Media reporting tends to give the impression that the Department of Defense (DoD) is a high tech operation. When people think about Pentagon spending it’s usually in the context of such technologies as stealth fighters, nuclear ships and submarines, unmanned vehicles or precision weapons. Then there are the wonders of the modern world that had their start in DoD programs: the Internet, computers, jet engines, nuclear power plants and biomedical sensors.
So it might come as a surprise that the single largest equipment expense for the Pentagon is not aircraft, helicopters or missiles but vehicles. According to a recent article in Aviation Week, for the three procurement categories of tracked combat vehicles, wheeled combat vehicles and trucks DoD spent more than 12 billion dollars in 2010, the same as the previous year. Much of that money went for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and their smaller cousins, the MRAP All Terrain Vehicle or M-ATV. The cost to acquire more than 25,000 MRAP/M-ATVs has been more than 35 billion dollars so far. To these figures can be added billions for upgraded and uparmored Humvees, for the highly successful Stryker wheeled combat vehicle and for both medium and heavy trucks. On top of procurement costs are the many billions that have been spent on repairing vehicles damaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and on something the military calls reset, the refurbishment of vehicles worn down from use.
Vehicle costs are likely to remain very high even as defense budgets decline. The Army has a vision of recapitalizing some portion of its current fleet of 154,000 Humvees, possibly adding major survivability upgrades such as an armored crew capsule or a blast-venting “chimney.” There is the upcoming Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) program intended to replace some portion of the Humvee fleet with a more capable “truck.” The Army has started a competition for a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), replacement for the venerable Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The program could cost around 20 billion dollars for some 1,800 vehicles. Finally, there is the ongoing effort to enhance the current fleets of M-1 Abrams tanks and Bradleys, both of which will remain in the inventory for decades to come.
Modern vehicles, particularly the combat platforms, definitely have high tech elements. The upgrades to the M-1 include sophisticated sensors and targeting systems. Many of the MRAPs and M-ATVs have advanced IED jammers or the Common Remotely-Operated Weapons Station (CROWS). There are an array of very sophisticated radios and computer networks. In fact, so heavy is the demand for electronics on modern vehicles that part of the rationale for the GCV program is to provide a vehicle with a significant increase in power generation. BAE Systems, one of the companies bidding for the GCV contract, has proposed a hybrid electric drive system, the first time such technology would be seen in a military vehicle.
As fleet sizes grow and vehicle complexity increases, so will costs. Simply maintaining these massive fleets of tracked and wheeled combat vehicles, trucks and cars will be a huge expense for the military, in general, and, in particular, the Army. For new programs, there is nothing cheap about a 10 million dollar GCV or a 500,000 dollar JLTV. The Army and Marine Corps have yet to figure out what they are going to do with all those purpose-build MRAPs and M-ATVs when the U.S. finally withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Proponents of defense spending cuts like to focus on the so-called big ticket items when they propose reductions. It may be time to take a critical look at all the billions being spent on ground vehicles.
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