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Cuts could threaten ground vehicle programs

Mar. 20, 2013 - 07:33AM   |  
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When it comes to the future of the Army’s ground vehicle fleet, very little is certain. After a few high-profile program cancellations and schedule slippages in recent years, the next-generation vehicles the service says its needs are still a work in progress, and at this point, in flux.

And yet one thing is certain: Tight budgets mean new vehicles must be more survivable and must be modifiable as new technologies come onboard.

“Everybody’s realizing that we’re no longer going to design a new vehicle every 10 years,” one industry executive said.

While the three largest programs — Ground Combat Vehicle, Joint Light Tactical Vehicle and Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle — continue their march toward the next phases of development, the inevitable postwar budget cuts demanded by the White House and Capitol Hill have started to hit hard, even as the service rolls out a new equipment strategy.

On Jan. 17, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer told Army leaders that the GCV’s technology development phase would have to be pushed back by six months “in anticipation of the fiscal pressures over the FY14-18 timeframe.”

Moving the program’s schedule back by six months pushes a final production decision back to fiscal 2019, as opposed to the expected first quarter of fiscal 2018.

While the program has to overcome early schedule issues and the rewriting of its requirements document in November 2010, one issue that has dogged the program for years has been its weight — estimated at 64 to 80 tons per vehicle.

“Deployability is important,” said Col. Rocky Kmiecik of the Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at the Association of the U.S. Army convention Feb. 21 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But “people say, ‘My God, [the GCV] is 20 tons more than the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle. How does that affect deployability?’ Well, it doesn’t, because it takes the same amount of planes, the same amount of time to deploy a Bradley as a Ground Combat Vehicle.”

BAE Systems and General Dynamics are fighting it out for a single contract award once the technology development phase ends, and both contractors have said they will be able to keep the weight within reasonable limits.

When it comes to the fate of the 20,000-strong mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle fleet the Pentagon rapidly purchased from 2007 to 2010, a new 40-page Army Equipping Strategy released quietly March 4 said the service will focus on “seeking mature technologies and incremental improvements to address capability gaps for deep buried, non-metallic [roadside bombs] and semiautonomous route clearance capabilities to improve crew protection.”

The Army has long said it will divest of thousands of the hulking vehicles, using most of the remaining vehicles for route clearance work, though final numbers have yet to be released.

As part of its effort to reduce the number of brigade combat teams across the service while adding a third heavy maneuver battalion to each BCT, the Army also confirms in its new strategy document that it will purge “tens of thousands of wheeled vehicles so that we can afford the JLTV in coming years.” But since “the tactical wheeled vehicle fleet is relatively young,” only the oldest vehicles will be sent to the scrap heap before suitable replacements are selected and built, the service said.

While the designs of most of the vehicles in the fleet may be decades old, the actual fleet age has remained young due to the tens of billions of dollars poured into wartime sustainment, modernization — and perhaps most significantly, up-armoring — over the past decade. But the service still warns that “we must manage the fleet carefully, since we cannot afford to replace them all at once.”

Defense industry executives are clearly on the same page as Army brass — at least in this respect — as a recent conversation with Mark Signorelli, vice president and general manager of vehicle systems at BAE Systems, showed.

“Clearly, there’s a trend toward more force protection” in the Army’s requirements requests for new vehicles, he said.

One of the big demands in developing new platforms such as the GCV, JLTV and the AMPV is “establishing a base vehicle that has the capability to grow incrementally over time,” Signorelli continued.

Since the Army is getting out of the business of routinely designing new vehicles every few years, anything developed now has to have the ability to be modified to take on new technologies such as directed-energy weapons, new communications and sensor equipment, as well as yet-to-be designed speed, protection and mobility enhancements.

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