The Army Systems Acquisition Review Council held a meeting about combat vehicle modernization this week, and the one message that came out of deliberations loud and clear is that the service can’t afford all of the initiatives it is planning. The general consensus among members of the service’s most senior weapons panel is that something will have to go. That sets up a competition for funding between upgrades of systems that are already fielded and next-generation armored vehicles, most notably the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) conceived to replace the venerable Bradley troop carrier. GCV would provide an entire nine-soldier squad with superior protection and mobility, but even if it were carried through to fruition it would only replace a portion of the fleet. Upgrades to legacy vehicles could enhance the performance and survivability of the entire fleet, but they would not eliminate problems like the limited carrying capacity of Bradley.
Sources are divided as to what participants in this week’s deliberations decided about the Ground Combat Vehicle. Some say that Army leaders have begun to back away from GCV in view of cost and schedule problems identified by analysts in the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment & Program Evaluation shop. Based on experience with similar programs in the past, the analysts do not believe the new vehicle can be fielded in seven years for a unit cost of “only” ten million dollars. Any breech of the $10 million-per-copy threshold would put GCV in the same budgetary no man’s land that wiped out the Marine Corps Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle — a significantly more capable system.
Other sources say that GCV remains on track, and that it will soon secure a formal go-ahead from the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board, the final arbiter in such matters. That would be good news for prospective bidders such as BAE Systems, which is proposing an innovative hybrid drive to reduce fuel consumption and ease logistics burdens. Like competitor General Dynamics, BAE Systems needs the Army to fund some sort of new start so that highly specialized design and engineering teams can be kept intact. But if the Ground Combat Vehicle is fully funded, that presumably means that legacy vehicles such as the Abrams tank, Bradley fighting vehicle and Stryker troop carrier will not get the kind of upgrades required to maximize their battlefield performance.
Of all the vehicles in the current fleet, the Stryker probably comes closest to reconciling operational needs with what the political system wants to support during a period of severe fiscal pressures. Adapted from the Canadian Light Armored Vehicle to fill a gap in capabilities between hard-to-deploy heavy vehicles and hard-to-protect light vehicles, the eight-wheel troop carrier has been repeatedly modified with improved electronics and armor as threat conditions changed — including a “double-V” shaped underbelly that deflects blasts from explosives. It’s nowhere near as capable as the planned GCV, but at about $2 million per copy, you can buy five Strykers for the projected cost of one Ground Combat Vehicle. And because Stryker is in production today, it has a hard-wired political constituency that Congress would like to keep happy.
GCV has no such constituency. The political drawback of its big price-tag is amplified by the fact that the Army has done such a poor job of executing major development programs over the past decade. Some legislators may fear that any money spent on the Ground Combat Vehicle will be wasted, because it could be cancelled before it reaches production. For those players, it is a lot easier to just upgrade existing vehicles like Abrams, Bradley and Stryker that already have strong political support, rather than commencing a costly new start as the government heads into a period of fiscal austerity. With items like hybrid drive and lightweight armor, GCV could be an impressive warfighting machine. The question Congress will ask is whether it’s impressive enough to justify foregoing upgrades to everything else for a system that may never get fielded.
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