WASHINGTON — Two competing light tank prototypes are moving into a U.S. Army limited-user test, marking the final step before the service chooses just one to build for its infantry brigade combat teams.

The service selected General Dynamics Land Systems and BAE Systems in December 2018 to each build and deliver 12 prototypes for the Army’s Mobile Protected Firepower, or MPF, program. The vehicle is meant to give IBCTs improved mobility, protection, and direct and offensive fire capability organic to those units and capable against near-peer and peer threats.

The systems earlier this year went through a soldier vehicle assessment with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where soldiers were tasked with validating the MPF concept and providing feedback on how the service should develop tactics, techniques and procedures for fighting with this capability.

The two prototypes differ significantly.

GDLS offered a new, lightweight chassis with a high-performance power pack and an advanced suspension, combined with a turret featuring the latest version of the fire control system found in the Abrams main battle tank.

The company’s prototypes were assessed at the soldier vehicle assessment over the first half of the year, in line with the Army’s original timeline for the event.

BAE Systems’ design is an updated M8 Buford armored gun system with new capabilities and components.

The company experienced some prototype production delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it delivered systems months later than GDLS. Soldiers wrapped up that portion of the assessment in early August, according to Jim Miller, BAE’s senior director of business development for combat mission systems, who spoke to Defense News during a recent interview.

While data from the soldier vehicle assessment is not meant to inform the Army’s source selection, it was designed to help assess the concept of using MPFs in an IBCT formation.

“I think the outcome from the soldier assessment, which both contractors completed, is, yes, it is a viable concept. We understand what the support requirements are for an armored platform supporting an IBCT,” Brig. Gen. Glenn Dean, the Army’s program executive officer for ground combat systems, told Defense News in an interview ahead of the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

“The specific organizational structures will depend on which system wins because they’re a little bit different in size and weight and have slightly different supporting requirements,” Dean said.

Both companies received feedback from the soldiers as well.

While BAE struggled to get its prototypes down to Bragg, once there, “everything went great,” Miller said. “We got really great feedback on the vehicle from the soldiers that operated it.” Soldiers made some minor suggestions, but overall “we had positive feedback about the performance of the vehicle.”

Bob Lennox, GDLS’ vice president of strategy and global growth, told Defense News the soldier assessment “was very valuable to us.”

“Because we were there earlier than others, we were able to get the full benefit of that time of having the soldiers on the vehicle,” Lennox added.

Soldiers had some “comfort type requests,” Don Kotchman, GDLS’ U.S. vice president and general manager, said in the same interview. But, he added, soldiers offered positive feedback on the new suspension and the ease of training because of the vehicle’s similarities to the Abrams tank.

Lennox said that familiarity is the company’s “big differentiator,” adding that one soldier said: “You could drop me in here blindfolded, and I could still do the mission because it’s so similar to Abrams.”

After wrapping up the soldier assessment, the prototypes moved into activities to prepare for the Army’s limited-user test, which will produce data that will directly assist the Army in deciding which MPF prototype to select and build.

The prototypes from both companies are now firing gunnery at Fort Stewart, Georgia, Dean said, and the test will conclude in November following maneuver exercises at Fort Bragg.

Other testing activities at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, and Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, are also feeding into the decision, Dean said.

The Army is anticipating awarding a contract to GDLS or BAE “about the end of the third quarter of fiscal 2022,” Dean added, and will then move into low-rate initial production.

The first units will get MPF in FY25. The Army plans to initially build 26 vehicles, with an option to build 28 more and retrofit eight prototypes.

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.

More In AUSA