As storm clouds loom over the Army’s controversial Ground Combat Vehicle, both contractors competing for GCV say they’re focused on completing the program of record still on the books. But if the Army slows the program down — a near-certainty at this point — both BAE Systems and General Dynamics told me they are ready to adapt. In fact, they’ll make the best of any extra time to refine their designs and develop new technologies.
The biggest single criticism of the GCV has been how heavy it is. The Congressional Budget Office estimated up to 84 tons, although the fine print noted that figure was for a hypothetical future version that had grown to the maximum the vehicle could bear. News stories often describe it as weighing over 70 tons. But both contractors insist their designs are already below that figure and that they can keep whittling the weight down over time.
Depending on how much modular armor you bolt on to BAE’s current design, “it’d be in the 60- to 70-ton range depending on the configuration,” said BAE program director Deepak Bazaz.
Not coincidentally, 70 tons plus 20 percent more weight for future upgrades — a margin for growth the Army requires the GCV designs to have — is how CBO came up with its 84-ton figure.
General Dynamics was more specific, perhaps because their choice of a traditional diesel engine leaves them with less uncertainty than BAE’s hybrid drive. Even allowing for 20 percent growth, said GD’s GCV director, Robert Sorge, a future upgrade of their design would still max out at 76 tons. In the most heavily armored configuration currently planned, it’s about 62 tons, he told me. If commanders decide to sacrifice some protection for easier deployment by aircraft, they could get it down to 56.
That’s still darn heavy. The Army’s current M1A2 Abrams main battle tank, built by General Dynamics, weighs 69 to 70 tons depending on its armor package. But the tank-like BAE M2 Bradley troop carrier that the GCV is supposed to replace weighs 36 to 40 tons. General Dynamics’ eight-wheel-drive Stryker troop carrier weighs just 21 to 26 tons.
It was air-delivered Strykers that formed the spearhead of an Army rapid-deployment force in a recent wargame set in 2030. And top brass from Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno on down are insisting that the Army needs to get lighter and more “expeditionary” to respond quickly to post-Afghanistan crises around the world.
So if the sequestration budget cuts force the Army to put the GCV program on slo-mo, can the contractors use the extra time to get the weight down?
Yes, but. A really significant decrease would require either a breakthrough in protective technology — such as ultra-light armor or an “active-protection system” to shoot down incoming tank shells — or a reduction in the size of the squad the vehicle must carry. A breakthrough is a technological long shot, but the Army is already considering shrinking the squad.
“You always have material advances but I think sometimes we lean on that a little bit too heavily,” said Bazaz. “There’s never been any radical change to the materials that we’ve employed over the last 30 years. There’s been a continued progression.”
“I’m not holding my breath for any breakthrough technology,” agreed Sorge. “I think there’s a lot of potential there, that’s one of the areas we’d be looking for” — but he’s hardly counting on it.
What the designers definitely can do right now, however, if the Army tells them to, is make the GCV smaller. “Structure and armor to protect 12 soldiers is one of the biggest weight drivers on the vehicle,” Sorge said. “Providing enough space for a large 2015 male soldier with all his gear, times 12 people, defines the volume that you need to build the vehicle around.”
The Army’s current specs insist the GCV carry a full nine-man infantry squad in back — like the Stryker — and a crew of three — driver, gunner, and commander. But the aging Bradley and, for that matter, the German-built Puma sometimes suggested as an alternative to GCV only carry a six-man squad.
Both vehicles still have a three-man crew, so a unit using Bradleys, Pumas, or other mid-size troop carriers would need not only more vehicles but more personnel to drive around the same amount of foot troops. That, in turn, might well drive the total cost and weight of the unit right back up to where it would be with GCVs. In the past, however, the Army insisted that a nine-man squad was the minimum to keep fighting after taking casualties and that the whole squad had to ride in one vehicle to prevent lethal confusion on the battlefield. Now it looks like the service is willing to at least calculate the trade-offs.
The last time the Army tried to replace the Bradley, with what it called the Future Combat System, it attempted to square the circle of a nine-man squad in a lightweight vehicle by relying, not on heavy armor, but on superior sensors to avoid danger in the first place and on an active protection system to shoot down incoming rounds. FCS proved unmanageably ambitious and was cancelled in 2009, after designs had already swelled from 19 tons to nearly 30.
Active protection systems simply weren’t ready for battle then and no American-made systems are ready now. Some systems, like the Israeli Trophy, can react and destroy an incoming round filled with high explosive — say, a rocket-propelled grenade or anti-tank missile — but there’s nothing that can shoot down a solid anti-tank shell moving at about a mile per second. The Army asked industry for APS in its original GCV specs but then decided that feature would have to wait for later upgrades. Having enough time to get APS to really work, said Bazaz, would be the real “game changer.”
Sorge agreed maturing active protection systems would be a top priority for any extra time. Extra testing would also allow some improvement in mechanical reliability, sensors, and on armor protection against roadside bombs and mines.
So far, however, they’ve not gotten any order from the Army to change the pace. “We’ve heard lots of things and read lots of things; we don’t have anything official,” Sorge said. “The official plan is still the plan of record which had a Milestone B” — the official move into procurement — “in the June-July timeframe of ’14, with EMD [engineering and manufacturing development] starting right after that.” It’s the EMD stage that is now in doubt. EMD’s when both companies would build drivable prototypes, though they already have stationary testbeds for all their components, including working engines and transmissions.
“The thing I’m focused on is continuing to execute the program. We still run through next June,” agreed Bazaz. “Dark clouds or whatever, there’s uncertainty in the future, but we’ve still got contract deliverables and that’s what we’re working on now.”
[An editorial note: Keen-eye readers will observe we only have pictures of BAE’s Ground Combat Vehicle in this article — and for that matter in every other GCV story we’ve done. While BAE has made an all-out publicity push for their design, complete with website, General Dynamics has been much more low-profile and simply hasn’t released any imagery. I honestly don’t know whether this speaks to a deliberate corporate strategy or a simple excess of caution by a tradition-minded defense contractor.]