The senior leadership of the U.S. Army is becoming a bigger threat to the Bradley Fighting Vehicle than insurgents in Southwest Asia. The service’s top uniformed acquisition official, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, told Congress on October 26 that the Bradley is “the second-most attrited vehicle” in recent combat, and went on to imply that was why the vehicle has seen less action lately. In fact, the exact opposite is true: the Bradley has proven to be the least attrited vehicle in recent fights, and no soldiers at all have died while riding in Bradleys equipped with additional protection for urban combat.
It appears that in his zeal to make the case for a bigger and much more expensive replacement of the Bradley, Lt. Gen. Phillips has exaggerated the vulnerability of the toughest troop carrier the Army has. It’s true the Bradley saw heavy combat and suffered losses during the early years of the Iraq campaign, because it was designed to fight in environments where lesser vehicles could not go. But when you adjust for the number of vehicles engaged in the fight, the Bradley looks more survivable than any other fighting system in the fleet. As Tony Bertuca of insidedefense.com reported in a November 11 posting, the gradual decline in Bradley exposure to combat reflects shifting tactical requirements rather a problem with vulnerability.
The Army is not doing itself any favors by bad-mouthing Bradley. It owns about 7,000 of the vehicles, and probably will continue relying on them for decades to come. Of all the proposed replacements for the aged M113 troop carrier, it looks like the safest for occupants. There’s a persuasive case for fielding a mixed fleet of tracked Bradleys and wheeled Strykers when the slower M113 is retired, but that case isn’t exactly bolstered by exaggerating the vulnerability of the Bradley. The truth of the matter is Bradley is the only armored vehicle the Army has capable of fighting alongside Abrams tanks in the most intense combat, protecting the soldiers it carries while defeating all comers including enemy tanks.
The Army argues that it needs a better-protected fighting vehicle for the future — one that can carry a full dismounted squad of nine soldiers in addition to the crew, and still have space for additional features. That’s a fair argument, but at $10 million per vehicle, the operational survivability of the proposed Ground Combat Vehicle may prove less important than its political survivability in Washington’s budget wars. Some outside analysts believe the Ground Combat Vehicle could end up costing as much as the Marine Corps’ canceled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, and even if it doesn’t you have to wonder what it means when a ten-or-twelve-million-dollar vehicle is needed to cope with rag-tag insurgents using improvised explosive devices that cost a hundred dollars.
I’ll forego the broader debate about the future of armored warfare, but it seems self-destructive for senior Army leaders to be criticizing one of their most vital combat systems to advance the cause of a program that may never be built at all. The irony is that Bradley manufacturer BAE Systems is doing more than other potential sources to make the Ground Combat Vehicle a game-changer, for example by investing in hybrid drive. Without such innovations, it’s unlikely that Congress will fund what otherwise looks to be a very pricey combat vehicle. The Army’s main response to date has been to continuously criticize the company’s premier product, even though the numbers indicate it has performed well in combat. Is it any wonder many big military contractors are investing in diversification plays outside the defense market?
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