America’s Army has developed a bit of a split personality of late. On the one hand, the top brass has very publicly embraced the administration’s January 2012 strategic guidance that emphasizes “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches” and “building partner capacity” in lieu of large ground force deployments. Leaders from Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno on down talk up the Army’s capabilities in cyberspace, missile defense, seaborne operations, and small advisor teams.

At the same time, the service’s biggest new weapons program remains the controversial Ground Combat Vehicle, an estimated $34 billion program to build what could be 70-ton-plus behemoths optimized for all-out land war. “Low-cost” and “small-footprint” it ain’t. (“Innovative” it may be; read on). And GCV is just the tip of the armored iceberg.

Outside the Washington spotlight, the Army is quietly trying to heavy up. There are plans to upgrade Humvee-mounted scout troops to tank-like Bradleys, add back light armored vehicles to the 82nd Airborne, and buy a new, better-protected Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle to replace the aging, vulnerable M113s in support units. (A formal request for proposals on AMPV will come out soon). In less tangible ways as well, from brigade organization to training scenarios, the Army is working to reemphasize straight-ahead ground fighting power.

Such military heavy metal is unfashionable, at odds with both the past decade of “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency and the new focus on Special Operations, drones, and cyberwar. But the Army has a point.

“There’s no computer that holds and seizes a piece of terrain. It just doesn’t happen,” said Col. Rocky Kmiecik, director of “mounted requirements” – i.e. armored vehicles — at the Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Fort Benning “maneuver center of excellence,” speaking at the Association of the US Army’s annual winter conference. Cyberspace is increasingly important but controlling it, by itself, won’t win a war. Said Kmiecik: “you can’t hold terrain from the air; you can’t hold it from the sea; you can only hold land on the land.”

In the Army’s evolving vision of future warfare, cyberspace and heavy armor, advisor teams and tank brigades, soft power and hard, are complementary sides of a single coin. They go together like an iron fist and a velvet glove. After the crusading bravado of the Bush years, the United States has rediscovered the value of speaking clearly and softly around the world, but it still needs its big stick.

“Our ability to be an instrument of engagement and shaping across the world, to attract partners, reassure allies, and give our enemies pause [depends on] our credibility as a ground combat force,” said Maj. Gen. Bill Hix, director of concept development at TRADOC’s Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC), in a recent interview with Breaking Defense. As an Army, “decisive combat is our first responsibility,” Hix said: “to deliver the punch that nobody else, arguably in the world, can deliver.”

Hix’s own background is in light infantry units — airborne and special forces– but he still appreciates that heavy armor “is an asymmetric advantage that we should not concede to anyone…There’s nobody in the world that has our capability.” In the Cold War, having heavy forces was about matching the Soviets’ tank armies. Today, it’s about overmatching potential adversaries who have no equivalent forces, deterring them from starting a fight they cannot win (what strategists call “escalation dominance”). Said Hix, “part of what GCV is about is ensuring we do not concede that area of competition to anyone.”

The problem, of course, is the bottom line. Talk is cheap; tanks aren’t. Cybersecurity, small special ops teams, and relationship-building fit well into a declining budget; new armored vehicles do not. And both the Army’s budget and its manpower are declining more steeply than any other service’s. To make things worse, of course, there’s the Army’s atrocious acquisition record over the past 15 years, killing 22 major programs after spending billions on them, including the infamous Future Combat System, from which GCV evolved.

So while the Army wants to beef up its combat brigades and reconnaissance formations, it has to do so as much as possible by repurposing the troops and equipment it already has, buying as little new gear as possible. “We’re trying to do this as zero-sum… using existing force structure,” Maj. Gen. Arthur Bartell, ARCIC’s chief of staff, told Breaking Defense in a sidebar conversation at the AUSA winter conference. “It’s a Rubik’s Cube.”

To further complicate the problem, Bartell went on, “a lot of this is based on the FY ’14 [budget request].” That document would normally have been rolled out in February but has been indefinitely delayed due to Congress and the White House being unable to agree on a budget for fiscal 2013, which is almost half over. Long-term planning is paralyzed by the repeated short-term crises over sequestration cuts and continuing resolutions. “It’s like the Sword of Damocles, that budget,” Bartell told Breaking Defense. “If we fall off the cliff here… we’re going to have to adjust fire.”

“We have to survive FY ’13,” Bartell said, “[but] solutions we find to survive FY ’13, they can’t catastrophically impact ’14 and beyond.”

[Click here to read about the Army’s struggle to safeguard GCV in the face of sequestration cuts]

The budget crunch puts the Army under intense pressure to figure out its future role — and then to articulate that vision to the administration and Congress, something the service is notoriously bad at. So where is the Army actually going?

Uparmoring the Army

What were the lessons of the last 10 years? Counterinsurgency strategy, language skills, cultural knowledge, and better integration between Special Forces and conventional units have all gotten well-deserved attention, and the Army in particular does not want to forget them. But heavy metal mattered too.

Uparmored Humvees and MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected) trucks got most of the publicity, but those wheeled vehicles lacked the off-road mobility and, in many cases, even the armor protection necessary to prevail. At the height of the surge fighting in Baghdad, for example, some Army units moved around the city in 40-ton tracked troop carriers called M2 Bradleys — and at the head of the column they placed 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks, because even the Bradleys could not withstand the most powerful roadside bombs, Iranian-supplied devices called explosively formed penetrators. Today in Afghanistan, while the largest Army vehicle present is the 30-ton Stryker (itself uparmored from the 20-ton early models), Marines operating in the relatively open country around Helmand have made heavy use of the massive M1.

The two wars showed up some serious shortfalls in America’s heavy armored capabilities. When the Army reorganized its combat brigades to be more self-sufficient, or “modular,” after 2003, one of the reforms was to give each armored brigade its own reconnaissance squadron — at the price of reducing the number of combat battalions from three to two. Brigade commanders certainly needed their own scouts, but replacing a big battalion of tanks, Bradleys, and combat infantry with a smaller squadron mostly riding in Humvees left them painfully short on fighting power. The Army also created a specialized reconnaissance force called the “Battlefield Surveillance Brigade” which proved over-reliant on high-tech gear like drones and was under-gunned in terms of old-fashioned ground combat.

“We have seen the necessity to have the capability to fight for reconnaissance, to fight for that information, to fight for intel,” Maj. Gen. Bartell said at the AUSA conference. So while the Army is not exactly rebuilding its heavy “Armored Cavalry” recon units from the Cold War, Bartell said, it does want to recapture “a lot of the capabilities we had in armored cav.”

Specifically, the Army is looking at beefing up both the independent Battlefield Surveillance Brigades and the reconnaissance squadrons within the armored brigades. One part of the solution is putting Humvee-mounted scouts in Bradleys instead. The Army also wants to add back the third combat battalion of tanks and Bradleys to its heavy brigades. (The Army would probably not buy more Bradleys for the beefed-up units, just repurpose those from combat battalions being disbanded during the drawdown).

The Army even wants to heavy up its light forces. Currently infantry and airborne brigades consist entirely of troops on foot or in trucks, without armored fighting vehicles. Until 1996, however, the Airborne had a contingent of light tanks, such as the notoriously unreliable M551 Sheridan used from Vietnam to Panama. The Army has struggled to replace the Sheridan for almost two decades, the cancelled Future Combat System being the highest-profile attempt. Now TRADOC wants to try again and find a relatively lightweight but well-armed machine to stiffen both airborne and regular infantry brigades.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be a tank,” said Col. Kmiecik. A cannon-armed variant of the Stryker, the troubled Mobile Gun System, is one alternative. Nor is the initiative going to progress beyond the internal Army studies any time soon, he said: “It can’t, given our fiscal environment.”

More immediately, however, the Army is about to issue a formal request for proposals to replace the M113, a Vietnam-vintage tracked vehicle with variants serving as armored ambulances, mortar carriers, mobile command posts, and other support roles. The new “Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle” will not be an all-new design, however. One leading candidate is the Stryker, which General Dynamics now offers in both wheeled and tracked variants. The other is a modified Bradley from BAE, stripped of its gun turret to give it more carrying capacity. Either Bradley or Stryker would be significantly heavier, better-protected, and more expensive than the old M113s.

But both Bradley and Stryker have their limits. Stryker is relatively light for an armored vehicle, about 30 tons in the best-armored variants, and lacks weapons heavier than a machinegun. Bradleys mount anti-tank missiles and a 25-millimeter cannon, and the latest, toughest models weigh in at 40 tons — but they are still a 1970s design that is showing its age.

“We’ve got to graduate beyond Bradley,” said Maj. Gen. Hix. After 30 years of adding not only armor but electronics, from communications networks and GPS maps to jammers for disabling roadside bombs, the Bradley is running out of room. It lacks the horsepower to carry further upgrades and the electrical power to run them. Yet even the heaviest Bradleys are still too vulnerable to the more powerful improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and anti-tank rockets now proliferating around the world. And no amount of modernization will give the Bradley more room for passengers than the original design, which can carry at most six foot troops in back and often fewer, depending on the bulk of their gear.

So while Bradley variants probably have a long future ahead of them in support and scout roles, the heavy combat battalions need something better. “We’ve got to have capacity to grow,” said Hix. “That’s really the big thing GCV provides us, growth capacity.”

GCV: Building the Big Dog

The Ground Combat Vehicle is big. In its most stripped-down configuration, a GCV would weigh 40 to 50 tons, more than the most heavily uparmored Bradley. With all the add-on armor required for the most dangerous missions, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the General Dynamics design would weigh 64 tons and BAE System’s 70 — though both companies say they’re bringing the weight down significantly as they refine their designs.

On top of whatever that fully uparmored weight turns out to be, however, the Army requires a 20 percent margin for growth in both weight and power to accommodate future upgrades, which means a maxed-out GCV might someday weigh roughly 80 tons. The GCV will also have a heavier cannon than the Bradley, probably 30 mm instead of 25, to allow it to fire “airbursting” smart rounds that know the optimal moment to explode for maximum effect on the target and minimal collateral damage. (GCV will have the option to carry a missile launcher like the Bradley’s, but it won’t come standard). Finally, GCV will carry more passengers, nine foot soldiers instead of six, a 50 percent boost in close-quarters combat power.

So yes, Col. Kmiecik acknowledged, a lot of people do look at GCV and say “that vehicle is way too big.” But, the Army argues, it must protect the troops inside. The Bradley could get away with putting most of its armor on the front and skimping elsewhere, because it was designed to fight off head-on attacks by the Soviet hordes. Fighting in a city like Baghdad, however, you can get hit from the sides, from the rear, from below by roadside bombs, or from above by enemies on the upper floors of buildings. Even if the attacking weapons hadn’t gotten more powerful, which they have, a vehicle would need more armor to survive.

The GCV also needs more interior space to carry larger numbers of larger soldiers, because Americans keep getting bigger. Counting the 9-man squad in back and the 3-man crew in front, the vehicle must accommodate “12 guys that are all 95th percentile 2015 males,” BAE vice-president Mark Signorelli told Breaking Defense. “A 95% 2015 male is somewhere around 6’5″, 6’6″….They printed out a silhouette and taped it to the wall, and I can’t touch the top of his head.” Then that larger soldier also needs more headroom and more room below his feet than in past vehicles to help diffuse the shockwave from roadside bombs.

More volume to protect means more armor, which means more weight. One way to economize would have been to put the GCV’s weapons in a small, remote-controlled gun turret, which BAE had been proposing. But the Army nixed that idea in favor of a large, traditional turret with room for the gunner and GCV commander to sit inside.

Indeed, the Army has been consistently conservative in the technology it wants built into the GCV. That’s in stark contrast to the failed Future Combat Systems vehicles, which crammed in all sorts of unproven gadgets to substitute for heavy armor (and still grew from about 20 to 26 tons before cancellation). Everything on GCV has to be rated, at worst, Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 6 on a scale from 1 (“basic principles observed”) to 9 (“proven through successful mission operations”). TRLs come from the space world: Something rated TRL 6 is just about ready to go into production and should involve relatively little risk.

“It allows me to sleep at night,” said Bob Sorge, General Dynamics’s GCV program director, in an interview with Breaking Defense. “FCS was a troubled program because they had requirements that you couldn’t meet…. On GCV the army resculpted the requirements after the first proposal” — which the service scrapped and rewrote — “and said ‘we’re giving the contractors the trade space to make a solution that is affordable.'”

That said, there is some innovation in GCV. BAE is building its model with a hybrid-electric engine first developed for FCS, but Signorelli insists it’s TRL 6 “at a minimum.” General Dynamics is using a traditional diesel, but they’re working on another TRL 6 spin-off from FCS, a so-called “active protection system” to shoot down incoming projectiles before they hit the armor. The Army isn’t asking for an active protection system on the initial GCVs, because of the cost, complexity, and novelty of such a system, but it wants the ability to add APS later as the technology matures, as a way to stop ever-more powerful weapons without adding ever more armor.

The GCV will even have its armor designed in “modular” plates for easy removal and replacement when better and hopefully lighter protective materials such as carbon nanotubes or nano-crystals come along. And the GCV will be able to just get heavier if it has to — as it almost certainly will.

New inventions can change the world, but you can’t count on them happening when you need them. Army researchers are certainly looking for “order of magnitude improvements” in military technologies, said Maj. Gen. Hix, but “you have to temper that ambition… what is achievable.”

No less an expert than Andrew Krepinevich, advisor to the Pentagon and head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has argued that the Army should hold off on buying armored vehicles until there is some kind of breakthrough in protective technology. Without such a revolution, Krepinevich argues, the enemy can always build bigger IEDs or rockets more easily than the Army can add more armor. Hix, obviously, does not think the Army can afford to wait.

“Given where we are, with the state of technology that is at a level of readiness to be manufactured, and given the challenges that we have with the Bradley fighting vehicle, GCV is an appropriate investment,” Hix said. “In fact, it’s an essential investment.”

The question, of course, is whether the budgeteers in the administration and Congress will agree. The Army has already delayed the program on its own. Then, in January, Acquisition Undersecretary Frank Kendall ordered the Army to choose between the BAE or General Dynamics designs at the end of the current “technology development” phase (which he extended by six months) rather than to pay both companies to build prototypes — even though such “competitive prototyping” is generally considered the best way to avoid ugly and expensive surprises later on. With tightening budgets already forcing such short-term cost savings at the expense of procurement best practice, the temptation to kill GCV altogether will only grow.


  • Kurt Plummer

    To me, the obvious question is whether you want to invest 34 billion in the weakest element of your ground forces capability as an armored shell around infantry whose risk to MOUT casualty is no less than the vehicle itself, as soon as they pop the ramp.
    That’s just silly.
    If you want ‘order of magnitude improvements’ talk about robotic infantry that can climb stairs and turn door knobs so that the threat has little incentive to trade blood for a ‘cyber kill’ of an anthropomorphic fighting unit. If you’ve ever seen ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ you know that these kinds of robots can be made to compress into very tight spatial volumes and they can be infinitely regenerated or at least cannibalized without worrying about parents of the dead or recruits that do their 2-4 and walk away.
    Now throw in a huge number of ‘job Americans won’t do’ ditch digger civilian taskings and you have a reasonable justification for not pushing for a large infantry force in a world where high tech, hybrid, warfare can easily invent a bigger HEAT top attack warhead to come through the cabin roof.
    With this in mind, why dismount at all?
    Infantry don’t move on objectives in company with armor because tanks are bullet magnets. They move on objectives with -tank support- as fixative to the threat’s attention while themselves maneuvering independently using available cover to lateralize and envelope as much as enter target structures. Squirters are dealt with much easier that way so that at least you don’t get into a continuing house:house gunbattle for no gain.

    Indeed, one of the big lessons of urban insurgency in Iraq (particularly Fallujah and Nasariyah) was that MOUT fighting bogs down to incrementalism as forces fight for a building as a block then run out the back door when the Abrams shows up to level the place before starting the process all over across the street or at the next weapons cache`.
    To get beyond this, means acknowledging a concept of acceptable and unacceptable attrition as well as key enablers to keep the battle fluid and fast moving which is where American military training is at it’s best.
    If you can’t afford to have masses of body bags, don’t create squad sized kill locii. Period.
    If you need to keep the enemy on the run rather than settling into a graduated slinky-type advance-contest-retreat cycle, then invest in light UGCV platforms which can, when properly protected and roboticized, carry the fight unsupported to -beyond- the current phaseline position and HOLD as an independent maneuver element /behind/ the enemy, forcing them to retreat through their position and suffer massive attrition in the process.
    In this, I am thinking something like a Wiesel tank with a light autocannon, a rifle caliber coax and maybe some LAW type rockets along with APS, smoke grenades and a passle of appliques.
    Wiesels are amazingly quick and cheap and being small can navigate a cluttered urban terrain environment of narrow streets and back alleys which would flatly stop a Bradley or Gavin, let alone a GCV, in their tracks.
    Seeing the future battlefield as a total environment tactical problem and not just a singular ‘protection over all else’ technical one allows you to design something that enables you to get past that chokepoint as incrementalism of common threats while continuing to compress (like a push broom) and flow-in occupy (like water into a sponge) with the force structure you have.
    This is what TRADOC needs to look at before they set pen to contract on this behemoth.

  • Peter

    Boy, this is an old argument that seems to be a rerun of sorts…

    It’s NOT SO MUCH THAT THE US ARMY cannot “see” what it needs, it’s that the US Army DIDN’T MAKE what it needed! The US Army has a (bad) record of canceling replacement projects due to cost overruns, politics, time lines, bad test results, or because it changed the requirements too much (or that the US Army didn’t know what it really wanted). Defense Industry was successful in some of the prototypes below.

    Remember these?

    —Crusader hull has composite armor…so why not take the hull and “advance it” into the GCV? Why start from scratch? The hull and turret seems large enough to modify and it goes 40 mph, has digital comms, power, and so forth.

    >>>>The Army even wants to heavy up its light forces. Currently infantry and airborne brigades consist entirely of troops on foot or in trucks, without armored fighting vehicles.

    —Old requirement that has been fulfilled and already built and tested. Remember this? Looks pretty “uparmored” to me…the XM8 “Armored Gun System.” Tested and proven and won over the Stryker MGS. Last I read no US Army general wanted it and all 15 prototype hulls were rusting in some Army Depot lot somewhere. Why then start from scratch? it has been built and tested and graded as superior….and it could be LAPES dropped. Cancelled and never built.

    >>>Specifically, the Army is looking at beefing up both the independent Battlefield Surveillance Brigades and the reconnaissance squadrons within the armored brigades.

    Hull built. Cancelled. The US Army knew it wanted a new armored scout tracked vehicle…just didn’t happen.

    New tank…remember this one?

    It is NOT the FCS tank. This is in fact the quasi-“Future Main Battle Tank.” It was built and tested and somehow never entered production and in fact I think it was made before the FCS program. It was even shown on the DISCOVERY CHANNEL. Rumor has it that the US Army still has it and ships it around here and there. I don’t know if it’s rusting or being stored somewhere. I do know that it is low…lower than the M1A2. And it has Next-Generation technology above the M1A1 at the time. This was to be the M1 replacement, not an upgrade.

    So…talk of a GCV when the US Army has all these prototypes and new hulls built already a long time ago…just cancelled and never built for various reasons. Why start from scratch? Why doesn’t the US Army go back to what it has built and see if Defense industry could rebuild or reuse what is has already? I find that the DoD wastes a lot of taxpayer money trying to make things the Services want—again, it’s not so much that nothing was tried…thing is…something was tried and nothing was built. If these were built and used, the US Army would have a much newer, different, and more capable armored force than just legacy M1s and M2s. This is kind of why the foreign AFVs look so spectacular at Trade Shows…because they were built as prototypes and ready for sale. Well, the US Army also built prototypes and went so far as tested them too…only that they never entered service or were bought.

  • PolicyWonk

    We still have and army determined to prepare for the war they want to fight, instead of the wars we are likely to fight. The chances of the US being involved with another Kursk or another massed armor offensive in either gulf war, let alone fight the cold war again are incredibly low.

    The army remains in many respect stuck in the past, and in the meantime, are ignoring the recently learned lessons w/r/t the logistical problems this nation encountered yet again in both Afghanistan and Iraq – for supplying the boots – let alone the heavy armor formations.