If you’re figuring out where to place your bets in the defense market over the next few years, you might want to skip reading the ground maneuver section of the 2014 Army Equipment Modernization Plan. It says that brigade combat teams will be transformed by acquiring the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) and a low-cost replacement for the Vietnam-era M113 personnel carrier called the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV). Only one problem: there isn’t going to be a Ground Combat Vehicle — it isn’t affordable in the current fiscal environment — and the M113 replacement is morphing into the centerpiece of armored-system modernization despite its modest capabilities.
I can’t say I’m completely surprised by the impending demise of GCV, since I described it as “doomed” a couple of years back in a piece for Forbes. On the other hand, if you’ve ridden in a Bradley fighting vehicle lately (I have) you know why Army planners thought GCV was needed. The Ground Combat Vehicle was supposed to carry a full nine-man rifle squad, meaning two mutually supporting fire teams for dismounted maneuver. Bradley can barely accommodate one fire team, which potentially undercuts the survivability and success of dismounted operations on the modern battlefield.
Not that I’m criticizing the Bradley. It’s the best tracked personnel carrier on the battlefield, a potent counterpart to the firepower of the Abrams tank. But under the dual burdens of budget sequestration and shrinking funds for overseas contingencies, the Army is having a tough time modernizing its armored-vehicle fleet. As GCV begins to recede from sight, AMPV is taking on characteristics not previously planned, and meanwhile the industrial base for legacy tracked vehicles is slowly ebbing away. If the service doesn’t get its act together, there is a real possibility that all production of heavy armored vehicles will cease in the United States before the end of the Obama years.
The plan is to reconstitute operations at the two main industrial sites in York, Pennsylvania and Lima, Ohio at some point towards the end of the decade after a multi-year hiatus in production activity, but you can’t mothball workers so who knows what will have happened to specialized skills such as titanium welding. The workforce is not young and it takes many years to gain proficiency in some of the key specialties, so it is really important for the Army to give its dwindling supplier base some reason for staying engaged — a distant light at the end of this dimming tunnel. AMPV has now been tapped to serve as that last, best hope for armored-vehicle makers, but at the rate the customer keeps changing its plan, who could blame companies for giving up and chasing other opportunities?
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