Army Modernization Woes, The Big Five, and AirLand Battle Doctrine

Much of the Army’s critical combat systems are quite old. And Army plans for modernization have resulted in a series of bloated programs that have subsequently collapsed under their own bureaucratic weight.

But in the eight months since the equipment plan was released, so many of its programs have been called into question that a casual observer might easily conclude Army modernization is collapsing.  A new armored troop carrier that the Army Chief of Staff said “we have to have” as recently as last summer is effectively dead.  Both parts of a plan to upgrade armed scout helicopters already in the force while developing a more agile successor look doomed.  The service has begun to back away from elements of a new battlefield communications network previously described as its top modernization priority.

And that’s just what has happened in the last several months.  Since the Obama years began, the Army has dropped plans for a new family of networked combat vehicles, canceled both of its next-generation air defense systems, killed a key development effort in its artillery portfolio and starved its armored-vehicle industrial base to a point where both of the plants still assembling such vehicles look headed for shutdown later in this decade.  The other military services are trimming modernization plans too, but the Army has the worst record of bringing new programs to fruition.  Although its weapon budget is less than half the size of the Air Force’s or the Navy’s, it manages to waste more money through cancellations and restructures.

Thompson cites a couple issues the greatly influenced challenges to Army modernization. As noted, the end of the Cold War led to a procurement holiday. To be sure, some small programs went forward, but few major systems were slated for replacement. The success of the force structure and major systems in Desert Storm further argued against large sums being spent on replacing tanks and other combat vehicles. Indeed, the only major vehicle program to go forward was the decidedly unsexy Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles to replace existing 2-1/2 ton and 5 ton trucks.

The logistical challenges of moving large numbers of heavy forces to Desert Storm, combined with the profusion of networking capabilities led the Army to look to lighter, easier to deploy forces that could use information and agility to compensate for weight of metal. The (overly) ambitious Future Combat System family of vehicles and systems was to be the fruit of this plan, with the Stryker family of vehicles as the interim substitute.

The shift to Counter Insurgency (COIN) in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and operations in Afghanistan also prompted the procurement of massive numbers of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) on an (expensive) emergency basis, after the vulnerabilities of Humvees to large Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Explosively Forged Penetrators (EFPs). Money spent on MRAPs was money not available for normal procurement program development.

Indeed, the effects of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan suddenly made the thought of lighter, more rapidly deployable vehicles far less appealing. Any lighter vehicle is more vulnerable to IEDs, mines and other low cost anti-armor systems. This had led the Army to go from looking at a 40 ton replacement for the Bradley carrying a nine-man squad, to a conceptual 70 ton behemoth infantry vehicle that carries as few at 5 or 6 infantrymen.

The repeated flailing in Army combat system procurement means that for at least the next decade, we’ll soldier on with the legacy systems of the Cold War, popularly known at the time as the Big Five.

In the immediate post-Vietnam War era, the Army faced a modernization challenge that makes our current problems look trifling. Given the austere fiscal environment, and the lack of popular public support for military spending meant that for any program to succeed, it would have to be tightly managed.

Senior leadership in the Army, with support from the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and eventually the Reagan administrations, came up with a plan to focus on five procurement programs:

  1. The M1 Abrams tank
  2. The M2/M3 Bradley Infantry/Cavalry vehicle
  3. The AH-64 Apache attack helicopter
  4. The UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopter
  5. The MIM-104 Patriot surface to air missile system.

All five programs, in spite of being heavily criticized during development and fielding, were successful, and serve still as the backbone of the Army’s combat systems.  Why?

With the end of the war in Vietnam, the Army faced a Soviet Union that was increasingly aggressive and the specter of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe loomed large.

That well defined threat actually gave the Army the chance to revisit its doctrine. There was simply no possibility the Army could grow to the sized needed to counter the Soviet force with conventional doctrine, nor with existing weapon systems.  The Army’s doctrinal evolution, through Active Defense into AirLand Battle, while describing the shared view of the nature of warfare universally, was tailored closely to the environment the Army faced in NATO.

That same focus allowed the Army to closely define what they wanted from the Big Five. The requirements for each program could be optimized for Western Europe, in terms of performance, and the infrastructure and logistics anticipated to be available.

That ability to focus on the largest, most capable threat, and accept less than optimal suitability for less threatening theaters. That meant the program manager could suppress calls for features on each platform that were in the “nice but not really needed” category. Keeping down the bloat of added features speeded development and kept costs down, both for development and unit costs. The programs were all built with plenty of room for growth, so those “nice” features could be added as budgets allowed.

That we never had to fight the Soviets in Western Europe didn’t mean our doctrine and procurement was flawed. As seen, both the equipment of the Big Five and the doctrine of AirLand Battle was adaptable enough to serve in Desert Storm, and serve as the kernel of further doctrine as the security environment changed.

Today, Army planners are faced with a world where we really don’t know where our next fight will be. That leads to arguments over what features are most critical in any procurement. Given the American propensity for being very bad at predicting their next fight, planners should think hard about a worst case scenario, and focus on that.

Big Changes Ahead for Army Aviation?

The Army had industry partners propose an Armed Aerial Scout based on existing, in production helicopters recently to look for a replacement for its OH-58D Kiowa Warrior fleet. The results were not particularly impressive.

And so now, it seems Army Aviation may just get out of the armed scout business.

US Army leaders are considering scrapping its entire fleet of Bell Helicopter OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters, while pulling the National Guard’s Boeing AH-64 Apaches into the active-duty force to fill the scout helicopter role as the Army seeks to fulfill its longer-term requirement of a newly developed armed aerial scout, according to several Army and defense industry sources.

The plan also calls for giving active Black Hawk helicopters to the Guard, while taking half of the Guard’s Lakota fleet, using them as active-duty trainers and scrapping its Jet Rangers.

While a final decision has yet to be made, the industry sources had the impression that the deal was all but done.

This is a fairly huge realignment of the aviation master plan. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago the OH-58D was thought good enough that the 82nd Airborne’s organic attack helicopter battalion was composed solely of Kiowas.

And as the article notes, the National Guard isn’t going to be eager to give up its Apaches to the regular Army (and all those Guard units flying Apaches each have two Senators and at least one Representative who can be counted on to ask Big Army to justify itself in excruciating detail).

Further, if all attack helicopter capability is vested in the regular Army, where will the attack helicopter support for activated National Guard divisions come from?

The article also mentions retiring the TH-67 trainer (basically a Bell Jet Ranger 206) with UH-72A Lakotas again stolen from the Guard and Reserves. Frankly, I’m not sure how much money that would save. Ordinarily, necking down the total number of types of aircraft flown is a money saving measure. But the UH-72, while cheap to fly for its mission, is still going to have much higher operating costs than the TH-67.

The Future Vertical Lift Program is already making me cry.

Forbes has a pretty interesting look at one of the few bright spots in the American military aviation industry, helicopters, and sees clouds on the horizon in terms of procurement numbers. It is a pretty interesting article, and you might enjoy it.

But the part that caught my eye was this:

Meantime, the next generation of rotorcraft will take time to develop.  In June, the US Army selected three designs for its Joint Multi-Role Technology Demonstrator program.  JMR-TD is the precursor to the Department of Defense’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, and it should produce three medium size class technology demonstrators to be built by 2017.

There’s a lot of promise with FVL, which, for a start, is intended to replace 2,000-4,000 UH-60 medium lift models and AH-64 attack helicopters.  It will also be used to provide replacements for scout and heavy lift models through a modular design approach that will allow the airframe to be scaled.  In all, it could be worth over $100 billion.  However, FVL procurement will not begin until 2030, at the earliest.

That’s the part that scares me.  Actually, the first paragraph isn’t so bad. A technology demonstrator (TD) program isn’t, per se, bad. In fact, it is probably a pretty good idea. The problem is, a TD in effect becomes a prototype competition (much as happened in the JSF program) and the rules that determine the winner for a TD program are different from the rules that would be used in a genuine prototype fly-off for a production aircraft.

No, what really concerns me is the program looks structured to provide a “one airframe fits all” approach.

Which, it won’t. The reason we have different airframes is simply because one airframe simply cannot adequately perform all the mission sets required.

Now, a good deal of commonality among different airframes isn’t bad. For instance, the cockpit of the Boeing 757 and 767 are virtually identical. If you can fly one, you can pretty much fly the other. And using the same parts gives economies of scale in procurement and maintenance.  The same holds true with most Airbus single aisle airliners.

Should the FVL program lead to new technologies in engine, rotors,avionics,  noise and infrared suppression and other improvements, by all means, those developments should, where feasible, be shared across future programs.

But the bit about scalability is scaring me. I strongly suspect that rather than developing separate airframes with common components, the services will try to develop a common airframe with divergent missions. And that will be doomed to failure.

After all, it isn’t like this hasn’t happened before. The cancelled RAH-66 Comanche was the sole fruit of what was, until then, the most ambitious procurement program the Army ever undertook- the LHX. The Light Helicopter Experimental program was started in the early 1980s to replace the first generation of turbine powered helicopters of the Army. It was intended to replace the UH-1, the AH-1, the OH-6 and the OH-58, and eventually even replace the UH-60 and AH-64 that were just beginning to enter service as the LHX program was begun.

Trying to make one program fulfill several different roles meant a leap in technology was needed. Which meant the program was high risk. And a high risk program means a drawn out development schedule, which means high costs. And high costs per unit demand a more and more capable unit, which drives up the need for a technological leap, which makes a program high risk, which….

Eventually, the lift helicopter portions of the program were shed, and the focus was on a light armed scout. And that scout was burdened with ever greater requirements to be far more advanced than any previous helicopter. No doubt, a fair amount of the gold-plating of the program was a result of the contractor coming up with innovative ideas of what they could do- given the time and money to try, of course.

But so much time was spent developing the resulting RAH-66 helicopter that its mission, to slip far behind the lines of any Soviet armored assault on Western Europe, and locate valuable targets for other Army assets, was overtaken by other technologies, not to mention the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

After a quarter century of development and untold billions of dollars in development, the Army ended up with nothing.

Where the Army (and the other services) have had great success in aviation procurement is in tightly defining a mission and more importantly, tightly defining the requirements to fulfill that mission. When the services have ruthlessly resisted the call to add more capabilities beyond the immediate level needed to accomplish a mission, and have steadfastly avoided mission creep, they’ve had good success in buying aircraft. But without that discipline, they’ve suffered setback after embarrassing setback and ballooning costs and development timelines.

Let’s hope the FVL program manager can read a little history.