Article Published in Army Magazine
The English dramatist James Shirley wrote in 1659 that “there is no armor against fate”, a warning that seems all too apt when considering the uncertain future of the Army’s main battletanks. In the 85 years since the first forty-ton armored behemoth appeared on the Western Front, the tank has become the signature warfighting system of the Army, the weapon that more than any other symbolizes land combat in the twentieth century. Today, for the first time in its history, the U.S. Army leads the world in tank technology. But with barely a hundred days left in the American Century, the service seems ambivalent about how best to preserve that lead.
The formal answer can be found in the Army’s recently released Armored Systems Modernization Report, a congressionally-mandated plan for upgrading and eventually replacing the Abrams main battle tank and Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. But like other features of the Army’s future, clarity of vision with regard to armor diminishes with distance so that the long-term goal of a next-generation combat vehicle described in the report is hazy and incomplete. Unfortunately, many of the near-term decisions concerning tank recapitalization and sustainment hinge on the long-term plan, giving the entire document a somewhat tentative quality.
That vagueness is not really the Army’s fault. The reason service leaders call the envisioned forces of Army XXI “capabilities-based” rather than threat-based is because there is no urgent external danger to focus investment plans. Like the other services, the Army must guess what the threats of 2010 or 2020 will be, knowing that some of its guesses are likely to be wrong. The service’s preferred way of coping with this uncertainty is to emphasize emerging technologies that provide the greatest potential leverage on future battlefields, most notably information technology.
The current approach is to digitize existing systems in the near term (a division in 2000, a corps in 2004) and then consider more fundamental change over the longer term. The new technologies will be used in much the same way that plastic was when it first appeared in the1920’s: initially by mimicking traditional products, and only later by taking full advantage of its unique properties. But because the Army’s modernization funds are so limited its entire investment budget this year adds up to about five weeks worth of sales at WalMart the service has to take risks no matter how it implements the new technologies.
A case in point is the provisional plan to shut down the main tank production facility in Lima, Ohio, at the end of the 2000-2005 defense spending cycle. That plan is dictated by a belief that the service cannot afford to continue major upgrades of the Abrams while it funds development of a next-generation armored vehicle. The funding assessment may be valid, but it is not likely the Army will know enough about the future maturity of leap-ahead technologies to make an informed decision on shut down in the 2003-2005 time frame. The vision of a “future combat system” today consists of little more than a list of adjectives on viewgraphs. If those adjectives prove unattainable or mutually exclusive or inappropriate circa 2025, then early shutdown of Abrams production may end up looking like a colossal blunder especially if major new threats to U.S. land power have emergedin the intervening period.
It is somewhat surprising that a notional system can undermine the case for evolving a weapon already recognized to be the best of its kind in history. The present absence of urgent threats undoubtedly contributes to this situation by diminishing the apparent consequences of poor choices. But there is another dynamic also at work, memorably captured in Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 study,The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Sometimes, Kuhn said, established systems are overthrown by nascent competitors not because the new approach is demonstrably better, but because it addresses certain issues that have come to be viewed as critical. There may be many other issues that the older system addresses more effectively, but partly for subjective reasons those are assigned lesser significance (perhaps because they are viewed as having been solved). And so a new and largely unproven concept supplants an older, better-established approach.
That seems to be what is happening to the Abrams tank. It has largely resolved the issues of survivability and lethality that traditionally drove development of armored vehicles. And with various digital-technology insertions it can readily participate in information-age maneuver warfare. But the issues that seem to most concern the armor community at present are deployability and battlefield sustainment — the obvious weaknesses of a seventy-ton vehicle driven by a gas turbine engine. These are the challenges that a future combat system weighing two-thirds less and propelled by electricity (or at least something other than fossil fuel) is well-suited to solving.
But there are many potential problems with the notional solution. It may not be survivable due to lack of sufficient armor. It may not be lethal due to lack of adequate firepower. The propulsion technology needed to ease logistical strains may be unavailable. And so on. These are pretty fundamental concerns, concerns unlikely to be resolved before the key decision points onwhether to proceed with Abrams shutdown are reached.
Army vision documents obscure this dilemma with the positive-sounding dictum that the service will build “mental agility” first i.e., digitize and only after this is achieved in the form of information dominance will the service focus on attaining “physical agility”. But most of the industrial capabilities needed for mental agility reside in the commercial sector of the economy, whereas a sizeable portion of those related to physical agility are found in the military-unique armored vehicle industrial base. If Abrams production ceases, the Army may find that by the time it gets around to pursuing physical agility its legs have already atrophied (the Abrams upgrade program alone sustains about 80% of the nation’s heavy-armor industrial capability).
Current Army modernization plans for both the Abrams and the Bradley are organized in three phases stretching 25 years into the next century. In the near term, essentially coterminous with the fiscal 2000-20005 spending plan, the service will digitize active-force armor so that it can be seamlessly integrated with the Army’s tactical command and control internet. Over the following ten years, it will “institutionalize” the information dominance of Army XXI and selectively upgrade existing systems while beginning to develop next-generation weapons. Then in the period 2015-2025 it will make the transition to the Army After Next, a force posture combining revolutionary new systems with highly-evolved variants of those existing today.
The latter point is important, because some people have a misconception that the Army After Next will be populated exclusively by next-generation systems. In fact, even if a revolutionary new future combat system is produced it will not be the dominant vehicle in maneuver forces until around 2030. That means the Army’s main armor assets for the next . . .
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