October 1, 2010  

A heavy load to bear

The stakes on the Ground Combat Vehicle could not be higher

What is the role of a heavy, mechanized force in an era of “hybrid” war? The Army thinks it knows and, assuming it can convince the civilian leaders and bureaucrats in the Pentagon and the Congress to fork out tens of billions of dollars, is prepared to build a new family of ground combat vehicles and undertake a thorough reorganizing of its formations. But the “back to the future” direction in which the service is headed will be expensive, controversial and expose what is perhaps the Army’s most chronic weakness: the inability to talk about combat basics in a plain and coherent way.

Indeed, the combination of uncertainty about the nature of future warfare, excessive enthusiasm about technology and an inability to communicate a clear purpose doomed the Future Combat Systems program to cancellation by Defense Secretary Robert Gates 15 months ago, despite a decade of FCS effort and about $18 billion spent. Even though the Army lurched uncontrollably into what might have been the right answer after asking the wrong questions, it was unable to convince Gates — or, really, much of anyone — that it was on the right path, one that warranted the investment of additional tens of billions. Nor was FCS the first case of the service failing to move a major modernization program forward. The Comanche armed scout helicopter consumed even more money than did FCS before it was killed. In fact, the service has not been able to add a single significant new-start platform to its inventory since the late Cold War; the Stryker and the many variants of the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles were off-the-shelf expedients.

The stakes on the Ground Combat Vehicle could not be higher and go well past the issue of the vehicle itself. The Army’s approach to its future is best characterized as a return to land-combat basics, a reconsideration of essential truths — and, in particular, truths about the fog of war and the need for adequate manpower as well as firepower in land combat — that will also prove very inconvenient. In particular, in a time of austerity, they will prove especially unsettling to those with an eye on the Pentagon’s bottom line.

The first task for the Army is to undo a lot of what it’s done and what has been done to it over the last 15 years. In the late 1990s, and after the difficulty of deploying to Kosovo, the Army embraced the absolute worst of the “defense transformation” movement. Just how wrong that went can be understood in retrospect. Army Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC) summary of how force “design assumptions [have been] challenged by conflict” is a withering assessment:

• A decade ago, and despite the experience of the Balkans and other irregular conflicts of the 1990s, the “modular force,” — that is, the basic organization of the fighting Army — was “structured to retain significant major combat operation capability.” Impressed with the advent of advanced sensors and precision fires, and scrambling to get behind the “transformation” train of the early Rumsfeld years, the Army concluded that “risk would be taken in all other missions,” which would be “considered as lesser included subsets” of big wars. Thus could Iraq become a post-combat operation after three weeks.

• The profusion of information and the precision of fires could result in manpower savings. The Army assumed that its overall “force pool would be sufficient to support deploying brigade combat teams and responsive enough to meet all … combatant commanders’ needs.” Army visionaries saw a continuous emptying of the battlefield, and thus “organic assets would provide … self-contained capabilities to fight in noncontiguous battle spaces. … Empty space between units would be controlled and adequate situational awareness would be maintained by advanced surveillance systems.” In reality, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, the empty spaces are the most dangerous, for that is where insurgents reconstitute.

• And, with other U.S. services increasingly capable, the Army could sacrifice people and things: “Joint enablers — fires, sensors, communications, lift — would be available to mitigate risk.” These capabilities would dispel the fog of war: “Predictive intelligence would allow U.S. forces to anticipate the unexpected.” And, as the FCS vehicle design reflected, “lightness and ease of deployment would be more important than protection and firepower.” After Kosovo, all thinking was focused on how to get the Army into the fight, not about what happened once the shooting started.

But today’s painful lessons learned are yesterday’s propaganda. Here’s how TRADOC’s 2001 capstone doctrinal manual looked at things: “The extensive information available to Army leaders will also allow unprecedented awareness of every aspect to future operations. Precise knowledge of the enemy and friendly situations will facilitate exact tailoring of units for mission requirements. … The common operational picture provided through integration of real-time intelligence and accurate targeting reduces the need to fill space with forces and direct fire weapons. … The goal of future Army operations will be to simultaneously attack critical targets throughout the area of operations by rapid maneuver and precision fires to break the adversary’s will and compel him to surrender.”

In light of experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is distressing to read. By contrast, the concept of operations for the new ground combat infantry vehicle allows that the emerging environment is characterized by “complex, uncertain conditions against enemy forces that employ a broad range of capabilities.” The fog of war has returned, and so has the enemy.


The central tenet of defense transformation was the idea — the hope — that U.S. forces could fight from a distance; that all enemies would be as obliging as Saddam Hussein and his Republican Guard. A corollary was that “post-combat” tasks would be like the Balkans after 1996, stability or peacekeeping “operations other than war.”

In this scheme of things, it’s the application of firepower that produces the decisive result. But to the upcoming generation of Army leaders, and particularly those who are shaping the doctrinal, organizational and modernization efforts to build the force of the future, the bottom rail is now on top: Dismounted infantry operations are the decisive action; what is gained in combat is not won until consolidated and secured. Thus the Army has adopted a formal “operating concept” — that is, a description of how it will both prepare for and conduct operations — that balances combined arms maneuver and security operations in a way that does more than pay lip service to “full spectrum” requirements.

While this recognition that there’s more to war than battle might seem to be highly conventional wisdom at this point, the job of creating an Army able to operate across the spectrum of conflict — rather than simply adapting the existing force in extremis, as has been done since 2003 and especially since the Iraq surge — is much more daunting and expensive. For many, including President Obama, the lesson of the recent past is not to become embroiled in “open-ended” irregular wars. And there is an emerging Left-Libertarian consensus on this point, reflected in a series of op-eds written by Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress and Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. As they recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “We will not do nation-building under fire again.” Even a good number of “COINdinistas,” as strong advocates for counterinsurgency operations have come to be called, think of irregular warfare as the sole purview of light infantry, special operations or dedicated “training” units.

Ironically, the Army is already too small — even if one includes the total force including reserve components —to afford this sort of specialization. The total number of Army brigade combat teams is being held at 45 (and, as additional doctrinal change is implemented, such as by restoring a third maneuver battalion to the brigade structure, that number could easily be further reduced), and even though just 18 of these are heavy BCTs, deployment requirements will continue to be heavier still. The Army has come close to deploying mechanized units to Afghanistan; eventually it must do so if only to relieve the strain on light and Stryker brigades.


Thus in a very real sense, success in the Ground Combat Vehicle program is the key to creating a heavy force that can pull its weight in irregular warfare missions. To understand why, it’s necessary to reprise two of the most intensely debated questions about modern land warfare. One: What’s a “fighting vehicle”? And two: What is the correct size of an infantry squad?

So, what is an infantry fighting vehicle?

In some ways, an infantry fighting vehicle is like pornography: impossible to define, but you know one when you see one. But the critical distinction is between a fighting vehicle — like the current M2/3 Bradley, Russian BMP, British Warrior or German Puma — and an armored personnel carrier — like the Army’s venerable M113 or the current Stryker. Simply put, a fighting vehicle not only transports infantry under cover to the scene of battle, but also contributes significant firepower in the form of an automated cannon and anti-armor missiles.

Infantry fighting vehicles were the spawn of the late Cold War — the Soviets built the first ones — and often purchased their firepower at the expense of dismount-carrying capability. In the context of an imagined World War III on the central plains of Germany, that made perfect sense, though there was long and heated worldwide debate about whether IFVs were insufficiently armored (the Israelis based their version on the Merkava tank) or lethal; purists argued that the IFV was the land-borne version of the pocket battleship. In the American context, Operation Desert Storm, where Bradleys were frequently able to kill Iraqi tanks with their wire-guided missiles, which outranged even the M1 tank’s main gun, seemed for a time to decide the case.

The argument began anew during the Iraq occupation. The introduction and success of the Stryker raised questions about the desirability, flexibility, mobility and lesser cost of wheeled vehicles. Conversely, the development of improvised explosive devices — which led to the massive version of the MRAPs — again made survivability of greater urgency. Today, as a TRADOC paper observes, no single vehicle meets every need. The Bradley remains superb for force-on-force, high-intensity combat, but “lacks versatility and further adaptability to meet the dynamic nature of the current fight and future uncertainty across the spectrum of conflict.” The Stryker is a superb transport, “but lacks the protection and versatility for high-intensity combat,” while its “limited growth potential was acceptable for an interim vehicle,” it “poses significant risk for future operations.” MRAPs, with their high ground clearance and hull protection, are less vulnerable to improvised explosive devices, but “lack [the] off-road mobility” needed for a true fighting vehicle.

In sum, emerging lethality, mobility and survivability requirements set a high bar. The need for a big gun and anti-armor missiles remains; even in Afghanistan, it takes more than a machine gun to create an opening in a courtyard wall. In such austere environments, going off road is a necessity — by Iraq standards, Afghan roads are “off road.” And the need for crew protection, not only from IEDs but from new generation of adversary anti-armor missiles has been reaffirmed.

But recent years have also proven that infantry dismounts matter even more than firepower —it’s what happens after the back ramp goes down that is decisive. The decision to limit the size of the Bradley, which normally carries only five dismounts, has forced mechanized infantry to break up the basic, atomic particle of land warfare, the dismounted squad.

And so, what’s the size of a proper infantry squad?

This can be a question of faith rather than reason, but only extreme heretics believe that a squad smaller than nine is sufficient. Here’s the elemental arithmetic: Land combat fire and maneuver requires at least one element, or team, to provide an aimed base of automatic weapons fire while a second team maneuvers against an objective. And it takes a seasoned leader — a noncommissioned officer — to direct such action. In sum, an integral squad is about as close to the wisdom of the ages as can be found. Splitting squads between two Bradleys was a reasonable risk in the context of the late Cold War, where the battlefield was dense and dangerous, packed with as many tanks and combat vehicles as Soviet and Western industry could produce. In the late Age of Transformation, it didn’t matter much, either — with “dominant battle space awareness” and perfect precision firepower, the dismounts were little more than spectators or, at best, spotters. But the premium on dismounted squads has risen with the frequency of irregular operations. And in a crowded, chaotic, complex urban war among the people, every second lost in putting a squad together after dismounting from a vehicle — itself often the most frightening and dangerous moment — now appears critical. The Army’s argument for squad integrity is, even in TRADOC-ese, powerful.

Squad integrity enables squad awareness and planning while mounted, and facilitates synchronization at the point of dismounting to commence operations. Having a Ground Combat Vehicle capable of providing a fighting vehicle for an entire Infantry squad supports the decentralized operations evidenced today and fundamental to the Army’s Operating Concept.

The proliferation of capital letters reflects deeply held belief. It also reflects a lot of hard thought and hard-won experience over the last decade. It’s almost a doctrinal cri de coeur: “The freedom of movement provided by the Ground Combat Vehicle at the squad level enhances the commander’s ability to seize and retain the initiative and shape operations at the lowest tactical level!”

But Army leaders have convinced one another many times before that their plan for modernization was on target. Given the service’s recent procurement history, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and other Washington audiences will be skeptical. The program will also be a legacy of the Future Combat Systems in the sense that it will capture a number of the FCS successes, such as the network capabilities. It will also push technology in a number of areas. For example, whether it has a hybrid electric or diesel power plant, it’s likely to be something on the order of 1500 horsepower; that is, as mighty as the turbine that drives the Abrams’ 70 tons.

The GCV will also be a big and heavy vehicle, whether one measures by the “deployment” weight of about 50 tons or with the add-on armor that might add another 20 tons. One design proposal received very cold water in response from the COINdinistas who frequent the Small Wars Journal website: “Dang! It looks like a middle-aged Bradley with a huge beer belly and other baggage, not to mention the triple chins!” was one of the milder takes.

Soldiers have earned a tremendous respect and sympathy for the sacrifices they have made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Congress has approved essentially every war-funding request since 9/11. But larger concessions have been harder to come by — the Bush administration was extremely slow to increase Army end strength even in 2006, and both the Obama administration and cost-conscious congressional Republicans seem poised to take that strength away. The GCV program got off to a false start when the original request for proposals from industry was withdrawn and rewritten. The program is a test of the Army’s commitment to structural change, but also of its ability to explain and convince others that the change is worth the cost. That may be the heaviest load of all. AFJ

TOM DONNELLY is director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.