehicles and, after a few years of dithering, to develop vehicles specially designed to meet the need for enhanced survivability. The result was the eponymous Mine Resistant, Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles. The MRAPs sacrificed speed, off-road mobility and carrying capacity in favor of enhanced protection. A lighter version of the wheeled MRAP, the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle (M-ATV), is being deployed in Afghanistan.
The Army is vague in public about the features it wants in the new GCV. What is clear is that the GCV will not be based on a vision of future conflict but rather on the need to respond to shortfalls in the existing fleets of armored vehicles. The Army has said that the GCV should carry an infantry squad and be as safe from blasts as an MRAP. If enhanced off-road mobility is required, the GCV will have to be a tracked system.
The Army’s plan is for the GCV to replace the Army’s fleets of M-113s and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. The problem with this is that both those systems are deployed in Heavy Brigade Combat Teams, not the Infantry Brigade Combat Teams which are seeing most of the action in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Bradleys, if suitably upgraded, could continue to function perfectly well in the heavy brigades and even replace the M-113s. Moreover, Bradleys are employed currently in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside Strykers, MRAPs and up-armored Humvees in composite formations. So why does the Army want another infantry carrier? And why deploy it in the heavy brigades? If greater off-road mobility is desirable, what is wrong with the M-ATV or an enhanced protection variant of the Stryker (the design for which is already available)?
An alternative vision for the GCV is provided by Major General Robert Scales, U.S, Army (Ret.) in the current issue of Armed Forces Journal. General Scales argues that what should drive the design of the GCV is not survivability but the way tactical ground units in Iraq and Afghanistan operate. He points out that soldiers and marines today ride to the battle but then dismount to engage the insurgents. Their vehicles serve as “motherships,” providing a means for carrying all the equipment that encumber and weigh down ground warriors and as an expedient base or source of shelter from fire. The other point General Scales makes is that our current family of survivable vehicles are virtually all wheeled. They suffer from restricted maneuverability in complex terrain. General Scales argues that the demands for survivability need to be balanced against the need for off-road mobility. General Scales proposes that the GCV be designed to transport a fully-equipped infantry squad rapidly over complex terrain and provide the means, including communications, weapons and carrying capacity, to serve as an expedient base or “mothership” for that squad.
Both visions for the future have the same weakness. They both assume that the current conflicts are the same as those we will fight in the future. The emphasis will be on counterinsurgency operations in complex terrain and small unit engagements. Perhaps, but I would assert that the U.S. military is just as likely to face an opponent possessing a range of conventional military capabilities, including heavily-armored combined-arms formations. An MRAP on steroids, even if it runs on tracks and not wheels, is not the vehicle the military needs for that kind of operation. In addition, there are already more than enough counterinsurgency vehicles in the fleets, many tens of thousands of them.
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