WASHINGTON — For more than a decade, the US Army's vehicle development efforts have focused on heavily armored vehicles, taking for granted the presence of roadside bombs common to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now Army officials say they want to quickly field a new class of vehicles that trades armor for mobility and lets airborne assault troops drop far from objectives protected by air defense, speed over land and capture them.

The Army's Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCoE), at Fort Benning, Georgia, is seeking the approval of senior Army acquisition officials for a plan to choose from readily available vehicles and field some 300 of them to the service's global response force (GRF), under the 18th Airborne Corps. Once the program is established, a vendor could be selected and a vehicle fielded in 2016, they say.my officials say they want to quickly field a new class of vehicles that trades armor for mobility and lets airborne assault troops drop far from objectives protected by air defenses or other anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) threats, speed to them over land and capture them.

"Industry is saying, 'I can build this right now for you, I just need someone to say go,' " said Carl Pignato, a light combat vehicle analyst at the MCoE's mounted requirements division.

Senior Army leaders have been calling for such a capability, including Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Daniel Allyn and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center. Allyn years earlier, as chief of the 18th Airborne Corps, signed off on an operational-needs request for the capability.

"We know that we need a middleweight, mobile, protected firepower platform to allow early entry forces to seize and exploit the initiative," Allyn told reporters in October. "Our tanks and our Bradleys are the finest fighting platforms in the world, but they're heavy. You've got to seize a major airfield to get them in [to the fight]. You'll see, in the future, some equipment that's not quite so heavy, but enables us to have tactical mobility."

The driving force behind the light vehicle effort ULCV is the contention, backed by a 2006 Army analysis, that the service Army lacks the mobility, protection and firepower to enter foreign territory, immediately overcome armed opposition and hold an area that enables further troops to enter, like a major airfield.

Because troops in an airborne force are on foot after an airdrop, they have to land close to their objective or lose the initiative, risking their aircrafts' exposure to air defense artillery. Today, the Army largely relies heavily on the Air Force and Navy to neutralize air defenses, Army officials say.

Even Third World powers are assumed to have sophisticated anti-access/area-denial A2/AD measures arrayed to protect sensitive sites, said Lt. Col. Kevin Parker, light systems branch chief in the Mounted Requirements Division. "If I am going to go into a country and going to seize an airfield so that I can create Bagram Air Base, the assumption has to be they've got stuff there that can bring down aircraft," he said.

The MCoE has been floating requirements for two vehicles that seek to answer this gap:

• The ultralight combat vehicle (ULCV) is required to carry and infantry squad with equipment (3,200 pounds); weigh 4,500 pounds and travel 250 to 300 miles on onea tank of gas. It must fit would have to be able to travel inside a CH-47 Chinook, by sling load on a UH-60 Blackhawk and be air-droppable by a C-130 Hercules or C-17 Globemaster.

• The light reconnaissance vehicle (LRV) would provide protection to a moving force. It would carry six scouts with gear and be transportable carried by a CH-47 internally or by sling load. It would be armored against 152mm shrapnel and host a medium caliber weapon and sensors equivalent to the long-range advance scout surveillance system, in use by Army scouts.

The idea is not to motorize all airborne infantry units, Parker said, but provide a pool of vehicles for the brigade acting as GRF. The GRF mission means being ready to quickly deploy anywhere in the world. The mission rotates within the brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division, for which airborne forcible-entry operations are a core mission.

As for armor and roadside bombs, IEDs, Parker acknowledged bombs IEDs will remain a battlefield threat, but said lightweight vehicles would be an option at the earliest stages of a conflict, in an area where improvised explosives IEDs are not expected. The ULCV would also allow troops to avoid roads, and drive routes the infantry would otherwise be walking.

In April, US Special Operations Command in April awarded a contract to General Dynamics for its Ground Mobility Vehicle 1.1, which is similar in concept. Though the requirements have not been made public, General Dynamic touts its Flyer 72 vehicle's top speed of 100 mph, cruising range of 350 miles and capacity to carry nine operators with payload while traversing remote and demanding terrain.

The infantry's requirements were for a lighter vehicle than SOCOM's, according to Parker, so an infantry battalion commander can safely assume he has access to UH-60s, but not the larger CH-47 Chinook. Special, which special operations forces have ready access to the larger CH-47 Chinook.

Years after a 2006 study that identified the gap, tThe Army last summer held a demonstration at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Corps, in which six companies showed vehicles: GD's Flyer; the Boeing-MSI Defense Phantom Badger; Polaris Defense's deployable advanced ground off-road DAGOR; Hendrick Dynamics' Commando Jeep; Vyper Adamas' Vyper; a sixth vendor the Army did not name and Lockheed Martin's High Versatility Tactical Vehicle, which is a version of the UK Army's HMT-400 Jackal.

Touting the speed at which the Army will be able to act on the ULCV, Pignato said the Army announced its interest last January, saw 18 responses in March and informed vendors of a safety inspection in 30 days and the demonstration in 76 days. With more time, he said, they might have had more than six contenders.

"We had requirements that are hard, but that's what we need the vehicle to do," Parker said. "Nobody had ever asked industry for a 4,500-pound vehicle that can carry nine guys and still be highly mobile, and have a long range."

The demonstration showed the Army that it could find an affordable solution to its requirements among existing vehicles, enabling it to skip an expensive tech development stage that might have doomed it in the current budget environment, Parker said.

MCoE officials say the UCLV supports the Army's divestiture of the Humvee and it is separate from the Army's procurement of the joint light tactical vehicles, which are is armored. Whereas a 36-man scout platoon is equipped with nine Humvees, it would need only six LRVs, which adds up to a savings of 18 vehicles per squadron, Pignato said.

Parker acknowledges the LRV, which is the subject of a platform demonstration in August, will take longer to field than the ULCV because it will require a modest development effort to integrate sensors and weaponry into the vehicle.

MCoE has drafted acquisition plans for both vehicles and is waiting for senior Army acquisition officials to approve it as a program of record. The Army could order it forward, reject it outright or acknowledge the need and shelve it until funds are available.

"If we don't get it right the first time, no one's going to give us another shot," Parker said. "If no vendors could do it, we'd know we were asking for too much."

Email: jgould@defensenews.com.

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