March 1, 2010  

Troop deliverer

The point of the GCV, like all armored vehicles, is the soldier inside

When rifles arrived on the battlefield in the mid-19th century, the killing range of the infantryman’s rifle jumped to better than 500 yards, making massed charges suicidal (though it took until 1914-1918 to sink in). The problem of crossing “the deadly ground” in front of dug-enemy defenses wasn’t solved until 1916, when the British deployed the first tanks. Even afterward, though, most infantry went into combat dismounted and vulnerable; when the World War II tanker complained about thin armor, the infantryman fingered his shirt. Until after Vietnam, armor for the ground-pounder was an afterthought.

Back in the Cold War, when high-intensity armored warfare was the Army’s design criteria, infantry vehicles were thought of as a sort of thin-skinned armored taxi designed to keep infantrymen closed up with the tanks, which were considered the real shock power on the battlefield. The first widely used U.S. armored personnel carrier was the boxy, thin-skinned M113, which was organic to the rifle squad — a major tactical innovation — but which required soldiers to dismount via a ramp in the back to fight. Today’s Bradley and the late Future Combat System (FCS) vehicles were also planned as squad-carriers, but they were the first U.S. design to be true “fighting vehicles” with thicker armor, an integral gun system, and within which a nine-man squad and the vehicle crew could fight without dismounting, hopefully as the armored juggernaut rolled over a stunned and shattered enemy. But the emphasis was still on keeping up with the tanks.

Clearly, the battlefield has changed — at least for now — and keeping up with armored, Patton-style attacks is no longer the raison d’etre. The need to keep infantrymen protected, though, is still very much appreciated in a world of improvised explosive devices and vastly proliferated automatic weapons. But although keeping up with the tanks is still important, the Army’s future fighting vehicle must fill a number of other functions that are unique to our Army and the way our troops can expect to fight in the future.

First, because Army systems are long-lived and have to be viable as technologies and tactics change — if the new Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) begins life as planned in 2017, we can probably expect to see it around the battlefield until 2060 or so — it should be designed to be durable and adaptable. The power plant, electronics and mobility systems — tracks, wheels and drive trains, for example — will probably be replaced or upgraded during the life of the vehicle because automotive engines seem to be on the brink of greater efficiency and alternative fuels. Provision for systems to protect the crews from chemical, biological or radiological attack will be necessary, even though not necessary thus far in the wars of today, because warfare will continue to mutate and become even more deadly.


Second, superior mobility at all levels — strategic and tactical — remains vital to an Army for which every war is an “away” game. The Army has wisely dropped the requirement for C-130 transportability for the new GCV, but strategic air mobility via C-17 or its follow-on must still be on the table.

Even though the bulk of the Army’s armored forces will always move by sea, rapidly airlifting even a small number of armored vehicles somewhere can be strategically decisive. On the battlefield, fast, long-distance movement will be necessary for small units to disperse, mass and disperse again depending on the operational flow; in Iraq, the Stryker’s ability to rapidly road-march hundreds of kilometers was a great advantage. The “tracks versus wheels” arguments usually boil down to whether on-road speed is more desirable than off-road mobility; the correct answer is “both.” Given the state of global urbanization, we could confidently expect that fighting in urban areas and on-road is probably the shape of the future — and then comes Afghanistan to tell us, once again, that the future ain’t what we planned it to be, and that off-road agility really matters.

The GCV, like the FCS program before it, will operate inside, and support, a combat information network that will place huge power demands on the capability of the vehicle to produce electricity. The “network” is a breakthrough development in ground warfare that has been in development since at least the mid-1990s, is partially fielded today, and has proven itself in combat. But networking takes power, and in some ways, the GCV will in effect be an armored power plant that roams around on the battlefield, an electronic “mothership” with takeoffs for an ever-increasing array of vehicle-mounted and soldier-carried electronics required by the way we fight now and in the future. Vehicle design must not only build the vehicle to provide the power, it must also in some manner shield it from future opponents who can use the vehicle’s electronic signature to find and defeat it. This is an aspect of “protection” that will become more important as our enemies become more sophisticated or more high-tech anti-radiation systems come on the open market.

Finally, the thing will be not only a platform from which soldiers move and fight and a power supply for their iPods, but also the moving, Army-issued travel trailer in which they live. The rifle squad is the Army’s fundamental fighting organization, and the vehicle is an integral part of the squad’s daily life, not only in combat but every day; the vehicle should contribute to their combat effectiveness, cohesion and, may we say it, “livability,” if not comfort. Making a livable combat vehicle for a nine-man squad and the vehicle crew won’t be easy. Vehicle designers are always caught between comfort and fightability, and not surprisingly, fighting usually wins, and should. But with more and more high-tech gear being loaded these days on a standard infantryman’s back, the future GCV should be designed to take the load off so the soldier can travel and fight as unencumbered as possible. This is more than just welding bustle racks to the sides. Comfortable seats, heaters and air conditioners that work, shocks that don’t jar the fillings out of a soldier’s teeth and enough room are commonplace requests from troops who may spend hours bouncing around in the back of a steel box optimized for everything except human beings.

If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it is that all predictions of future war are liable to be wrong in one way or another; if they have taught us anything else, it is that soldiers are still the primary weapon on the battlefield. The whole point of armored fighting vehicles, from 1916 on, has been to deliver troops — infantrymen, primarily — to the fight under the best possible conditions, and to support them there while they fight the nation’s wars. The Army and the Defense Department need to get the new combat vehicle into the hands of the troops as rapidly as we can bend metal. AFJ

BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman who writes on defense issues.