AUSA: BAE has had plenty on its plate lately, what with the failed merger with EADS and all. But at least BAE’s American division was the odds-on favorite for the Army’s Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV). That is, at least until last week. That’s when rival General Dynamics debuted a tracked version of its 8×8 wheeled Stryker at the Association of the US Army conference in Washington, DC.

The backstory: For decades, BAE and General Dynamics had pretty much split the US combat vehicle market. General Dynamics built the massive M1 Abrams main battle tank at its plant in Lima, Ohio, while BAE built the smaller but tank-like M2 Bradley troop carrier (technically, an “infantry fighting vehicle”) and its various variants in York, Penn. Production of new vehicles ceased years ago, but there’s a thriving business in upgrades, especially improved armor and electronics. Both firms worked on developing new vehicles for the Army’s Future Combat Systems program; when FCS failed, they both got contracts to build dueling prototypes for the Ground Combat Vehicle, a better-protected replacement for the Bradley, although the Army is now under some pressure to cut the competition short and pick a winner soon.

Humming along in the background, however, is the AMPV, a low-profile but high-impact program to replace at least 3,000 M113s, the 1960s-vintage workhorse of the Army’s armored divisions. Running on tank-style tracks like the Bradley, but much less well armed and armored, the M113 has long since retired from frontline roles but remains in service as a support vehicle, serving as everything from a mobile command post to a mortar carrier to an armored ambulance. In Iraq, though, the threat of improvized explosive devices was so great that the M113 was rarely allowed off-base. In the relatively static warfare of the last decade, when the Army could rely on an extensive network of bases, the Army could make do without M113s. In future, more mobile campaigns in less well-provided theaters, however, the Army will need a support vehicle that can actually keep up with the combat forces — hence the AMPV.

So while the Ground Combat Vehicle program gets most of the money and attention, the Army’s is still committed to buying the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. In fact, since the AMPV’s required capabilities are so much more modest — it’s basically an armored, track-borne truck, not a front-line assaulter — and its cost accordingly so much lower, the AMPV has a better chance to survive the coming budget cuts.

“The Army’s current plan for this thing is very slow and very low risk, and it’s not a huge amount of money compared to GCV, so right now I don’t detect any opposition,” one Congressional staffer told Breaking Defense.

One pundit even argued that AMPV should be the Army’s top-priority vehicle. “The one area where there has been no modernization in decades has been the M113,” the Lexington Institute’s Daniel Goure told Breaking Defense. “We have a very good infantry fighting vehicle, the world’s best tank, and an obsolete, very vulnerable M113 fleet.”

While the formal requirements are still being worked out, with a request for proposals expected early in 2013, the AMPV competition is already shaping up. The Army wants low cost, both to develop the vehicle and to keep it supplied with spare parts, so the emphasis is on modifying machines already in service. BAE will offer a turretless version of the Bradley, the current mainstay of the Army’s heavy armored brigades, while General Dynamics had been expected to offer its eight-wheel-drive Stryker, currently used in the eponymous medium-weight Stryker brigades.

That match-up distinctly favored BAE. The Army’s analysis of the M113’s missions put a premium on the ability to move cross-country. Over and over, the Army’s formal briefing to industry back in April emphasized that AMPV “requires off-road mobility comparable to M1/M2″ — both tracked vehicles. The simple fact is that above a certain weight threshold, about 20 tons, wheeled vehicles simply don’t do as well off-road. That’s why the tank was invented in the first place.

The Army has considered splitting the current M113 missions between two different vehicles, a tracked AMPV to provide support right behind the fighting forces and a wheeled version for relatively road-bound missions in the rear, like transporting higher-level headquarters. Then the service could buy some of BAE’s turretless Bradley and some of General Dynamics’ Strykers. But most of the missions would require a tracked vehicle, so most of the money would go to BAE.

General Dynamics’ development of a tracked Stryker changes that equation. Now the Army has a tracked alternative from either vendor. If the services decides to buy a mix of tracked and wheeled vehicles after all, General Dynamics is the only competitor that can offer both — and with common components to ease maintenance across the AMPV fleet.

“The tracked Stryker, it makes it possible for GD to possibly get the whole thing,” said the Congressional source.

General Dynamics is more modest. “We’re hedging our bets,” GD’s senior vice-president for ground combat systems, Michael Cannon, told Breaking Defense. The company went from concept to a working vehicle in five months, he said.

Admittedly, that first tracked Stryker, the “concept demonstrator” at AUSA, is not exactly what the company would offer for the AMPV contest. Besides incorporating whatever the Army’s final requirements are, the next iteration of the tracked Stryker will have wider tracks with more road wheels to drive them, making for better cross-country mobility. It will weigh 32 tons, about the same as the latest, most uparmored wheeled Stryker, but will have vastly more horsepower, 675 instead of 450. Pledged Cannon, “We will have it ready in January 2014.”

BAE, naturally, is skeptical. “I’m not sure how you convert a vehicle specifically designed for wheeled operations” to run on tracks, said Roy Perkins, director of business development for BAE’s ground vehicles. The suspension, for one thing, is totally different. “The thing to remember about our vehicle is it’s not a new vehicle,” Perkins said. “It’s basically a Bradley and we’ve built 11 variants of Bradley [to date].”

In fact, BAE’s plan for the AMPV program is not to build new vehicles but raid the vast fleet of surplus Bradleys and refit them. That will require popping off the turret to free up cargo space, removing rust, adding armor, and above all upgrading the vehicle’s engine and electrical power. Current Bradleys are badly overburdened by all the additional armor, anti-IED jammers, and other electronics added for the war in Iraq. Troops sometimes have to switch one system off so they can turn another on, while speed, acceleration, and off-road agility have all suffered.

With their turretless design for AMPV, however, BAE claims to have gotten Bradley back to its pre-9/11 automotive performance with plenty of electrical power to spare. How? Perkins wouldn’t talk details, but he points to BAE’s ongoing work on the Paladin Improvement Program (PIM), where the company has rebuilt aging M106 Paladin howitzers with new Bradley-derived engines and alternators capable of generating a whopping 70 kilowatts of power.

BAE doesn’t build any wheeled vehicles in the right weight class for the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. But buying Bradley for both halves of the AMPV mission would allow the Army to exploit an existing system of spare parts, maintenance, and training that’s even better established than that for the Stryker. But the turretless Bradley is hardly a shoo-in over the tracked Stryker.

The tracked Stryker, “it’s pretty great,” said Col. Bill Sheehy, the Army’s program manager for heavy brigade equipment, speaking to reporters last week at AUSA. “What GD is doing is outstanding, trying to push the envelope and innovative with what we have.” But, he added, the only way to see if it performs is to test it.

“I am not married to tracked solutions,” Sheehy went on. “You can come in with a wheel-barrow ..If it’s a hovercraft, if it’s a reindeer-pulled sled, I don’t care [if] it meets the requirements.”

“The intent for AMPV is full and open competition,” Sheehy summed up. Now that both competitors can offer a tracked vehicle, that’s what the Army might actually get.