What’s next for Marine Armor?

With the cancellation of the Marines Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Marines are faced with the challenge of what to do to replace or upgrade their existing fleet of amphibious assault vehicles.

The Marines face a two part challenge. First, they need a vehicle that can swim in the ocean and in surf conditions without swamping or otherwise sinking, and do so from a respectable distance out at sea. That vehicle has to be able to transition from a seagoing vessel to a  fighting vehicle on the move as it crawls out of the water. The Marines simply must maintain the ability to roll from the sea to the beach and beyond to the initial objectives. At a minimum, they need to be able to move far enough inland to secure a lodgment big enough to keep the main beaches out from under artillery fire.

The other problem the Marines face is that they are a light force, with very limited assault shipping available, and yet they need sufficient armored vehicles to mount most of their force under armor once ashore. We’ve seen that in todays environment of IEDs and mines that mounting troops in trucks or other light skinned vehicles is not really an option. The operational and political costs of losing troops that way is just too high. But given the high cost of armored amphibious assault vehicles, and the weight and space limitations they face, mounting the entire infantry forces of a Marine brigade in amphibious vehicles isn’t really an option either. So it looks like the Marines might try to go with a two tiered approach to vehicles.

First, they are going to start a follow-on program from the ashes of the EFV. The linked article sure makes it sound like the Marines are hoping the new program will simply be EFV by another name. If so, they are going to get their feelings severely hurt. The country’s finances aren’t going to be in any shape to afford such a costly fleet of vehicles any time soon. But if the Marines can work with industry to provide a somewhat more modest vehicle, they may well be able to come up with the funds for a goodly sized amphibious assault vehicle fleet.

The other part of the equation is a program that has quietly been cooking along on the back burner, The Marine Personnel Carrier.

The Marine Corps has established a requirement for a new Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC), an advanced generation eight-wheeled armored personnel carrier that would provide general support lift to marine infantry in the ground combat element based maneuver task force. The MPC requirement is shaped to provide a balance of performance, protection and payload in order to set the conditions for fielding a combat vehicle that will be effective across the range of military operations.

If an 8-wheeled armored vehicle with advanced digital electronics and a remotely operated .50 cal weapon station sounds an awful lot like a Stryker to you, well, that’s the same though that popped into my head. Go read the link, and you’ll notice that the MPC, while able to cross inland waters and streams, doesn’t say anything about beaching from the sea. That’s because it won’t be expected to. Its job will be the follow on fighting after the initial lodgment ashore is secured.

We’ve focused on Marine landing vehicles here a bit lately, but it is important to remember, our friends the Sea Soldiers don’t have any intentions of making landings purely by vehicle. Each amphibious group that transports Marines also has a big old helicopter carrier assigned to it. The Marines have a robust helicopter capability, and they intend to make the most of it.

So while parts of the landing team are churning their way ashore in amtracs, another portion of the force will be landing by helicopter behind the beaches. The Marines will try to land on the least defended beaches available, and the troops landed by helicopter will have the mission of blocking enemy forces from reinforcing those beaches, preventing artillery from reaching the beaches, and even attacking toward the beaches to take existing defenders from the rear. Once the initial lodgment is secured, the Marines can use heavier lift landing craft to bring ashore vehicles such as the MPC and their M-1 Abrams, as well as the always critical logistics elements to sustain operations. The Marines can either begin a limited campaign of their own, or secure a port for the entry of follow-on Army forces for a larger campaign.

The basic tactical concept is nothing new. The Marines have been planning this sort of operation since the days of the Korean War. But with the proliferation of cheap antitank missile and especially the large numbers of shore launched anti-ship missiles around that can hold at risk the Navy’s amphibious shipping, the question has become, can we afford to assault a defended objective from the sea? I think it is vital that we maintain that capability, and that it be the Marines prime mission. How to go about maintaining and building that capability without spending every last defense dollar on it is the question.

A Real Stimulus?

One of the quirks we find ourselves facing is the social welfare programs with unsound Constitutional basis are “entitlements” and not discretionary spending, but the duties of government most explicitly outlined fall under discretionary spending.

Former Congressman Jim Talent makes the case that now is not the time to cut the defense budget.

First, the framers of the U.S. Constitution envisioned national defense as the priority obligation of the federal government. The first power granted to the president in Article 2 is “Commander-in-Chief of the Armies and Navies of the United States, and of the Militias of the Several States.” Of the 17 powers granted to Congress in Article 1, six relate specifically to defense, and the Constitution grants Congress the full range of authorities necessary to establish the defense of the nation (as it was then understood).

The other powers granted to Congress are permissive in nature; Congress can choose to exercise them or not. But the federal government is constitutionally obligated to defend the nation. Article 4, Section 4 states that the “United States shall guarantee to every State a republican form of government and shall protect each of them against invasion.”

I’m quite sympathetic to this argument. Further, Mr. Talent notes that the recapitalization of our forces could easily be funded with the unspent monies from the so-called “stimulus” (which was really nothing more than a bail-out of state social welfare programs, with some bonus pork thrown to traditional Democrat allies).

Congress could reverse the decline in military capability simply by capturing the unspent portion of the stimulus package and spending it judiciously on modernization over the next five years. As the panel report demonstrated, it is possible to marshal a strong bipartisan consensus for such an effort.

The problem is not budgetary. The problem is getting our government leaders to focus on the vital connections between strength, prosperity, and freedom. The best and cheapest way to protect American security is to sustain American power at a level that reduces risk, encourages global economic growth, and deters the wars that cost America so much in lives and treasure.

The elegance of this approach is that it would have the twofold benefit of first, restoring our forces material strength, and secondly, acting as true stimulus spending. Buying real, tangible equipment means manufacturing, which means good jobs in a wide variety of Congressional districts. That money gets spent in those communities. And that helps the local economies, and the economy as a whole.

I don’t support defense spending as a means of stimulating the economy. But I’m more than happy to tout that benefit of defense spending.

So how do I square this stance with my call below to axe several high profile programs? That’s simple. Defense dollars will always be limited. And I do not believe these programs provide a sufficient return on investment, if you will. I do not think they are the best way procurement dollars can be spent. Each of these programs are the legacy of the “transformational” school of thought that envisioned fighting a “Desert Storm Redux” and posited that would could fight those wars even cheaper by further leveraging our technological edge. Well, I certainly don’t want to sacrifice our edge, but there is a lesson that the Soviets knew that we should never forget- quantity has a quality all its own. There is simply too much land, sea and sky for our forces to cover if we maintain such a small number of platforms. The Navy, the strategic service of our nation, is already far, far too small. The Air Force is hurting badly. The Marines are still searching for relevancy in Afghanistan, when they should be focused on being America’s door-kickers, and strategic reserve.  The Army, ironically, is probably in the best material shape, despite having borne the brunt of fighting in two wars the last 10 years.

The Defense Budget

We are obviously in recessionary times, and the federal budget is at unsustainable levels. The real backbreakers are Social Security and Medicare, but plainly, every department is going to be staring budget cuts in the face. The Department of Defense is a favored whipping boy for cuts, since every penny of its budget is discretionary money, and not “entitlement” money. Rough seas are ahead for the DoD.

If you were in charge, and had free reign, what would you cut? Programs? Staffs? How about a revision to Goldwater-Nichols? Troop units or major ships?

Since we’re just indulging in a fantasy here, let’s pretend that we don’t have to fool with Congressional interference and patronage, and that politics don’t intrude upon national security budgeting decisions.

I can think of any number of things I’d cut from the budget. Heck, there’s a few I’d cut even if money weren’t an issue.

Part One

Army:

The FCS system would be deader than a doornail. Having said that, some of the technologies and ideas behind it would remain. For the short to medium term, next generation vehicles would be suspended. The R&D emphasis would be on improving communications and intelligence gathering and distribution at the brigade and lower level.

I’d be prepared, if pressed, to reduce the standing US presence in Korea to one combat brigade. I’d really rather not pull completely back from Europe, but I could be convinced to leave the 173rd in Italy, and rotate 2 combat brigades to Europe much like the Marines Unit Deployment Program.

Procurement wise, the Army is actually in pretty fair shape. A lot of the fleet of logistical vehicles is fairly new. Of course, they are putting on mileage faster than anticipated due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a good depot program should be able to manage that concern. With the combat vehicle fleet, the Stykers are relatively young. The Bradley and Abrams fleet are another matter. Both fleets have been in service for almost 30 years, with an average age somewhere around 20-25 years. Both systems are running out of room for growth, but should suffice for the medium term with a strong depot maintenance program.

Army aviation is similarly in decent shape. Blackhawk and Chinook procurement is going well, and should be continued. The Apache fleet is similarly on glidepath. There are some issues with other aspects of aviation though. The Army can’t seem to buy a simple replacement for the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior. The ARH-70 program was riddled with cost overruns and performance shortcomings. Maybe it’s time to set aside the JetRanger family and go back to the MD-500 family. The other option is to do away with observation helicopters, and just go with Apaches in the scout role. I’d also pull the plug on the Army’s MQ-1C Predator program. Let the Air Force be the sole manager for the platform. The only UAVs the Army would operate would be smaller observation platforms that give the local ground commander situational awareness and reconnaissance.

On the staff side, there’s a lot of duplication. Sometimes, it isn’t a terrible burden. For instance, 3rd Army exists as the field Army at CentCom, and also goes by the name of ArCent.  But why does every headquarters in Iraq and Afghanistan need a separate “Joint” or “Multi-national” designation laid above the tactical unit that makes up the force? For instance, if the 4th ID headquarters is in charge of the Green Zone in Iraq, does it really need a headquarters named Multi-National Division blah, blah, blah whatever it is with all the administrative burdens beyond just what the 4th ID already has?

What do you think? Where would you cut programs in the Army? What money would you save? Would you trim troop unit levels?

We’ll get to the other branches in later installments of this topic.