WASHINGTON — General Dynamics Land Systems will start assembling in November the U.S. Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower system, the first new combat vehicle to enter the force in nearly four decades.
The Army in June selected GDLS to build a light tank meant to improve mobility, protection and direct-fire capabilities for infantry brigade combat teams.
The system features a new chassis design, while drawing from other GDLS programs to reduce risk, Kevin Vernagus, company program director for the MPF system, told Defense News. The turret is also “largely new and with different materials than normal” he added, but “we still retain the interior look, feel and controls similar to an Abrams” main battle tank.
With the initial vehicles set to begin assembly this fall, the first production MPF will be delivered to the service by the end of fiscal 2023, Maj. Gen. Glenn Dean, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, told Defense News.
GDLS will initially deliver 26 vehicles, but the contract allows the Army to buy 70 more over the course of low-rate initial production for a total of $1.14 billion. At least eight of the 12 prototypes used during competitive evaluation will be retrofitted for fielding to the force.
The first unit will receive a battalion’s worth of MPF systems — 42 vehicles — by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2025. The Army plans to enter full-rate production in calendar 2025.
To win the MPF contract over competitor BAE Systems, GDLS had to deliver 12 prototypes to the service for routine evaluation as well as to soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who extensively assessed the operational qualities and characteristics of both offerings, then provided feedback to Army decision-makers.
BAE struggled to deliver prototypes on time due to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic; GDLS delivered its systems to Fort Bragg on time in January 2021. Soldier evaluations for both teams wrapped up in August 2021.
GLDS made improvements to the vehicle that will be incorporated into low-rate initial production versions as well as the first prototypes through retrofits.
“The feedback from soldiers was very positive, and none of the work that needs to be done is related to any elements or aspects of soldier acceptance,” said Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, the head of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team. “They’re enthusiastic about the capability and anxious to get it as quickly as possible.”
Much of that feedback was related to maintainability, Dean said. This included using quick-release pins instead of bolts for the skirts on the vehicles so maintainers can more easily access the suspension and track to service the vehicle. The low-rate initial production design will also include stowage upgrades, he added.
The Army is working with GDLS to address overheating problems experienced by vehicles tested at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona. “The hydraulic systems were getting hot; we think it’s an air flow problem. GD has already come up with a design fix for that that we have to validate,” Dean said.
The company is improving sealing around the hatches and made improvements to armor coverage, GDLS’ Vernagus added.
Norman told Defense News the Army is now working to answer some operational questions that come along with a new capability. One of those is how to manage a vehicle that breaks down or ends up stuck in a ditch. GDLS designed the vehicles to have maintenance performed by a 10-ton or less wrecker, Norman said, and they are also intended to tow and recover each other.
“But there are times operationally when you’d want to have a recovery vehicle available to pull a vehicle out of a ditch or do a number of other things,” he explained. “There’s a decision coming up for Army senior leaders whether we want to put a dedicated recovery vehicle in the formations with MPF, or whether we want to have wheeled wreckers, 10-ton wreckers and self-recovery ... be the way that this is approached.”
The Army expects to spend about $6 billion on MPF through the procurement phase, including what it has already spent on research, development and prototyping efforts. The total life-cycle cost of the program, including sustainment, military construction and personnel, is estimated at $17 billion.
The Army plans to buy 504 vehicles, which are projected to be in the inventory for at least 30 years. The bulk of procurement should be complete by 2035, Dean has said.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.