February 1, 2010  

Essay: One size doesn’t fit all

A universal carrier is not the combat vehicle our ground forces need

In “A vehicle for modern times [December/January AFJ],” by retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, the call for a Ground Combat Vehicle universal carrier is buoyed by a presumed “convergence in how all ground components, the Army, Marine Corps, and special operations forces, fight at the tactical level.”

While I wholeheartedly agree with the urgent need to give our ground forces “the fighting system they deserve,” I disagree that a universal carrier design for the GCV is the answer. Specifically, I disagree that contemporary mission overlap for our ground forces equates to homogeneity at the tactical level. Further, I disagree that a universal carrier design, regardless of unity of needs, is feasibly supportable by all ground forces, given manning and maintenance constraints.

Admittedly, there has been a great deal of mission overlap for these ground forces. The Army has drifted toward more traditional special operations roles with foreign internal defense and counterinsurgency, while conventional combat-arms units prosecute time-sensitive targets routinely. The Marine Corps has drifted as well, serving courageously in an undesired role as the country’s second land army. Sharing but not owning the same battle space as these conventional Army and Marine Corps units, special operations forces have differentiated themselves by leveraging their unique combination of resources and reach to remain a valued strategic- and operational-level force. While this mission and battle space overlap has occurred in the contemporary wars, the organizational manning of these three ground forces remains very different.

Difficulty arises when proposed “general needs of all ground combat services” are overlaid upon organizations that are manned and resourced differently. I observed one example of the impact of manning on vehicle utilization when my mechanized infantry company conducted a relief in place of a light infantry company in Iskandiriyah, Iraq, in 2004. The first day, I joined my second platoon to conduct a joint patrol with the departing unit in order to familiarize ourselves with key areas within the area of operations. My second platoon, a mechanized infantry platoon, traveled in four M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, each equipped with a crew of three (driver, gunner and Bradley commander.) Across the four vehicles, three nine-man infantry squads traveled in the troop compartments. Upon tactical halt, the squads, configured as two fire teams each, could dismount and shoot, move and communicate, while the Bradleys could do the same, operating as two two-vehicle sections.

In contrast, the light infantry platoon of 35 to 40 soldiers was configured solely as dismounted maneuver elements, three rifle squads with attached machine-gun teams. When outfitted with eight up-armored Humvees, the platoon had to pull the vehicle crews out of hide. This meant that, when the vehicles came to a tactical halt, two out of the five passengers (driver and gunner) had to remain with the vehicle. In exchange for transport, protection and additional mounted firepower, the dismounted platoon was “losing” two out of every five men, or 40 percent, to vehicle support. Additionally, Scales’ accurately notes “the need for tactical units to approach insurgent positions undetected.” But even with an ideally “fast and quiet” vehicle, small units, when traveling in groups of eight, 10 or 20 vehicles, lose their ability to surprise a determined enemy.

The organizational manning conflict extends into maintenance, recovery and home station. The unit must maintain the vehicles, which requires mechanics, parts flow and motor pool space. These are all lessons being learned about the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. As GCV design starts to include “overpowering, precise … and sustained killing power,” as Scales recommends, the home station requirements extend into unit gunnery and crew qualifications and all that is entailed in that training beast. The more systems, the more that unit front- and back-end requirements grow as a result.

A GCV design that reflects universality and convergence of general needs is problematic. I am reminded of the movie, “Pentagon Wars,” where the Bradley is called “a troop transport that can’t carry troops, a reconnaissance vehicle that’s too conspicuous to do reconnaissance, and a quasi-tank that has less armor than a snowblower but has enough ammo to take out half of D.C.” Having served in operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom on the Bradley, I believe it is a great vehicle. However, it is also a great example of how you just cannot have it all.

All of the design imperatives noted by Scales are valuable on the contemporary battlefield; however, not all of them can realistically coexist in one platform, nor do they need to. Despite an overlap of mission and battle space by our Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces, the design imperatives that are not just most valuable but also most supportable by each respective force are not identical, and therefore neither should their ideal fighting systems be identical.

MAJ. JOE EWERS is an Army infantry officer and a student at the Intermediate Level Education program at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He commanded a mechanized infantry company in Iraq in 2003-2004. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army.