Update 1/18/2020: The OMFV portion of this article is now somewhat outdated, as the program only ended up receiving one bid (GDLS) and is now in limbo. Even though OMFV did not ask for a clean-sheet design, the Army’s initial proposal deadline proved too aggressive for some of the stringent requirements imposed. The program is not cancelled, but the Army will have to go back to the drawing board, and the vehicle’s introduction will undoubtedly be delayed.
In 1980, the first M1 Abrams main battle tank (MBT) entered service with the United States Army. A year later, the first M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) was fielded. The M113 armored personnel carrier (APC), which was partially replaced by the M2, has been deployed since 1960 and remains in use today. Though all these vehicles have performed well in combat, they are beginning to show their age. It is not so much an issue of wear and tear — the Army has more than enough newly-built, mothballed Bradleys and Abrams to last years — but that the vehicles’ underlying designs are dated. This problem is especially acute with the M2 and M113; the former lacks the spare size, weight, and power necessary for further improvement, while the latter is not survivable and can only be deployed in a limited capacity as a result.
It was not supposed to be this way. The Army has twice tried to replace its armored fighting vehicles, first with the ambitious, all-encompassing Future Combat Systems (FCS) program and again with the IFV-specific Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) effort. Both ended in failure. Now, the Army has gone back to the drawing board and initiated the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) program with the aim of finally procuring new armored fighting vehicles. This article will explore what FCS and GCV were, why they failed, and how NGCV aims to avoid their pitfalls.
This section of the article is heavily informed by RAND’s superb report Lessons from the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program. It’s long, but a worthwhile read for those interested in procurement.
Future Combat Systems was not an armored vehicle program per se but rather an all-encompassing attempt to replace much of the Army’s combat equipment with a family of networked systems designed in tandem. It began in 1999 and was driven by wargames conducted during the mid-1990s, which featured a variety of scenarios but focused on conflict with a large near-peer competitor in 2020-2030 (see Army After Next in this article). During the wargames, Army leadership realized that a powerful adversary could quickly overrun a smaller neighbor and set up defenses before the Army would be able to deploy armor in response. Once an adversary had taken cities and other built-up areas, counterattacking would be costly. Experience during real-world conflicts in the 1990s informed this outlook as well; the Army performed quite well in the Gulf War but required months of buildup before it could field an adequate force. The Navy and Air Force, on the other hand, were better able to intervene in rapidly-developing crises (such as the NATO intervention against Serbia) thanks to their inherent mobility. In order for the Army to deliver the type of capability which the 21st century seemed to demand, it needed better strategic deployability.
Thus, FCS was born. Though many weapons systems see their design informed by combat experience and war college theorizing, FCS was unprecedented in terms of its all-encompassing adherence to a single operational concept. Essentially, the Army had a conception of what the future of warfare would look like and a vision for how to respond. FCS was an attempt to create the technologies necessary to realize this vision. As such, the program encompassed not a single system (as most procurement efforts do) but the myriad of vehicles, sensors, robotics, and networks which would be required to catapult the Army’s brigades into the 21st century.
Creating armored brigades that could be deployed globally within 96 hours — as fast as a contemporary light brigade — was FCS’ core objective. Originally, a large VTOL rotary-wing aircraft was envisioned as the source of aerial deployability (see pages 59 and 60 of the RAND report), with the C-130 acting as a stand-in. It is difficult to over-emphasize the technical challenge this mobility requirement posed; current tanks and IFVs, which are the distinguishing features of an armored formation, are far too heavy to be easily and rapidly moved over long distances. For example, transporting the 60+ ton M1 Abrams requires strategic airlifters such as the C-17 Globemaster II or the C-5 Galaxy. Since only one tank can fit on the former and only two tanks can fit on the latter, moving enough M1s (plus IFVs, APCs, support vehicles, etc.) to outfit a whole armored brigade combat team (ABCT) requires many sorties. Moreover, the C-17 and C-5 are large aircraft which require a relatively long, flat runway and thus cannot deliver vehicles directly to the front line.
It was clear that, in order to meet the C-130 deployability requirement, some of FCS’ armored systems would have to be much lighter than their current counterparts — 20 tons is the C-130’s upper vehicle payload limit. Designing a 20-ton replacement for the M1 Abrams, M2 Bradley, and M109 Paladin would be especially challenging; the former weighs in at over 70 tons and the latter are both 30+ tons in their newer variants. Moreover, armored vehicles have generally gotten heavier from generation to generation rather than lighter. FCS would have to buck this trend using exotic materials, smart engineering, and a substantial reduction in armor.
In addition to strategic deployability, one of FCS’ primary objectives was achieving high levels of network integration. The US’ resounding success in the Gulf War seemed to indicate that overwhelming technological superiority was the key to securing victory on the battlefield with minimal casualties. If all intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets could be woven into a common network and data could be fed to every troop and weapons system, American forces could engage the enemy before themselves being detected. As such, FCS included not only the typical elements of an armored brigade (tanks, IFVs, APCs) but also a litany of support and reconnaissance vehicles, including numerous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs).
Though highly appealing on paper, FCS encountered serious problems from the outset. Most of these were related to its ambitious nature; realizing the FCS vision required technologies which were (and some of which still are) beyond state of the art. For instance, FCS’ clean-sheet network and software suite would have included almost 100 million lines of code. For comparison, the JSF program, which experienced substantial software-related delays and was being developed contemporaneously with FCS, required 25 million lines of code. The Army’s hopes for seamless, “near-perfect” real-time tactical intelligence lacked a solid grounding in the actual capabilities of the industry.
Moreover, the Army and industry realized early on that protecting a light-skinned vehicle using offensive power and the omniscience of the network was simply not possible; gaps in sensor coverage, weather conditions, built-up areas, deception and ambushes, IEDs, etc. could all frustrate the intelligence picture and allow enemy forces to slip through the outer defensive layer. As a result, armor protection for manned FCS vehicles was increased. Above is an image of the entire FCS family as envisioned shortly before cancellation. The manned vehicles (including the M1, M2, and M109 replacements) were to be based on a common chassis called the Manned Ground Vehicle (MGV). Whereas the M1 Abrams has passive frontal protection from tank rounds and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), the MGV platform was rated to withstand frontal fire from autocannons less than 50 mm. Anything larger would be defeated by a hard-kill active protection system (APS). Though inferior in passive survivability relative to an Abrams, the MGV would have represented a modest step-up in protection relative to the other vehicles it was due to replace, including the M2, M113, and M109. This rather generous level of passive survivability was far above what the FCS concept originally envisioned and pushed the vehicle’s weight to around 27 tons, causing the roll-on-roll-off C-130 requirement to be dropped and jeopardizing the rationale of the program.
In addition to the numerous sources of technical complexity discussed, timescale issues were present as well. RAND’s post-mortem aptly described the overall timeline as “profoundly ambitious.” FCS aimed to design and field more than ten highly sophisticated systems in around a decade; normally, even one cutting-edge piece of technology would take longer. As a result, every stage of development had to be expedited, including the initial phases in which requirements are cemented; this contributed to the program’s unrealistic expectations by precluding thorough technical scrutiny of its more ambitious components (see RAND 88). The sheer number of systems comprising FCS was another source of risk, as delays with any one of these could impact the broader effort. Moreover, the compressed timeline required conducting critical tests quite late; the software suite, for example, would not have been fully validated until right as production was set to begin. As a result of contemporaneous testing and production, any significant issues exposed during the tests almost certainly would have delayed IOC and other important milestones.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wore on, many core FCS assumptions were thrown under the bus. FCS’ concept of operations took for granted that the capabilities required for combat against a near-peer adversary would translate well across the spectrum of operations. It is tempting to assume that if one’s force can defeat the most sophisticated adversary — a heavily-armored, combined arms formation — it will perform well against insurgents. In reality, this is not always the case; engaging vehicles and uniformed infantry in a relatively open battlefield is fundamentally different from hunting plainclothes-dressed insurgents in a built-up environment where non-combatants are present. Even the best ISR efforts of the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough to protect armored units from attack — ambushes with IEDs and man-portable anti-tank weapons could decimate relatively light-skinned HMMWVs and other armored personnel carriers. In response to low-end threats, the Army found itself up-armoring its combat vehicles, yielding heavy machines such as the MaxxPro and M-ATV. The MGV, even in its better-armored iterations, would not be as survivable as an MRAP against IEDs and would rely on active protection systems (which have their own drawbacks) for defense against anti-tank weapons. FCS’ concept of operations no longer reflected the reality on the ground or the Army’s contemporary armored vehicle efforts.
As a result of the aforementioned factors, FCS was eventually canceled in 2009 after around $20 billion dollars spent and almost a decade of development. A few of its smaller systems were preserved for continued investment, but most of these were later discontinued after they were found ineffective in combat or simply did not translate well to independent deployment. As a result, the FCS program is widely considered to have been a failure.
Ground Combat Vehicle
After the demise of FCS, the Army decided to continue pursuing a replacement for the M2 and began a program called Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). Unlike FCS, GCV focused on fielding a specific system (an IFV) rather than re-imagining Army operations at the brigade level. As such, it did not rely on complementary pieces of software or unmanned vehicles. In addition to this difference in scope, GCV shifted the emphasis from deployability to survivability. Beyond fitting on a C-17 (not a particularly stringent requirement), there was little in the way of an upper weight limit for GCV. The following paragraph, taken from a DoD press release, captures the extent of this change in priorities:
The first GCV will be an Infantry Fighting Vehicle offering a highly-survivable platform for delivering a nine-man infantry squad to the battlefield. The GCV is the first vehicle that will be designed from the ground up to operate in an IED environment. It is envisioned to have greater lethality and ballistic protection than a Bradley, greater IED and mine protection than an MRAP, and the cross country mobility of an Abrams tank. The GCV will be highly survivable, mobile and versatile, but the Army has not set specific requirements such as weight, instead allowing industry to propose the best solution to meet the requirements.
As the enthusiasm for IED resistance in this passage suggests, weight projections for GCV were quite high throughout the program’s life. Early on, the Army constituted a “Red Team” to audit the GCV program and prevent the kind of uncritical thinking that led to FCS’ fantastical scope and requirements. Among numerous other issues, the Red Team calculated that a vehicle meeting all the Army’s GCV requirements would weigh up to 70 tons — twice the weight of the M2 and almost as heavy as the newest M1s, which are hefty even for MBTs. Moreover, the novel armor types envisioned by the Army for use with GCV were still at a low level of technological readiness.
Another important GCV requirement was the ability to carry nine fully-kitted infantrymen (a full squad); the Bradley can only carry 4-6 depending on their equipment. This motivated the Army to pursue a clean-sheet design, as existing IFVs with the desired firepower and survivability characteristics could not satisfy all these requirements.
With regards to timeline, GCV carried on the legacy of FCS and called for an ambitious development schedule. The Army wanted its new IFV within seven years; perhaps not as far-fetched as FCS, but still well shorter than third-party analyses suggested would be necessary. As a result of the Red Team audit, the Army re-issued its RFP with fewer stringent requirements and an emphasis on mature technologies. In addition, a target price was set at $10 million per unit to encourage lower-cost designs (note that $10 million is still more than a new M1A2 SEP V2 Abrams). In 2013, the Army also extended the technology demonstration phase of the program by six months to help contractors comply with new requirements and make sure their preliminary designs were adequately scrutinized.
Nonetheless, GCV was ultimately canceled in 2014. The Army claimed that this decision was a budgetary one, an assertion which is supported by the evidence; the US defense budget was falling in 2014 and the long-term affordability of GCV was a subject of ongoing controversy. The presence of compelling and often-touted GCV alternatives, namely purchasing a foreign design or updating the M2, undoubtedly contributed to the program’s demise as well. Replacing the Bradley, which still seemed to offer adequate performance, with an expensive, heavy, and risky clean-sheet design was simply not appealing given the budgetary situation and the other more urgent programs competing for resources (more on that later).
Next-Generation Combat Vehicle
After FCS’ cancelation, the Army was left without a unified combat vehicle program until the inception of the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) effort a few years later. NGCV is run by the Army’s new Futures Command and currently encompasses five sub-programs: an M113 replacement (Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle), an M2 Bradley replacement (called Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle), a light tank for use by infantry brigade combat teams (Mobile Protected Firepower), a series of small and medium unmanned ground vehicles (Robotic Combat Vehicle), and a yet-to-be-named M1 Abrams replacement. The M1 replacement is the furthest out, since the Abrams has room for growth and the Army has not decided whether it wants another traditional MBT. As these schedule discrepancies imply, NGCV is not a system-of-systems effort like FCS but rather an umbrella for a number of largely-independent programs. This appears to be the first lesson that the Army has learned from FCS: best not to place all of your eggs in one basket. Since NGCV’s constituent parts are not tied together by a common operational concept or network to the same extent as FCS, the failure of any one element of NGCV should not tank the whole effort. Developing cooperative engagement capabilities separately from the combat vehicles and then tying everything together in a more flexible fashion seems to be the Army’s preferred approach here, and it is one that has worked for other branches.
To discuss the AMPV as part of the NGCV program is somewhat misleading, because AMPV’s genesis predates the inception of NGCV. In fact, AMPV was roughly contemporaneous with GCV and is already at an advanced stage of development. The goal of AMPV is to replace the M113 APC, which is not survivable on the modern battlefield, in ABCT service. Part of the reason GCV was canceled was to free up funds for the AMPV, which was considered a more urgent priority due to the M113’s almost complete obsolescence.
The discussion of AMPV here will be relatively brief because AMPV is a remarkably atypical program. First of all, there was no serious competition for the EMD contract because the terms of the RFP and other preliminary materials indicated a preference for a solution based on the Bradley’s hull. As such, BAE Systems was at a significant advantage from the outset; GD planned on bidding a tracked Stryker variant but later sought to offer their wheeled Stryker and alter the terms of the program by appealing the contract and lobbying Congress. In the end, GD was unable to convince Congress or the Army to purchase wheeled vehicles for the ABCTs and ultimately declined to bid, leaving BAE Systems as the uncontested winner.
The AMPV is an extreme example of low-risk procurement and features very high commonality with the M2 Bradley. In most respects, the base AMPV is merely a turretless Bradley with a .50 weapons station and other alterations necessary for APC usage. This is another reason that the inclusion of AMPV in NGCV is somewhat incongruous — it is quite a stretch to describe the AMPV as “next generation.”
The elimination of the Bradley’s turret for AMPV reduces crew requirements from three to two, and passenger capacity remains unchanged at six. Like the M113 it replaces, the AMPV will feature a litany of variants including a mortar carrier, a battlefield ambulance, and a command vehicle. According to IHS Jane’s, the vehicle’s armor furnishes protection against 30 mm rounds across the frontal arc and a new floating passenger compartment floor improves IED survivability.
The decision to use the M2 Bradley hull is an interesting one. Obviously, the using the M2 as a starting point has risk benefits, but there other mature and lighter, more modern designs the Army could have chosen instead. What a modern design could not offer, however, are the unique logistical benefits of a Bradley-based solution. First of all, there is the possibility of using mothballed Bradley hulls and rebuilding them into AMPVs. Though not a trivial task, this would obviously be cheaper than constructing new chassis. Even if the Army and BAE choose not to go this route, mothballed Bradleys could be cannibalized for spare parts when necessary. Plus, operating both the M2 and AMPV will yield logistics commonalities, as AMPVs can be diagnosed and repaired using existing tools, techniques, and supply chains. Since the Army’s APCs are not intended to be true frontline fighters, the practical benefits of the Bradley platform appear to have outweighed the drawbacks of using a 1980s-vintage blueprint.
At the moment, OMFV is the primary effort associated with NGCV. An OMFV RFI has been released and a formal RFP is planned for January 2019. The contract will be awarded in early FY20, with production planned to start less than two years later. This compressed timescale is possible because the Army is no longer seeking an original design, as it was with FCS and GCV. Instead, an existing vehicle type will be repurposed to meet the program’s requirements with only “moderate” alterations allowed. To be sure, OMFV will differ more from any existing vehicle than the AMPV differs from the Bradley, but all hulls proposed for OMFV must derive from a pre-existing design. Obviously, this eliminates much of the program’s technical risk. In fact, minimization of risk appears to be a core principle driving OMFV; the program’s Sources Sought questionnaire repeatedly asks interested contractors whether or not they will be able to modify their vehicles in time and whether any of the requirements are too risky. The necessity of early and frequent communication with industry seems to be another of the Army’s takeaways from the failure of FCS.
In general, the US military is not a fan of using pre-existing blueprints for flagship vehicles and systems. Clean-sheet designs by American contractors allow the DoD to formulate requirements as it sees fit and ensure the American engineering and manufacturing base remains strong. Moreover, the US military likes to see itself as ahead of the curve; buying an existing vehicle is, in a sense, an admission that someone else “got there first.” To be sure, a number of recent American acquisition efforts have adopted existing vehicles with minimal modification; the Stryker, for example, is a derivative of the Canadian LAV III (which is itself based on the Swedish MOWAG Pirahnna). And the USMC just awarded BAE Systems a contract to build a new amphibious APC based on the Italian IVECO SuperAV. However, these are both wheeled 8×8 vehicles — a realm the United States has never excelled in. OMFV, though, will probably be tracked, which makes the lack of a clean-sheet effort somewhat unusual. The issue is not that American industry could not design a satisfactory IFV but rather that the Bradley has become increasingly untenable. FCS and GCV took place when the Bradley should have been replaced — now, the M2 has become so overburdened that waiting ten years for a clean-sheet is simply not acceptable. The Bradley’s woes include an exhausted capacity for weight growth, an increasingly-obsolete main gun, insufficient power generation, and a lack of space for infantry.
OMFV seeks to rectify these issues. One of the program’s main objectives is to field a larger autocannon than the Bradley’s 25 mm gun; 30 mm has become the minimum for modern IFVs, with larger guns up to 100 mm being fairly common. At AUSA, the Army displayed a new 50 mm programmable round and associated autocannon, the XM913, developed by ARDEC. According to Breaking Defense, the Army hopes to integrate the XM913 into OMFV at some point. As the slide below shows, this gun is intended to restore lethality overmatch (though the BMP-3’s 100 mm main gun has superior range, its performance is inferior in many other areas) while maintaining lethality versus soft targets via airburst capability, which would be useful against aerial targets (think UAVs) as well. It is worth noting that this is not a “true” 50 mm round but a necked-out cartridge with dimensions similar to a standard 35 mm round. There are pluses and minuses to this approach — ballistic performance will not match a full-power 50 mm round but cartridge volume is reduced, meaning an increase in total ammunition stowage. As it stands, the XM913 will likely be the most innovative component of OMFV and should give it an edge over other contemporary IFVs — assuming it is ultimately included.
As implied by the program’s name, optional manning is another essential requirement. The vehicle would not be operated for extended periods unmanned but would have a limited (couple of km at most) remote control range that could be exploited for particularly risky maneuvers without exposing the crew to fire. As such, OMFV designs will need to be drive-by-wire. An open electronics architecture is also essential to allow for incremental upgrades and easier integration. With regards to infantry carriage, the Army appears to have relented on the nine-person requirement that was part of GCV and is now open to a six infantryman payload, equal to the Bradley’s maximum.
Thus far, three main GCV competitors have emerged. BAE Systems’ offering is based on the CV90 Mark IV, General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) is putting forth a bid based on its Griffin III technology demonstrator, and Raytheon has joined Rheinmetall to offer a the Lynx IFV, which is being bid in Australia’s Land 400 program as well. IHS Jane’s has done an excellent series of videos on each of the competitors which I will use in the brief account of the competitors that follows.
Of the three vehicles on offer, the CV90 is the oldest design, having entered service during the 1990s. It is also the lightest in its base configuration, coming in at around 25 tons — the CV90 is known for its mobility. Mk IV is the newest variant and the one being submitted as a bid. It boasts a 35 mm autocannon and modular side-mounted pods: the unit shown at Eurosatory was fitted with two Spike ATGMs and a 7.62 machine gun. However, these pods can be used for other types of payload as well. EW and UAVs were explicitly mentioned by BAE’s rep — other electronics packages and less-than-lethal weapons would be attractive as well. With regards to infantry, the CV90 Mk IV can carry eight soldiers; not quite a full squad, but more than the Bradley’s six. There are three armor levels for the Mk IV, which facilitates a higher level of customizability in the weight department than its competitors (which were presented with two).
The Griffin III is basically an Ajax hull mated to a GDLS turret incorporating the Army’s 50 mm cannon. As such, it is an interesting mix of off-the-shelf and new technologies. One of the Griffin III’s rather unusual features is an excellent main gun elevation and depression ability — 85 degrees and -20 degrees respectively — that would allow it to engage aerial targets and infantry in tall buildings on the urban battlefield. Typically, only self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs) have had similar gun elevation capabilities. Indeed, the combination of 50 mm airburst ammunition and the abnormal gun elevation does seem to suggest that the Griffin III is designed with substantial anti-air capability in mind even if not billed as an anti-air weapons system. Infantry capacity is six soldiers, same as the M2.
The Lynx KF41 is an export-oriented IFV featuring the newest hull design of the bunch — it was unveiled only a few years ago and has yet to enter service, though the design is mature. The Lynx’s main selling points are its highly-modular design and ability to fit nine infantrymen, although it is somewhat heavier as well. In an interview with Jane’s, Rheinmetall vehicle systems head Ben Hudson emphasized the vehicle’s payload capability and modularity. Rheinmetall’s partnership with Raytheon was another talking point, as Raytheon makes a number of key systems including the TOW, Quick Kill 2.0, and 3rd gen FLIR optic. It is worth noting that Hudson provides an up-armored weight figure for the KF41 when at roughly equal protection levels to the current Bradley, suggesting that OMFV’s goal is not necessarily to improve survivability over the Bradley (as was GCV’s objective) but rather to procure a vehicle which has roughly equal ballistic protection but modern electronics, room for weight growth, and a larger main gun.
Some idiosyncracies notwithstanding, the three OMFV competitors have much in common. All are tracked and offer protection against small arms in their base configuration but are designed to accept modular armor as necessary. All have relatively large turrets ready to mount a variety of autocannons, including the Army’s 50 mm gun, although only the Griffin III is currently configured with the weapon. In addition, the three vehicles feature modular systems architecture for easy electronics integration. And, unsurprisingly, all the contenders boast an optional hard-kill active protection system, something the Army has warmed to in recent years. Regardless of which design the Army chooses, it will be receiving a low-risk, well-protected solution with up-to-date weapons, sensors, and electronics. Perhaps not revolutionary, but adequate to ensure battlefield dominance for the time being and low-risk enough to prevent a repeat of past debacles.
Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) is the Army’s latest attempt to replace the M551 Sheridan light tank, which provided direct fire capability to light formations until its retirement in the early 1990s. The Sheridan was initially slated to be replaced by the M8 Armored Gun System (AGS), but that effort was canceled after type certification due to budgetary constraints. The wheeled, Stryker-based M1128 Mobile Gun System (MGS) serves in Stryker brigades as a partial replacement for the M551, but the Army still lacks a true light tank. Whatever vehicle MPF yields will be capable of traversing rough terrain, maneuvering with other highly-mobile elements of the IBCT, and providing direct-fire support against fighting positions and all but the most heavily armored vehicles. As a light tank, MPF will be less than half the weight of the M1 Abrams.
Like OMFV, the MPF RFI emphasizes maturity. The Army is seeking a design based on an existing hull and featuring a NATO-standard 105 mm tank gun; in other words, MPF will be more of an integration project than a revolution in assault vehicle design. Three teams — SAIC+ST Kinetics+Cockerill, BAE Systems, and GDLS — have thrown their hats into the ring.
SAIC’s offering mates the hull of ST Kinetics’ Next-Generation Armored Fighting Vehicle (NGAFV) with a Cockerill 3105 turret. The former is a relatively typical IFV hull with a base weight of around 30 tons. The NGAFV has yet to enter service, which could be seen as a drawback by the Army — even if design work on the vehicle is fully completed by the award date for the MPF contract, acquisitions leadership may be off-put by its lack of service history. After all, nothing reveals defects like strenuous usage. The Cockerill 3105 is a modular turret which is notable for its ability to integrate guns from 25-105 mm. As such, the Army could easily back-fit SAIC’s offering with the Army’s new 50 mm gun should it prove particularly effective. Like the NGAFV, the 3105 is technologically mature but has not entered service. As such, SAIC will have to sell Army leadership on the readiness of its systems but may benefit from choosing some of the newest hulls and turrets on the market.
BAE Systems is re-offering the M8 Buford AGS but will modernize the vehicle’s systems. Unlike the other two bids, the M8 AGS is a true light tank rather than a converted IFV hull, so it should benefit from a superior internal layout (IFV hulls include the extra armored space where infantrymen would sit). As a result, its base weight is ~20 tons — far lower than most modern IFVs and light enough to permit roll-on-roll-off C-130 transportability as well as airdrop capability. Two additional armor levels — one of which is an applique and the other of which adds reactive tiles for protection against HEAT rounds — can be mounted in the field. However, since the vehicle’s base armor is relatively thin aluminum, it is almost certainly inferior to the protection of the other offerings unless the applique is installed. In an Army Recognition video, BAE Systems program director Greg Mole notes that the three main focuses of M8 modernization for the MPF program are optics/fire control, digital infrastructure, and the powertrain. Other than that, it appears that BAE intends to offer an M8 largely similar to what was selected back in the 1990s.
GLDS, for its part, is going the composite route like SAIC with a bid that incorporates the body of the Ajax scout vehicle and a turret based on that of the Abrams. This offering is based on the Griffin tech demonstrator (not to be confused with the Griffin III IFV) GLDS showed at AUSA in 2016, although some changes have been made since then, including the removal of the experimental 120 mm cannon that was scavenged from FCS. The vehicle’s Ajax hull also underpins GLDS’ OMFV bid, so if GDLS were to win both competitions, the Army could see significant benefits from fleet commonality.
One unanswered question is what will become of the weight discrepancy between the M8, in its current armor configurations, and the other offerings. According to IHS Jane’s, the Army is not pursuing airdrop capability or C-130 transportability as hard requirements for MPF. This conclusion is supported by the acceptance of SAIC and GLDS’ bids, which are too heavy for the C-130. Will the M8 get a substantial boost from being the only bid light enough to meet stringent deployability objectives or will it be up-armored with ceramics until it matches the weight of the others? And, if these requirements have actually been dropped, what is the Army even looking for in MPF? After all, the other elements of the infantry brigade combat team are transportable via C-130 or helicopter; would MPF vehicles merely be left behind until an adequate C-17 landing strip could be secured? It seems that this would defeat the point of procuring a dedicated light tank in the first place, as an OMFV fitted with TOWs would also be C-17 deployable and may even offer superior performance against soft targets (thanks to its autocannon) as well as MBTs (assuming ATGMs are fitted). Other commentators have asked similar questions of MPF — it will be interesting to see how the Army bills the program come contract award.
Other NGCV components
NGCV’s two other constituent programs, the unnamed M1 replacement and the Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV), deserve a brief mention as well. Whereas AMPV, OMFV, and MPF are relatively conservative programs, the M1 replacement and RCV offer the Army a chance to create something truly novel. In an interview with Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense, Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman emphasized that the M1 replacement does not have to be a conventional tank with three to four crew and a 120 mm gun. Instead, the Army is looking more abstractly at what a tank does — deliver direct fire on the battlefield — and considering how this can best be achieved. Unlike OMFV, which is optionally manned, a truly unmanned “tank” could be made much smaller, lighter, and cheaper by means of eliminating the crew. It is not just the internal volume humans occupy that would be deleted; systems such as fire suppression, NCBR filtering, operator consoles, etc. could all be removed as well. The issue is that remote control has limited range, and having the operators trail a few hundred meters behind the tank in another armored vehicle would largely negate the benefits. Moreover, a fully unmanned vehicle requires much faith in the resistance of one’s electronics and datalinks to jamming.
If the unmanned route is not taken, major advances in other areas could spur the Army to replace the Abrams. Breaking Defense author Sydney Freedberg Jr. mentions armor and active protection as two examples. His inclusion of active protection is a bit odd, since all existing APS systems have been platform-agnostic (so long as there is spare power, weight, space, etc.) and it is hard to envision a scenario in which an APS would require a new hull design. Weapons advances could conceivably drive an Abrams replacement, although there does not appear to be anything revolutionary in the works, and the M1’s existing 120 mm cannon is adequate against current threats. In summary, the M1 will be replaced at some point, but not for a decade at least. Moderate advances in armor, active protection, optics, etc. can be incorporated into the M1 via upgrades — it will take something truly revolutionary to knock the venerable Abrams into obsolescence.
RCV may see the light of day sooner. Russia has designed an unmanned combat vehicle armed similarly to an IFV and claims to have tested it in Syria, although it has not been seen in combat. In a similar vein, the Army is looking to conduct unmanned combat vehicle trials in 2021. Though the Army discusses experimenting with new prototypes during these tests, it is worth noting that BAE’s Armed Robotic Combat Vehicle (ARCV) is already operational and provides an intriguing look at what could be accomplished by introducing unmanned vehicles into the ABCT. The ARCV is controllable from other armored vehicles (such as the Bradley) and wields a 30 mm cannon while weighing in at a sprightly 10 tons, according to IHS Jane’s. With the addition of anti-tank missiles, the ARCV or a similar vehicle could provide a potent forward screening asset able to scout ahead of armored formations, gather intelligence, and exchange fire without endangering human occupants. Apart from boosting wireless control range, autonomous vehicle technologies are already relatively mature, so there is no reason the Army could not have unmanned ground combat vehicles within a few years after its 2021 testing regime.
The Army’s system-of-systems modernization program, FCS, was largely a victim of its own ambition — unrealistic technology requirements and strict adherence to a seemingly-revolutionary but unproven operational concept ultimately doomed the program. GCV attempted to pick up the pieces and replace the venerable M2 Bradley but suffered from budgetary constraints and questions surrounding the vehicle’s weight, affordability, and risk. The Army appears to have learned a number of lessons from these failures: use mature technologies when possible, talk to industry early and often, set realistic requirements, and diversify investments rather than tying them all into one omnibus modernization program. Leaning on mature technologies is somewhat of a double-edged sword: you get a proven solution, but, by definition, mature is not revolutionary. With regards to platforms (and especially hulls), the Army has taken a relatively conservative route for its three underway NGCV programs, but innovation is still being pursued in the realms of electronics, unmanned vehicle pairing, and weapons (for OMFV). I suspect that, after the Army takes care of its urgent modernization needs (Bradley and M113 replacement), we will see more ambition in the form of the M1 replacement and RCV, but only time will tell.