June 1, 2009  

Why Gates is wrong

A year ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed a Heritage Foundation audience on the future requirements of the U.S. military. “Despite my job description,” Gates confessed, “I may not actually be the best person to speak at a conference titled, ‘The Military Beyond Iraq.’”

With his decision to cancel the Future Combat Systems family of ground combat vehicles that has been a critical component of Army modernization — and thus, the cornerstone for modernizing the force that will bear the largest burden of fighting the “Long War” — Gates may well have affirmed his own doubts. To gut the FCS program means two things: First, the Army will have to rely for the foreseeable future on the hodge-podge of legacy vehicles and ad hocery that comprise its current fleet; second, it will have to wait longer and pay more for vehicles that, almost inevitably, will be indistinguishable from the FCS vehicles.

The end of an era

Consider first the Army’s current combat vehicles. Since they were first fielded in 1980 and 1981, the M1 Abrams series of tanks and the M2/3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle have remained the primary systems of the heavy Army. The Abrams and Bradley, though designed at the height of the Cold War and optimized to survive and destroy massive Soviet armor formations, have proved immensely adaptable in a wide range of post-Cold War operations, not least in Iraq. From Operation Desert Storm and the initial 2003 attack to Baghdad through heavy fighting in places such as Fallujah and still today, these heavy tracked vehicles have demonstrated their value.

But these capabilities come at an escalating price — the vehicles and their designs are old and nearing the point beyond which they cannot be efficiently or effectively upgraded. Both burn lots of fuel, especially the Abrams, driven by a turbine engine that can make the 70-ton monster fly. And while there remains a use for these sledgehammers, large-scale armored warfare is no longer the Army’s predominant purpose. They cannot and should not remain the systems around which the Army is built.

The Army recognized this fact in the late 1990s, especially in the aftermath of the Balkans wars. While the service learned many premature lessons from those experiences — overemphasizing, in particular, the need for strategic deployability — the larger conclusion, that American land forces would be called upon to do missions beyond winning heavy-force, direct-fire battles, was sound. The Army would need to rebalance itself, become more flexible and adaptable, and it would need to organize its mounted forces around new vehicles with wider range of virtues. It still needed to dominate any gunfight it might encounter, but there were more things than had been dreamt of in the philosophy of the Abrams and Bradley designers.

Because these pre-Sept. 11 years were thought to be a period of “strategic pause,” the Defense Department thought it could devote itself to a 20-year “strategy of transformation.” There was a need to change, but no rush; leftover modernization efforts such as the Crusader howitzer and the Comanche helicopter bit the dust. For the Army, this resulted in a lot of talk about “experimentation,” studying the varied struggles of the British, French, Soviet and U.S. armies to come to terms with mechanization, radio communications, the military exploitation of aircraft and so on. Despite lingering worries that the domain of land warfare was inherently obscured by the fog of war, Army leaders, constantly derided as backward-looking tread-heads, invented their own versions of battlefield “transparency” and the other tenets of the transformation crowd.

At the same time, then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki reckoned that he needed an “interim” force, something that was a step beyond the Cold War systems and provided a window into the future, yet allowed for at least marginal force modernization. The expression of this impulse was the eight-wheeled Stryker vehicle. The Army has built six brigades based upon the Stryker, with about 300 variants in each unit. Like the Abrams and Bradley, these legacy vehicles will be around for decades to come. They have also performed exceptionally well in Iraq, overcoming worries about their lesser armor — Strykers have been fitted with a number of add-on kits to protect them against rocket-propelled grenades and other threats — and winning kudos for their tactical and operational mobility and proving their reliability. This summer, a Stryker brigade will be the first mounted U.S. unit to deploy to Afghanistan.

However, for its many virtues, the Stryker was the first in an expanding series of ad hoc modernization efforts that now threaten to distort Army force structure for decades to come. The Stryker is essentially an off-the-shelf purchase, which has helped save money and allowed for rapid fielding, but also imposes long-term constraints. Its wheels allow for ease of maintenance, good gas mileage and long-range operations but limit its off-road mobility and weight. Its baseline weight is 18 tons; additional kit armor and electronic systems add several more tons. But the weight and the steel hull limit its basic ballistic protection to just 14.5mm rounds — the Bradley, by comparison, can withstand 30mm shells. While new materials science allows for much better protection at lesser weight, the Stryker would have to be remanufactured to exploit these new materials.

If the Army’s front-line manned ground combat systems are serviceable but inherently limited, other workhorses of the past are in more dire need of replacement. The most obvious of these is the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle. When the Humvee was first fielded in the 1980s as a replacement for the jeep, the weird-looking “Gama Goat,” ambulances and other stray administrative vehicles, it was ridiculed as an overdesigned, gold-plated luxury. But it has increasingly been pressed into service as a fighting vehicle, beginning in Somalia and culminating with the moon-rover anti-IED versions used in Iraq. The Humvee has been so loaded down with gadgets and gewgaws that its off-road mobility is severely constrained and is prone to break its axle. Likewise, the ageless 5-ton truck proved too vulnerable in many situations in Iraq.

These shortcomings resulted in the purchase of $20 billion worth of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs. While this is hardly the place to rehash the Army and Defense Department’s tardy and inadequate responses to the threat of large and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices in Iraq, it is a moment to ask what the MRAP means for the future. Gates, who rightly had a moral revulsion to the IED failures and immediately upon coming to the Pentagon made MRAP fielding his top priority, is deeply committed to the MRAP. Maybe too committed.

When it comes to saving lives in Iraq, Gates is undeniably right to point to the significant reduction in casualty rates with which the MRAPs are credited. He’s also right that, for U.S. land forces, the immediate past is likely prologue to the continuing “Long War.” The question for force planners is what to do with the MRAPs — or to be more precise, the gaggle of MRAP vehicles, since there is nothing common about the six varying MRAP designs.

The MRAP’s 18-inch ground clearance, when combined with the deeply V-shaped hull, gives maximum protection from blasts from below, but crew protection from other aspects is much less. The threats of improved, man-portable anti-armor weapons, including those with top-attack warheads, are as immediate as the IED threat. IED-based design requirements also make for a lousy fighting vehicle; today, units employ the MRAPs in the Humvee or truck role, to move to a point where they can dismount and fight on foot, where they leave the MRAP behind. In sessions with reporters and defense analysts to present his budget decisions, Gates has indicated that he wants the Army to figure out how to incorporate MRAPs in standard unit designs and tables of organization and equipment: “The current [FCS] vehicle program, developed nine years ago, does not include a role for our recent $25 billion investment in the MRAP vehicles being used to good effect in today’s conflicts.” That is, Gates would have the Army and Marine Corps design a force around the MRAPs, rather than using it as a piece of issue-when-deploy gear in those situations where unique conditions require it.

If his predecessors learned the lessons of Iraq too late, Gates may be learning them too well. Operations in Afghanistan are profoundly different as were, for example, the experiences of the Israeli army in Lebanon in 2006 or in Gaza in 2008. With the end pretty clearly and shortly in sight for current generations of land combat vehicles, the danger is that creating a force that relies so heavily on the MRAP will lead the Army into a dead end and deprive it of a critical element of flexibility and adaptability it will almost certainly need.

The way forward

If the Army’s current vehicle fleet is an uncertain foundation for building the force of the future, then what should be replace them? In general, the Army’s search for a new generation of land combat vehicles should be driven by four imperatives: exploiting information networks; logistics sustainability; a balance of survivability, mobility and lethality; and a broad, across-the-force approach to modernization. In other words, Gates’ intense focus on the question of IED vulnerability is an ant’s-eye view of an elephant.

To begin, let’s have a practical discussion about the value of networks. Ironically, Gates appears to be an enthusiast for what has often been the most technologically challenging and controversial element of the FCS program, the effort to “network” the force down to the platoon and even individual soldier level. Even as he explained to an Army War College audience why he was terminating the FCS manned ground vehicle program, he praised the FCS network, saying that effort would be accelerated and “will dramatically increase the agility and situational awareness of the Army’s combat formations.” While the transformationists’ vision of a perfectly transparent battlefield remains an illusion particularly ill-suited to irregular land warfare, it is nevertheless true that these kinds of technologies have proven themselves of increasing practical value. Combat networks are here to stay and probably ought to be the single design feature that determines all future force modernization, not just land force modernization.

In fact, in an incremental way through the past decade, the technologies very similar to civilian information networks, from large server-driven systems to hand-held devices, have become increasingly a part of soldiers’ basic kit. Developing the varieties of software that make the various systems and gadgets truly useful in land operations has likewise been an incremental process but one that has shown remarkable progress. Newer programs are easier to use and present graphics in ways that resemble common civilian software or computer games; for example the “Command Post of the Future” software is more sophisticated and more intuitive than its predecessors. To be sure, this may introduce vulnerabilities. For example, the overall FCS software has more than 55 million lines of code. On the other hand, a luxury car such as a Lexus also has more than 7 million lines of code, more than the stealthy F-22 Raptor or the F-35 Lightning aircraft (at least, minus the code in the add-on parts of those aircraft and their munitions.) Like smaller and more capable electronic systems, more complex software will be an inevitable characteristic of future military systems.

The third element in any combat network must be the actual links that permit the network “nodes” — be they the highest headquarters, platoons, squads or even individual soldiers — to gather, understand and exploit information. The essential requirement for any land warfare network will be to retain these links while maneuvering, often in complex terrain. Thus, the continued development of the Joint Tactical Radio System — or its functional equivalent — will help define future U.S. land warfare operations. In addition to permitting encrypted voice and data transmission, JTRS ensures that battlefield networks will be mobile and self-generating.

The various on-board and individual soldier elements of any network generate an immense requirement for exportable electricity. “Land Warrior” soldiers, for example, also regard their Stryker vehicles as a kind of mobile power pack. The Bradley, by contrast, does not generate enough electricity to continually run its own systems, let alone provide additional juice; and the Abrams’ turbine engine is immensely powerful, but consumes immense amounts of fuel, even when not moving and hence the practice has been to carry an external power unit to run on-board systems when at rest. Much better is the FCS diesel-electric engine, which consumes less fuel but generates an exportable 350 kilowatts. This characteristic is also critical for future mobile command posts which will be, essentially, mobile computer work stations.

To repeat: Information networks, the technological demands they impose and the benefits they bring are simply an inevitable element of land warfare systems. The design of future land combat vehicles ought to begin with this in mind — and Gates’ reluctance to terminate the FCS network effort recognizes this fact.

A second critical design driver for future land combat systems is to try to reduce logistical sustainment demands. The Iraq environment, combined with the introduction of a tremendous number of modified or rapidly fielded vehicles and systems (with the Rube Goldberg versions of the Humvee and the MRAPs providing the most obvious examples), has raised this requirement to new heights. The nature of this war — at great distance from the U.S. and, particularly in Afghanistan, in undeveloped regions — is expanding logistical requirements. While it has been logistical sustainment power that has traditionally been an important measure of victory for the U.S. Army — the “tooth vs. tail” distinction is not just uninformed but mendacious — the need to service such a wide and disparate array of systems is a potential strategic vulnerability.

The advantages proffered by common parts and systems, which, in his FCS pronouncements, Gates has downplayed and gently derided, are truly great. Any force logistician would salivate at the prospect of having a family of vehicles sharing a common chassis, engine and track. Take the matter of the FCS-style track. That tanks and Bradleys do not share a common track is obvious, but both vehicles use traditional, link-style track. The torque exerted on the M1 tank track — remember, this is a 70-ton vehicle designed to accelerate like a dragster — is tremendous. And indeed, even normal operations lead to constant track and track-pad repairs.

A small number of vehicle chassis designs and a common engine would deliver similar advantages — advantages that would matter even more in austere operating environments. While these features were inspired originally by the misperception that mounted land combat units had to be rapidly deployable, they will confer even larger operational and tactical improvements. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it has become apparent that logistics support systems, and the inevitable convoys that they generate, are vulnerabilities. To deliver the same level of support to combat units but more efficiently and effectively ought to be a critical feature of Army forces in the future.

The third consideration is the design features of the manned ground combat vehicles themselves. In his various FCS pronouncements, Gates has suggested that he believes that the evolving IED threat is so grave that it precludes preserving the family-of-vehicles approach, despite the sustainment value. In particular, he has argued that future manned combat systems should have an extreme V-shaped hull of the MRAPs type.

If this is the path on which the Army is forced, this will radically upset the traditional balance of survivability, mobility and lethality that are the traditional virtues of combat vehicle design. As argued above, it is far from clear that underside protection is even the primary virtue for survivability. As well-protected as the heavy MRAPs’ hull may be, the vehicle pays a price in other aspects — front, sides and top. Further, the MRAP’s design makes for a less stable “stance”; a good proportion of the deaths that have occurred in MRAPs occur when the tall vehicle tips over. Further, there’s more to surviving IEDs than simply hull shape; many IED injuries result not directly from a penetration of a vehicle’s underside but the transmission of that energy through the hull to those riding inside. The FCS solution of suspending seats from the ceiling and incorporating “shock absorber”-style mounts lessens that danger and should be an element in any future vehicle design. The new materials used in the FCS hull make for overall passive armor protection equal to or better than the Bradley, M1 and MRAPs. Again, it is inevitable and very desirable that any future land combat systems be manufactured from these highly engineered materials and employ designs tat allow armor packages to be upgraded and even replaced easily. The armor/anti-armor competition is a timeless element of land combat.

Vehicle mobility is also a key factor in survivability as well as a virtue in itself. (Indeed, a more comprehensive understanding of reduced American deaths in Iraq would almost certainly reveal that improved counterinsurgency tactics have played as large or larger a role in reducing the danger of IEDs.) Again, the design trade-offs are well-known and understood: Tracked vehicles have the most off-road capability; Stryker-style wheeled vehicles are fast, nimble and have reasonable off-road capability; truck-style vehicles are mostly road-bound; heavy MRAPs sacrifice almost everything for crew protection from beneath. Mobility in the larger sense, especially operational mobility, is also the residue of logistics sustainability. While there is still value in the “dash speed” of an M1, the likelihood is that the kinds of mobility needed in future operations will be more varied.

Finally, the ground combat vehicles of the future must continue to be as lethal as the M1 and Bradley have been, but also be able to identify and designate targets for other systems and munitions. Another irreversible element in the American way of war is that we have many ways to destroy what we can see; the problem is finding and distinguishing the right target.

The advance of technology is inexorable in this regard. Thermal sights for ground combat vehicles were widely derided by military “reformers” when they were first introduced; they were too delicate and depended on finicky cooling systems which were too noisy. The performance of the Abrams and Bradley, beginning in Operation Desert Storm, has settled that question. The most advanced versions of the M1 employ two thermal sights in a “hunter-killer” mode. And of course, these sensors have wide application beyond strict combat situations. A ground combat vehicle that is part of a larger network (and itself carries “deployable sensors” in the form of unmanned vehicles) will multiply the situational awareness of vehicle crews and the land force as a whole; ground vehicles also will benefit from sensor information passed from other platforms. Will improved situational awareness entirely substitute for armor protection or on-board armaments? No, the land battlefield will remain opaque in many ways. The fog of war may move or become more or less dense, but it is an inherent quality of war.

Finally, the range of munitions available to a networked land force will be larger and more varied. More versatile tank main guns and rounds, including designs that can be well-used for indirect fire, medium range “rockets in a box” and improved mortars were all elements of the FCS program that would have given land maneuver unit commanders more and more useful firepower under their direct control. At the same time, the 120mm, direct-fire main gun was as powerful as the current Abrams cannon.

The ultimate quality of any future land-force modernization effort should be to retain the across-the-force approach of the FCS project. Indeed, the worst part of Gates’ decision to cancel the FCS ground vehicles is to risk returning control of these modernization efforts to the tender mercies of the Army branch system and their pet contractors. What can only emerge from this stovepiped system — as has always emerged in the past — is a narrower focus. The Army’s mounted warfare school will know in its blood how to produce a fighting vehicle that can withstand IED blasts (and they will have gotten the message from the defense secretary loud and clear), but its ability to plug in and perform in a larger networked force is something to be skeptical about. So far from being a mistake, the Army’s decision to take a “systems integration” approach to modernization is the most profound procurement reform in many decades.

Shinseki and the Army leadership of his generation were wise to turn to an outsider to do what they knew that they could not do for themselves: Tame their branches and manage a forcewide modernization effort. Even more than keeping a complex enterprise moving forward more or less in step, it is the institutional management innovation that was genuinely revolutionary. The smart set in the Defense Department and in Washington has been wringing its hands for years wondering how to solve the problems of parochialism at the joint and service level, and how to compel capabilities trade-offs across the U.S. military. It would be more than ironic if the one service and one serious effort to tackle this challenge in an honest and sober way — to put its money where its reformist mouth is — should be punished for doing so. No good deed goes unpunished, especially in the defense industry.

In the past, the Pentagon could afford to take a bottom-up approach, building the best fighter, the best submarine, the best tank, because the strategy and nature of operations during the Cold War were constant and well-understood. In the current environment, and particularly for those forces most likely to be engaged in the “Long War,” a top-down, forcewide approach is superior.

Thus, if the Future Combat Systems program did not exist, advocates for land power and balancing irregular warfare needs with the demands of conventional combat would want to invent it. And if it is indeed canceled, we will want to invent it again.

What ultimately replaces the current FCS vehicle program will — should — be very much the same. In an ideal world, in a period of “strategic pause,” we could afford to move slowly and cautiously to build a family of jewels to replace the vehicles that have been the backbone of an immensely powerful and flexible Army for a generation. But, embroiled in two wars and with the prospect of other land conflicts all too present, the need for systemic land-force modernization is urgent. We have to build a force in time to fight the war we’re in, not the war we’d like to be in or the war that we used to be in. At least that’s what Robert Gates would say.

Tom Donnelly is a resident fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.