WASHINGTON -- A years-long period of reduced modernization budgets has caused a major lag -- potentially up to 30 years for some rides -- in upgrading the Army's combat vehicles, the Army general in charge of the fleet said.
"I can tell you right now the level of investment in my portfolio is unacceptably low," Maj. Gen. David Bassett said Monday at a Lexington Institute forum on Army rapid acquisition.
The current investment has only allowed the service to make very capable upgrades to its fleet -- which would require "decades to touch all of our armored brigade combat team formations," Bassett said.
The Army is only able to modernize one brigade of Stryker combat vehicles every three years from a flat-bottomed hull to a double-V hull structure, which is more resistant to under-belly explosions set off by improvised explosive devices. The service is only able to upgrade its oldest Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Abrams tanks, Bassett added.
"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. "The idea we would keep one configuration steady for 30 years is laughable, that is not what we are going to do."
The Army is prioritizing incremental upgrades to what it has in the inventory rather procuring a vehicle to replace a vehicle, like the now-defunct Ground Combat Vehicle would have replaced the Bradley, Bassett explained. GCV was canceled as the program became unaffordable and was downgraded to study project several years ago.
"We chase things we can't catch and we exhaust ourselves and our resources trying to achieve certain technology thresholds rather than fielding capable systems sooner and better," he said.
The Army is replacing the M113 Armored Personnel Carrier with the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle. BAE Systems is delivering the first of the new vehicles to replace the 1960s-era vehicles that can no longer keep pace with the M1 Abrams and the M2/M3 Bradley vehicles resident in ABCTs.
But aside from that, the Army is upgrading the M1 Abrams, the M777 Howitzer and Strykers. "Those systems today are nearly shovel ready and, so, ready for production dollars," Bassett said.
With Stryker, the Army "pretty much found ways to bending that acquisition bureaucracy to our will and clearing it out of the way, clearing it entirely out of the way," Bassett said, referring to a program to urgently up-gun the vehicle with a 30mm cannon for the 2nd Cavalry Regiment based in Europe. The Army plans to field the vehicle to the unit in 2018 and has already delivered the first vehicle within 15 months.
Bassett noted that in the past, the Army might have held fielding the vehicle until it could add airburst munition capability, for instance, but this time the service decided to move forward with a 30mm cannon with the possibility of adding airburst munition capability later, rather than letting that desired capability hold up the process.
The Stryker will also get additional protection when flat-bottomed hull variants are converted to double-v hulls as part of an engineering change proposal, which also includes a more powerful engines and transmission as well as an updated in-vehicle network.
The Army is also installing an interim capability to upgrade the Howitzer’s handling quality but has pushed back extending the range of the cannon because the service "realized until we get the automotive portion in place, getting at the cannon wasn’t going to do us much good, so we broke it into two pieces," Bassett said. The increased cannon range will be incorporated in the next incremental upgrade, he added.
Bassett said the Abrams tank is still the most lethal, protected and capable main battle tank "on the planet," but the Army will make it "better" with improved optics, munitions, an auxiliary power unit and modernized electronics.
Additionally, the Army is planning to rapidly add active protection systems to its combat vehicles with mature solutions.
Upgrading existing systems using mature and ready technology is going to come into play a lot more, especially with a focus on rapid acquisition, according to Bassett.
"I have no desire to develop the next UCV -- the Unaffordable Combat Vehicle," he said, adding affordability needs to be factored into procurement plans early.
"I think there are starting to be a number of success stories where the Army and industry and the Marine Corps can point to non-developmental-like acquisitions that have been successful," and which leave room to close capability gaps later down the road, Mark Signorelli, BAE Systems’ vice president of combat vehicles, said at the Lexington forum.
But Thomas Spoehr, a retired Army three-star general, who is the director for National Defense at the Heritage Foundation, noted, at the same event, that while the other services are in the midst of developing new classes of ships and aircraft, the Army has "no new classes of anything."
He argued if the service wants to move beyond just upgrading technologies and platforms introduced in the 1980s -- or even earlier in some cases -- it needs to try to get out of a "vicious catch-22" where the typical requirement to start a new development and procurement program is the promise of funding. The Pentagon doesn’t normally approve new-start programs unless there’s funding and Congress can’t fund a program that doesn’t exist, Spoehr said.
The Army has a track record of "coloring in the lines," he said, adding the Army didn't even ask for anything new in its 2018 wish list.
Therefore, the Army needs to be more proactive and make public plans, concepts and requirements for future platforms and systems -- even without a promise of investment -- in order to gain support in funding from Congress and technological insights from industry, he 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.