WASHINGTON — When it comes to the future of the U.S. Army’s ground vehicle fleet, very little is certain. After a few high-profile program cancellations and schedule slippages in recent years, the next-generation vehicles that the service says it needs are still a work in progress.
And yet one thing is certain: Tight budgets mean new vehicles must be more survivable, and must be easily modified to accept new technologies.
“Everybody’s realizing that we’re no longer going to design a new vehicle every 10 years,” one industry executive said.
While the three largest programs — Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) — continue their march toward the next phases of development, the inevitable postwar budget cuts demanded by the White House and Capitol Hill have started to hit hard, even as the service rolls out a new equipment strategy.
On Jan. 17, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer told Army leaders that the GCV’s technology development phase would have to be pushed back by six months, “in anticipation of the fiscal pressures over the FY14-18 time frame.”
Steve Franz, senior director for the GCV program at General Dynamics Land Systems, said the delay was the result of “relatively minor” design changes the Army made in its requirements.
The changes require GD and BAE to move some capabilities that had been anticipated for future increments of the program to the current increment, while also pushing back some current requirements.
“If we trade off something in Increment 1,” Franz explained, “we could very well bring it back in Increment 2, and we’d make sure that the vehicle design could accommodate it.”
While the Army always demanded that the GCV be easy and inexpensive to upgrade with new armor, electronics packages and fuel savings technologies, the designs of the two competitors are being tested from the start to judge their flexibility.
Now BAE and GD have six months to figure out how to manage these new requirements trades, while also including in their proposals ways to bring those requirements back on the system at some point.
“We have to assess what those systems are that we may bring on in the future, and we have to reserve space, and we have to assess the weight and how we’re going to provide power and cooling in the future” for any new requirements that might be asked for, Franz said.
While not specifying the Army’s requested changes, Franz hinted they will have the biggest impact “around the protection area.” The changes “are not a start-over” for the program’s basic requirements, he said, but will “change the overall survivability approach to the vehicle. In a lot of ways it will allow us to use more mature technologies with a slight impact to weight.”
He added, “we see it as taking some of the risk out of the program and paying for it with a little bit of weight right now.”
But of all the potential problems caused by sequestration and the continuing resolution, modernizing the existing ground vehicle fleet doesn’t appear to be one of them.
“We’ve got some amazingly modernized equipment right now; our tanks and Bradleys are three and four years old now because they’ve been reset every time they come back from war,” Lt. Gen. Joe Martz, the Army’s budget deputy, told an audience at a Washington defense conference sponsored by Credit Suisse and McAleese and Associates on March 12.
Specifically, the service’s nascent communications network and the GCV “are the top priorities for our secretary and chief. So far, they’ve been protected in ’13 and ’14 and fully negotiated” with Pentagon weapons buyer Frank Kendall, he continued.
That will come as welcome news as BAE Systems and General Dynamics bid for an award in fiscal 2019, according to Army plans.
Moving the program’s schedule back by six months has also bumped a final production decision back to fiscal 2019, as opposed to the expected first quarter of fiscal 2018.
While the program had to overcome some early schedule issues and the rewriting of its requirements document in November 2010, one issue that has dogged the program for years has been its weight — estimated at 64 to 80 tons per vehicle.
“Deployability is important,” said Col. Rocky Kmiecik of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at the Association of the U.S. Army convention in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Feb. 21. But “people say, ‘My God, [the GCV] is 20 tons more than the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle; how does that affect deployability?’ Well, it doesn’t, because it takes the same amount of planes, the same amount of time to deploy a Bradley as a ground combat vehicle.”
BAE Systems and General Dynamics are fighting it out for a single contract award once the technology development phase ends, and both contractors have said that they will be able to keep the weight within reasonable limits.
When it comes to the fate of the 20,000-strong mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle fleet the Pentagon purchased from 2007 to 2010, a new 40-page Army Equipping Strategy released quietly on March 4 said the service will focus on “seeking mature technologies and incremental improvements to address capability gaps for deep buried, non-metallic [roadside bombs] and semiautonomous route clearance capabilities to improve crew protection.”
The Army has long said it will divest thousands of the hulking vehicles, using most of the remaining vehicles for route clearance work.
As part of its effort to reduce the number of brigade combat teams (BCTs) across the service while adding a third heavy maneuver battalion to each BCT, the Army also confirms in its new strategy document that it will purge “tens of thousands of wheeled vehicles so that we can afford the JLTV in coming years.”
The design of most of the vehicles in the fleet may be decades old, but the actual fleet age is still young due to the tens of billions of dollars poured into wartime sustainment, modernization and up-armoring.
“Clearly there’s a trend toward more force protection” in the Army’s requirements requests for new vehicles, said Mark Signorelli, vice president and general manager of Vehicle Systems at BAE Systems.
One of the big demands in developing new platforms is “establishing a base vehicle that has the capability to grow incrementally over time,” Signorelli said.