Last week the U.S. Army released its revised request for proposal (RFP) for the new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). The initial proposal had been criticized as dictating too many key performance parameters which resulted, according to reports, in industry responses that were deemed technically risky and excessively costly. The new RFP has only four key performance parameters for the new vehicle: ability to carry a nine man squad; force protection; the ability to conduct the full spectrum of operations (meaning it must be able to carry offensive weapons too) and; growth potential and open systems. There are 38 other performance parameters that are part of the “trade space” in designing a vehicle.
Overall, both the old and new RFPs are based on the Army’s view that it must be able to dominate close engagements of every type from a standup fight with opposing armored forces to counterinsurgency actions, stability operations and information warfare. According to a senior Army spokesman, “this has driven the need for an infantry fighting vehicle that’s versatile and adaptable, through configuration changes, to allow us to adapt ‘on the fly’ in an operational theatre as needed and have the potential to maintain growth in terms of size, weight, power, and cooling.” Just to make the effort a little “sporty,” responders to the RFP only have seven years to design and develop this new vehicle, must not breach a specified cost ceiling and have to agree to a firm fixed price contract.
But the larger question is not whether the Army’s vision of the GCV makes sense or even, given concerns from industry, whether the RFP is properly structured, but whether the Army should be focusing at all on a new ground combat vehicle. The Army faces imminent challenges that would seem to make the subject of a new squad-carrying combat vehicle of secondary importance. According to the U.S Army’s new Operating Concept, the major new challenges include: increasing uncertainty in the future operational environment; adversaries that will be able to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic surprise; state and non-state actors that will have sophisticated capabilities; operating environments where land, air, space, maritime and cyberspace superiority is increasingly contested; the increasing likelihood of anti-access and area denial challenge, operational denial, and tactical overmatch; a limited ability by U.S. forces to overcome anti-access and area denial capabilities, deploy into austere locations, and sustain operations in immature theaters.
While there is value to be had in a highly survivable vehicle that can transport an entire infantry squad while also carrying “heavy” weapons, such a capability does not seem to address the Army’s biggest challenges. In fact, building another massive, fifty to seventy ton vehicle does not seem the right solution to the problem of deploying into austere locations and sustaining operations in immature theaters. But even if it were, the dominant problem for the Army is not how to get a nine man squad from a Forward Operating Base to the scene of a tactical engagement but whether it will be able to conduct expeditionary warfare in the future or operate in a high-intensity threat environment.
One of the key areas in need of attention is air and missile defenses. The Army is acquiring more Patriot batteries and is beginning to deploy the even more capable THAAD system. This may not be enough in the face of the long-range ballistic missiles being fielded by China, Iran, North Korea and Hezbollah. Then there is the proliferation of rockets, artillery and mortars. The Army has finally begun to acknowledge the need to acquire counter-rocket and counter-mortar attack capabilities. Apparently, Army leaders are starting to receive operational need statements regarding capabilities to counter unmanned aerial systems. Providing counters to asymmetric anti-access and area denial threats would appear to be a higher priority than a big armored truck (with a gun or missile on top, of course).
Another priority area for investment by the Army ought to be precision strike. The Army spent a lot of money on systems such as Excalibur to achieve near-certainty of a first round hit. But it cut back on its estimates of how many rounds it would require. The Army is moving forward with a precision mortar round to support forces in low-intensity operations. But looking to the challenge of full spectrum operations particularly in complex and urban terrain, the Army must anticipate large-scale firefights and artillery “duels” with very challenging requirements for avoidance of collateral damage and suppression of enemy fires. This suggests a lot of investment in both ISR and very precise, very small rounds. While I am on the subject of improvement to fires, perhaps the Army ought to make the replacement of its venerable Paladin self-propelled artillery a priority. It has already tried and failed twice (Crusader and NLOS-C) to accomplish this objective.
Then there is the ever-important area of networks. The Army is looking to create a seamless network for mounted and dismounted forces. Recent reports suggest that the Army would like to equip every soldier with the equivalent of a 3G or 4G cell phone. While the re-released Ground Combat Vehicle RFP could be the start of a revolution in how the Army develops requirements and acquires weapons systems it may not be the right place to invest lots of scarce resources. The Army already has a massive fleet of armored combat systems virtually all of which can or are being modernized. The opportunity costs of investing in another ground combat system seem to be just too high at this point in time.
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