Bob Gates and the future Army.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came out last month with his proposed cuts in various acquisition programs throughout the DoD. The biggest impact this had on the Army was cutting the vehicle procurement portion of the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) and moving to put most of the networking portion of it on the back burner.

The FCS program was originally designed with two major goals in mind:

First,  to both bring all of the army’s combat brigades into network-centric warfare, where using networks to link all combat elements would speed the flow of information, enhance the mental agility of units, reduce the fog of war, and allow our units to out think and outfight enemies large and small.

The second goal was to replace the Army’s legacy fleet of heavy armored vehicles, such as the M1 Abrams, the M2 Bradley and the M109 howitzer, with fleets of much lighter vehicles that would be easier to transport to the theater of operations, and more agile on the battlefield. An overriding goal of this part of the program was to use a single common set of components for all the vehicles in the fleet.

There are a couple problems with this holistic approach to re-equipping the Army. One, it is technologically very ambitious. Any part of the program that lags behind the anticipated timeline causes almost the whole program to be delayed. And in a program like this, time isn’t just money. It’s a LOT of money.  Second, when the FCS program was started, the Army had one vision of what future missions would likely look like. The primary outlook was one of short duration operations against nation/state actors such as Iraq. To say Desert Storm was the model they were working from would be an oversimplification, but it certainly had a large influence. But events since then have shown some of the limitations of that outlook. The vulnerability of lighter armored vehicles to IED attack took the Army somewhat by surprise. Not totally, mind you, but somewhat. In a war of maneuver against a state level enemy, you might expect to lose some forces to mines and other demolitions, but maneuver would mostly allow you to avoid mines, and your agility on the battlefield would prevent the enemy from having enough advance notice of your movements to emplace very many ambushes. That obviously isn’t the case in a counter-insurgency such as Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan.  When you have to drive through the same neighborhoods on a regular basis, even a fairly dim enemy can figure out where to put mines and IEDs. And given that the FCS goal was for no vehicle heavier than 27 tons,  there was no way to provide enough protection against any but the smallest mines and IEDs.

As a means of testing this concept of a happy middle ground between the heavy Abrams/Bradley force, and light infantry/artillery team, the Army conceived the Interim Brigade Combat Teams.  These are better known as Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, since they are mounted on Stryker vehicles.  The Stryker is a modified version of  a Canadian designed Light Armored Vehicle, but a key part of the vehicle and brigade design is the integration of its networking capabilities.  And it has been quite successful in Iraq. It isn’t invulnerable to IEDs or mines, but the crew survivability is pretty good, and combination of speed, armor and firepower is pretty close to what the Army had hoped for. But even supported by the Mobile Gun System, the Stryker Brigade is a little too light to go on the offense against an armored enemy.

But the attempt to force several different types of vehicles, from tanks to artillery, to infantry carriers to share a common basis has not been successful. The challenges, from keeping weight down, to providing enough armor, to finding a powerful, but lightweight engine, are just too much to form a successful program.

With the demise of the common family of vehicles from the FCS program, the Army will have to stretch the life of its core fleet of Abrams and Bradley vehicles. They are already somewhat old, most of them having been bought in the 1980s, but with proper funding to reset/upgrade their mechanical components and continued improvement of their sensors and networking capabilities, there’s probably enough life left in them to stave off mass obsolescence. And several parts of the FCS program will be integrated into the Army in the future, such as its great emphasis on UAVs, unmanned ground sensors, and perhaps even unmanned ground vehicles.  Certainly, the demand for much greater bandwidth at the tactical level isn’t going to go away, in spite of mounting challenges there (there is only so much of the radio spectrum available). Some technologies, such as the Non-Line of Sight- Launch System are well on their way to being fielded with the Army (and the Navy’s LCS ships will use it as well).

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11 thoughts on “Bob Gates and the future Army.”

  1. Speed and networking could never replace armor. Even with Desert Storm, the pentagon has had its eyes on China ever since the cold war ended. Sadly, China, Iran and other bad apples seem to have learned from Desert Sotrm and the other conflicts leading up to OIF/OEF.

    Forget IEDS, anti-material rifles, RPG’s with dual warheads and even thermobaric RPG’s would have made short work of the Manned Ground vehicles. China produces many of the latter.

    The Stryker was the resulf of the 90’s focus on “Peacekeepin” and “Nation bulding”. Let’s build a truck for soft power missions.

    With light armor and no air defense, a Chinese or Iranian offensive hurt.

    Many 11B’s I spoke with miss the Bradly, I met one 19K who was a stryker crewman. He liked it, but he was the minority.

    Until the Army spends money on transportation and logistics no unit will ever be light enough to move the way FCS was supposed to move.

  2. May I demur and opine that the whole concept of “light” tanks is laughable. The need for something that can cross 3rd world bridges w.o. collapsing them aside, any tank light enough to be airlifted into the bad guys back-yard is going to meet the bad guy’s heavy tanks who obviously have no need to travel. (This is the philosophy of Israel, btw, whose MBT is heavy on armor and firepower, and as a result heavy and slow, theirs not being an expeditionary force)

    What good does it do to airlift something destined to be blown away once it is deposited amidst the bad guys heavy tanks? Didn’t the 82nd call it’s Sherridans “speed-bumps” when they were the first to be sent into the ME ahead of everyone else? Far better to use stand-off airborne wpns, armed UAVs and helos until the main force can make land-fall, IMHO. And the only places where cold/bad wx would make CAS iffy are not likely to be places we will be fighting in in the near future, unless you believe the Russkies are itching to gear up for another go at northern Germany.

  3. Well, the word from the contractor’s side is that Gates’s realignment of the program has two motiviations:
    1) get rid of the tax the Lead Systems Integrators contractors are placing on the program by ditching them and having the Army take their role; and
    2) reorienting the program along the current direction of operational needs.

    They tell me there will undoubtedly be a revised version of FCS within a year, if they manage to stop it at all (it has congressional support from all 50 states due to the strategic placement of subcontracts).

  4. I thought Styker’s fell out of favor when it was found they were vulnerable to RPG’s in the wheel well and that a new breed of MRAP was needed in the IED environment. Speedier than the Bradley but not as tough?

  5. Strykers are still fairly popular with most troops I’ve talked to. Sure, there’s less armor than a Bradley, and less firepower. But one of the real weaknesses in a Bradley unit is that there are NEVER enough dismounted riflemen. Even if you fill all the seats, you still have a fairly small dismount element. And you never have enough people to fill all the seats.

    I tend to think of the Stryker not so much as a replacement for Bradley units (in fact, I can’t think of any that DID convert) but rather the “re-mounting” of the various light infantry divisions of the 1980s. And they certainly have more mobility and armor than an all leg unit.

    The only all-leg units that spring to mind right now are the 82nd, 101st, 10th MTN, and the 173rd.

  6. Gates has weakened air power; will eliminate one carrier battle group and its air wing; will not replace material being worn out at an alarming rate nor replace outmoded designs. He has forced the Air Force to keep the B-52 in service and has done nothing to enhance our weapons systems.

    Perhaps he is trying to do the best he can but forgive me for asking, in four years will our military be weaker or stronger than it was in 2008?

    I think the PRC and Russia know the answer and are pushing their armaments programs because of this.

  7. Thomas, The weird thing is, most of these problems were brought on by the services, not the SecDef.

    The Navy has horribly mismanaged it’s shipbuilding. Neither Rumsfeld nor Gates put much oversight into it. The Navy is almost wholly to blame for the trouble it is in.

    As to the Air Force, the F-22 decision was dumb. But it was no surprise either.

    And the B-52? For over a decade, the Air Force has programmed the B-52 to serve through AT LEAST 2040.

    Would I have done some things differently? Sure. But frankly, Obama isn’t that hostile to the military. He’s indifferent. And Gates has to make choices based on a reasonable projection of how much money he’s going to have to work with. It could have been much worse.

  8. For all the talk of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency, the DOD keeps wait for China to rear it’s head.

    Meanwhile, even Hezbollah has a UAV.

    I may be biased in this, but I find the lack of air defense disturbing.

    The problems with the F-35 is that the costs are piling up. Unlike the F-16, the JSF *has* to be “gold plated”. The F-16 has so many international partners and assembly plants that some version of it will be flying 30 years from now.

    The trouble is that our current budget know-it-all’s and MSM “Defense analysists” keep insisting that the F-16/F-15 are “good enough.” They’ll try and come for what is left of the FCS next.

    That is what will hurt.

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