WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army knows it must be prepared to face an enemy with superior capability. Russia has taught the service that.
Watching Putin’s forces use weapons and tactics against the Ukrainian military has pushed the Army into a mad dash to ensure it is prepared to go up against such an adversary, should the day arise.
Within that push is a major initiative to ensure lethality overmatch against peer adversaries, to include Russia and China, with an emphasis on upgrading the Army’s combat vehicles. Service leaders are pushing for next-generation vehicles and boosting lethality for its existing fleet.
“There is a series of things we are trying to do to our platforms so that while we are developing a next-generation capability we are doing everything we can to deliver more lethality,” Maj. Gen. David Bassett, the program executive officer for Ground Combat Systems, told Defense News in an interview leading up to the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention.
Here’s a closer look at how the Army is increasing lethality across its line of battle vehicles.
The Army accepted its first M1A2 System Enhancement Package Version 3 — or M1A2 SEP V3 — from General Dynamics Land Systems on Oct. 4, according to Lt. Col. Jay Shell, the Army’s Abrams program manager.
The service expects to begin fielding the version in fiscal year 2020, Shell said.
The main intent of the upgrade is to buy back size, weight, and power lost during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as the Army focused on protective measures for the tank. The upgrade also includes a modernized architecture.
The modernized architecture allows for the inclusion of an ethernet connection that enhances processing within the tank to accommodate an updated fire control system that will allow users to engage targets “in a faster manner,” Shell said.
The Army is also installing an ammunition data link that will allow the tank itself to talk to the new smart rounds it is fielding in order to optimize the effect of those rounds, he added.
The variant rolling off the production line essentially primes the pump for the integration of future technology and improved lethality because of the new architecture and restoration of power to the vehicle.
The next round of upgrades — the M1A2 SEP V4 — will fall in on the tail end of the M1A2 SEP V3 production that is focused on increasing lethality of the system, according to Shell.
The Army just awarded GDLS a contract in August to develop the M1A2 SEP V4. The service will make a production decision in fiscal year 2023 and hopes to field to the first brigade in 2025.
“The keystone technology there is the third generation FLIR [Forward-Looking Infrared camera],” he said. “We are doing a full site upgrade onto that tank and we are enhancing not only the gunner’s and the tank commander’s ability to acquire and engage targets at much farther distance, but they are also going to have much greater acuity within those sites to do target discrimination, so that will be the true lethality overmatch variant of the tank.”
Upgrades also include a color day camera and a cross-platform laser pointer.
Upgrades to the Bradley fighting vehicle are following a similar path to Abrams, Lt. Col. Chris Conley, the Army’s program manager for the Bradley, said.
The vehicle is engaged in two major modernization efforts: the M2A4 and the M2A5 upgrades.
The M2A4 variant is focused primarily on increasing automotive performance, regaining power, as well as managing weight better, Conley said, again, preparing the vehicle to manage major technology upgrades down the road. The upgrade also includes a modernized architecture to plug in new technology more easily.
As the Bradley is today, it cannot incorporate important near-term upgrades such as an active protection system, but the A4 variant will make it possible to include such capability in the vehicle.
The A4 variant is behind the Abram’s upgrade schedule as the Army does not expect to take delivery of its first vehicle for roughly another year.
The M2A5 is where the Army will drive the same lethality improvements as the Abrams into the platform, he said, such as the third-gen FLIR, a cross platform laser pointer, color day camera as well as an improved laser range finder.
“We are doing our best to use the same technology on both platforms in order to reduce the logistical footprint as well as to enable the maintenance capability out in the field,” Conley said. “So, for example, a maintainers only needs to understand how to maintain one third-gen FLIR because it’s common across all four sites on Bradley and Abrams and same thing for the other enabling technologies…. That was a deliberate decision that was pushed by Gen. Bassett for us to try to reduce the logistical footprint out in the field.”
The Army intends to run both the Abrams and Bradley programs in parallel “because ultimately providing this capability to a brigade in increments, meaning Abrams fields first and Bradley fields later, puts the brigade sort of in a mismatched capability,” Conley said. “So what we’ve decided to do is synchronize production as best we can so that we field this capability at the same time.”
But with the Bradley M2A4 being a year behind the Abrams M1A2 SEP V3 delivery, the Army “is in catch up mode,” Conley said. “We are doing our best to accelerate our schedule in terms of contract award as well as technical integration efforts to catch up to Abrams as opposed to have Abrams slow down.”
Meanwhile, the Army is preparing to field its up-gunned Stryker combat vehicle with a 30mm cannon to the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Grafenwoehr, Germany, in January 2018.
In August, the Army demonstrated a live-firing of its Stryker Carrier Vehicle Dragoon, or ICVD, at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. While it’s not designed to offensively fight mechanized forces, it is a vehicle that can defend against mechanized forces and is a direct answer to an urgent operational request out of the European theater — directly attributable to Russian aggression — for more lethal Strykers.
The Army had some leftover money due to savings found within the program to up-gun the Stryker and was also able to add a common remote weapon system that can fire Javelin anti-tank missiles to the vehicles.
The Army is still working out how it will proceed with up-gunning the entire fleet of Strykers.
In addition to providing a new level of lethality to the Stryker, the 30mm gun could find its way onto the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Army’s Humvee replacement that is currently in low-rate production.
In December, the Army sent a wish list of capabilities it wanted but couldn’t pay for at current budget levels that included funding research and development to increase fire power of the JLTV with a 30mm gun.
Oshkosh Defense is showcasing a JLTV at the AUSA conference this year equipped with a 30mm cannon.
Lethality beyond the current fleet
Also in the near term, the Army will continue to enhance its lethality through efforts like Mobile Protected Firepower for infantry brigade combat teams. The service plans to skip the technology development phase of the program in favor of commercial off-the-shelf options.
According to the FY18 defense budget request, the Army received $9.6 million to kick things off and will receive more substantial funding in FY19 to allow for a contract award following an engineering and manufacturing development phase decision where up to two offerings could be awarded an EMD contract.
Farther afield, the next-generation combat vehicle is the opportunity to exponentially maintain overmatch on the battlefield against peer adversaries. The Army has kicked off a prototyping effort that will include incorporating a 50mm cannon as a major lethality boost.
While the Army is working toward ensuring it gets leap-ahead technology from a next-generation platform to include lethality, “we want to make sure in the interim period that we are pushing out as much improvement in lethality as we can with the dollars that would be available for upgrades,” Bassett said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.