The Army has missed out on “generations” of combat vehicle modernization because of unrealistic expectations and fantastic requirements for technologies that either did not yet exist or were too expensive.

An inability to align the service’s needs with the schedule and budget it had resulted in infamous failures like Future Combat Systems and the Ground Combat vehicle that churned through billions of dollars before being unceremoniously canceled.

“In terms of technology, the biggest failure we have is we chase things we can’t catch,” Maj. Gen. David Bassett, program executive officer for Ground Combat Systems (PEO GCS) told a gathering on Capitol Hill recently.

“In the past, technology was going to become that great thing that would keep us from making tradeoffs,” Bassett added. “If technology matures, I won’t have to give anything up. I can have all my requirements. And so our requirements community would sit like Linus in the pumpkin patch waiting or the Great Pumpkin of Technology to deliver the capability was absolutely everything they wanted. And the Great Pumpkin never came.”

M1A1 Abrams tank of Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, USMC Reserves, preparing for a live fire exercise at Yakima Training Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (U.S. Army photo by Sidney Lee, Enterprise Multimedia Center, JBLM.)
M1A1 Abrams tank of Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, USMC Reserves, preparing for a live fire exercise at Yakima Training Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (U.S. Army photo by Sidney Lee, Enterprise Multimedia Center, JBLM.)

Successful acquisition programs must align four key factors: requirements, funding, technology and schedule, Bassett said. Past failures were caused by misalignment of two or more of those facets, whether it be requirements for immature technologies or schedule expectations that were not in line with available funding.

“We have lost generations of modernization waiting on technology which was either overly stated as more mature than it was or unaffordable,” he said. “I have no desire to develop the next UCV – Unaffordable Combat Vehicle.”

Bassett has overseen management of the Army’s combat vehicle fleets since 2013, a period which saw “historically low investments in modernization.” Meanwhile, potential adversaries and many U.S. allies have modernized portions of their combat vehicle fleets. In many cases they have outpaced the U.S. Army because smaller forces can afford to buy more advanced vehicles and equipment for their forces, Bassett said.

“When we try to do that for an Army the size of ours, the cost to the nation is considerably higher,” he said. “Land power is no longer going to be your cheap investment relative to sea and air. It’s now about sensors and active protection. It’s about radar. It’s about ground-penetrating radar to detect IEDs.”

Coming out of this period in which the Army reduced modernization budgets to protect force structure and readiness, Bassett said the level of investment in  the combat vehicles he manages is “unacceptably low.”

AMPV. Photo: BAE Systems.
Photo: BAE Systems.

At current rates of investment, the Army will be able to capture the latest technologies that provide significant capability increases, but will deliver that technology to the force at a snail’s pace. The Army currently modernizes one brigade of Stryker wheeled combat vehicles with blast-protected double-V hull variants every three years, he said. Modernizing Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M1 Abrams tanks is at the same pace of one Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) every three years, Bassett said.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that it will take 30 years to touch the entire formation,” he said. “And the idea that we would keep one configuration steady for 30 years is laughable. That’s not what we’re going to do.”

The Army is positioning itself to incrementally upgrade its existing combat vehicles – Bradley, Abrams and Stryker foremost, but also the Paladin mobile artillery system – while preparing to begin development of leap-ahead next-generation platforms if resources become available.

Rather than put all its investment dollars into a single new-start vehicle like the ill-fated Ground Combat Vehicle, the service has upgrades for all platforms in the ABCT formations ready to go. Bradley, Abrams, and Paladin all are set to receive technological upgrades while the M113 armored personnel carrier will be replaced by the incoming Armored Multipurpose Vehicle (AMPV).

“Those systems today are nearly shovel-ready, ready for production dollars and we can turn industry on to produce them,” he said.

Bradley Fighting Vehicles

Several of those programs were possible because senior Army leadership saw the advantages of fielding capable systems sooner instead of exhausting resources chasing rigid technological thresholds. When troops began dying because their Stryker vehicles were insufficiently armored against roadside bombs in Iraq, the Army and prime contractor General Dynamics [GD] devised the Double-V hull retrofit.

The Army accepted limitations on mobility in exchange for the greater troop protection the heavy hull provided. It now is revisiting those vehicles to retrofit the automotive upgrades required — bigger engine, transmission and improved network connectivity – to improve mobility under the DVH engineering change proposal program.

“There are a whole lot of things we wish we could have done in the first increment, but because senior leaders were willing to accept that shortcoming for some period of time, we could get it out in the field,” Bassett said. “We were willing to underwrite the risk of early production because we didn’t want to wait to test a bunch of prototypes.

The same equation helped speed up-gunned Strykers to Europe, a program conceived and fielded within 15 months of funding. Initial requirements called for mounting a 30 mm cannon atop dozens of Strykers bound for Europe where they would serve to counter Russian aggression against NATO. An airburst munition was written into the requirements but the round is not yet ready for fielding. Instead of holding up the whole program to wait for the airburst munition, the Army made sure the Styker could fire the round and then proceeded with the vehicle.

Stryker wheeled combat vehicle fitted with a 30mm cannon mounted on a remote weapon station outside General Dynamics' plant in Detroit, Mich.
Stryker wheeled combat vehicle fitted with a 30mm cannon mounted on a remote weapon station outside General Dynamics’ plant in Detroit, Mich.

“What changed was our willingness to accept some shortcomings and to proceed in an incremental fashion,” Bassett said.

Ongoing upgrades to the M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer are similarly structured. Because Russian mobile artillery outranges the current M109, the Army recognized it needed a larger cannon. But the automotive components of the Paladin needed upgrading before it could be fitted with a larger barrel and fire control system, Bassett said.

“Until we got automotive portions in place, getting a bigger cannon wasn’t going to do us any good so we broke it into two pieces,” he said. “So, you may eventually see some test reports that will come out of certain communities that will say the howitzer is not suitable because the cannon hasn’t been upgraded. We know. It’s in the next increment.”