While the death knell continued to sound last week for the Ground Combat Vehicle, the Army quietly released a notice to industry requesting information about a new, air-droppable Ultra Light Combat Vehicle that some speculate could be the future of the service's protected mobility strategy.
The notional ULCV would have an array of requirements aimed at increasing infantry combat mobility, including the ability to be dropped out of C-130 and C-17 aircraft, according to a Jan. 22 industry notice.
"This information will examine the benefit of an Ultra Light Combat Vehicle (ULCV) to support mobility for Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) soldiers," the Jan. 22 notice states. "The information received will be used by the Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCOE) to screen potential commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions, which may be demonstrated during a static display and proof of principal event."
The Army's combat vehicle modernization strategy was upended earlier this month when lawmakers ripped nearly $492 million from the Army's fiscal year 2014 GCV request of $592 million, leaving only $100 million to either close out the program or sustain a small study effort for several years until bigger budgets arrive. The GCV was intended to replace nearly 2,000 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which the Army says are too small to fit a full squad and do not provide enough underbody protection against improvised explosive devices.
Meanwhile, the Army is attempting to pivot to a more expeditionary posture after more than a decade of occupational conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A light combat vehicle has been identified as a possible new modernization requirement, despite the onset of Pentagon budget austerity. But with some estimates putting the GCV between 60 and 70 tons, that vehicle was never discussed as a possible ULCV solution to meet the Army's expeditionary challenges.
Notably, the ULCV sources-sought notice states that any potential vendor solutions should be able to carry a full squad of nine soldiers -- something that was also a requirement for the GCV. The vehicle is also expected to have a "medium caliber" gun and should be transportable inside a CH-47 and sling-loadable by a UH-60. Soldier protection will come in the form of superior mobility intended to "avoid enemy contact," rather than the heavy armor packages the Army now uses.
The notice adds that the "ULCV does not currently have an approved requirement." There has, however, been a great deal of discussion among futurists at Army Training and Doctrine Command about the need for a ULCV, and Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno recently highlighted the need for a lighter combat vehicle as one of the service's top priorities for the future.
"We've traded mobility for survivability and we've got to get it back in line -- I need mobility," Odierno said Jan. 23 during an Association for the United States Army breakfast in Arlington, VA. "I need tactical mobility for the future. How do we sustain survivability while increasing mobility?"
Maj. Gen. William Hix, the deputy director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said last week that the Army science and technology community was increasing its focus on finding or developing a light combat vehicle.
"We're going back and looking at all of the components involved in combat vehicles -- how do we lighten them, how do we change them, what is the art of the possible," he said during a Jan. 22 teleconference with reporters. "The logistics tail of a combat formation is driven by how it consumes and how much it consumes in great part is driven by how much it weighs."
Col. Chris Cross, ARCIC's chief of S&T, told reporters that the service needed a major breakthrough in armor technology to give soldiers the same level of mobile protection they would otherwise have in a vehicle that weighs 60 or 70 tons.
"In order to be more expeditionary, we need this lighter and more agile protected vehicle," he said. "It's going to require a significant breakthrough in terms of the strength-weight ratio that we need. It is one of the cornerstones of all our science and technology investments."
An industry official said the request for information on a ULCV indicated the Army's desire to at least explore the possibility of setting a new requirement for mobile protected firepower, perhaps for the 82nd Airborne.
"I believe this is the other side of the emerging MPF requirement; probably not an alternative for GCV, just recognizing shortfalls in protection and mobility for the special infantry forces," the source said.
As for potential vendors, both BAE Systems and General Dynamics have possible offerings based on existing vehicles. GDLS makes the Stryker, which has been experimentally air-dropped and is slated for a demonstration at Ft. Benning, GA, next month using a "medium caliber" 30mm gun (Inside the Army, Nov. 18, 2013). Meanwhile, BAE has developed Armored Gun System prototypes, which the Army contracted the company to produce in the 1990s to replace the air-droppable M551 Sheridan. The AGS was jettisoned, however, in favor of the Stryker and various Future Combat Systems platforms. FCS was terminated in 2009 due to skyrocketing costs.
While any discussion of the Army's current budget reductions makes the likelihood of a ULCV program seem low in the near term, service leaders have been touting a commitment to S&T vehicle projects many hope would be able to pay big dividends in the future.
"Right now, [tanks are] at 70-some tons. What if we had mobile protected firepower at the same protection but at only 30 tons?" Lt. Gen. Keith Walker, the director of ARCIC, said during a Nov. 14 appearance at a Defense One event in Washington. "Lots of folks told President Kennedy we were never going to make it to the moon. We have not focused our science and technology efforts as an Army in the material sciences." -- Tony Bertuca