The Army’s acquisition system has been captivated of late by the ongoing effort to procure a new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). In some sense the GCV along with its linear antecedent the Future Combat System has preoccupied the Army for more than a decade. The Army now wants to make the GCV contracting process the poster child for future major acquisitions. The new GCV request for proposals (RFPs) marked a major change for the Army. The revised proposal defined only four key performance parameters, rather than the dozens that was a typical number in prior RFPs. The most important goal was that the GCV carry an entire 9-person squad. For the first time, the RFP set objectives for the GCV’s acquisition and life cycle costs. With a target price of around $10 million a copy for an initial fleet of slightly over 1,800 vehicles, the GCV program will cost nearly $20 billion dollars.
Despite the limited size of the planned acquisition, the GCV looms large in Army plans for the future. First, the Army hopes that the GCV program will re-establish credibility for the acquisition process which has been marred in recent years by a series of costly program failures and cancellations. There is also the desire to bring the lessons of nearly ten years of war into the design and procurement of new weapons systems. The Army would also like to demonstrate that it has gotten the message emanating from the Office of the Secretary of Defense about the need to reform the acquisition process, reduce the time it takes to bring new capabilities online and control costs.
The intense focus by the Army and the defense community on the GCV program is somewhat ironic since there is a better example of responsive acquisition in a time of war, one which provides enduring lessons for the Army and the Department of Defense. This has been the transformation of the way the Army has been acquiring soldier clothing and individual equipment.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan marked a radical change in the way the Army (and, of course, the Marine Corps) thought about the needs of warriors in combat. The predominance of dismounted activities placed new and unanticipated demands on the individual soldiers and marines. The character of the ongoing conflicts also illuminated a major problem in the Army’s acquisition strategy: the underfunding of the warfighting needs of individual soldiers. It rapidly became evident that soldiers and marines were inadequately equipped, initially lacking a wide range of materials including rugged and comfortable clothing, boots and helmets, adequate body armor, night vision systems, laser lights and designators, sights and scopes and tools.
The Army created specific organizations, policies and procedures designed to respond rapidly, effectively and cheaply to the demands flooding in from the field. First there was the Rapid Equipping Force (REF), designed to respond to urgent operational needs from units in combat and to provide a solution within 180 days. Second the Army stood up the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) with the purpose of ensuring that units heading to the field had the necessary clothing, tools and equipment to perform their missions. The RFI was designed, in part, to ensure that the Army was making up for the years of neglect in procuring modern gear and clothing for soldiers. The RFI has also invested in the science and technology needed to improve clothing and equipment for the soldier. Both the REF and RFI have been moved from temporary to permanent status, a sign of the Army’s recognition of the need to pay greater attention to changing demands for individual and unit equipment.
There is a deeper issue framed by a comparison of the GCV program with those to provide soldiers with improved clothing and equipment. Major weapons programs have always dominated the attention and the financial resources of the armed services. Soldier clothing and equipment, however vital to the ability of the individual to perform their mission and survive combat, was often given less attention. Clothing and basic equipment were too often viewed as commodity items, readily available from the commercial marketplace. Almost nothing was invested to maintain this sector of the industrial base or to pursue development of advanced capabilities.
Yet, the experience with the REF and RFI programs demonstrates the importance of giving serious and consistent attention to soldier clothing and individual equipment. Providing proper clothing and protective gear requires enormous technological capacity and production skills. Just look at the newly designed digitized camouflage uniform for Afghanistan. Or try designing body armor that balances the need for protection against the problem of weighing down the soldier. Modern soldier clothing and equipment requires increasingly high technology investments.
The danger is that as the current conflicts wind down, the Army will proceed with the GCV program and with its other efforts to modernize its combat vehicle fleet but will revert to its old habits when it comes to soldier clothing and individual equipment. This would place at risk a domestic industrial base that successfully met the demands of soldiers and marines in the field. This base is already dangerously lean; it can ill-afford modernization or investments in new technology absent stable funding by the Pentagon. If the Army is not careful it will have its new combat vehicle, one able to carry an entire squad, but that squad will be poorly equipped to deal with the environment outside the walls of that vehicle.
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