Seeking to accelerate the fielding date of the Army's next-generation fighting vehicle, Army Secretary Mark Esper was presented three plans -- one too far in the future to satisfy demand, one too near to add much capability and another option he decided was just right.
Esper eventually concluded that fielding the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle in 2026 was the ideal time line to allow the Army to prepare its new strategy and make the necessary budget adjustments, according to a series of exclusive interviews conducted by Inside Defense on the behind-the-scenes process.
How Esper restructured the program is a story of the Army's lofty ambition to speed up its long-troubled ground force modernization effort in the face of apprehension from industry and skepticism from lawmakers.
Original plan rejected
The team of officials overseeing the development of the OMFV -- formerly billed as the Next Generation Combat Vehicle and now part of the NGCV family -- had initially targeted a 2032 fielding date.
In January, they drafted a plan to experiment for the first five years, leading up to a planned milestone B decision at the end of fiscal year 2024.
The team then planned to launch a program for a clean-sheet design, build prototypes, integrate and test for a milestone C decision in FY-28, aiming for the first unit to be equipped by FY-32.
However, Esper in April said he wanted to accelerate that time line, noting he had heard industry could deliver prototypes by FY-21.
He told reporters at an August breakfast he was pushing the service to greatly accelerate its modernization efforts.
“Since my early days, I've been saying that we need to move the fielding of next-generation equipment left, and if you read . . . the [Army] Vision of 2028, [it] says that these next-generation vehicles, for example, I want to begin fielding by 2028,” he said. “So that's always been there, leading up to the publication of the vision, when the [Army's chief of staff] and I released it on June 6. But I continue to press [the team] to move even left of that to the degree we can.”
Forced to scrap the original plan, the team came up with three shorter timelines, which they presented to the secretary in May.
The Army's official response to Inside Defense stated simply that three courses of action -- FY-24, FY-26 and FY-28 -- were delivered to the secretary. However, a senior Army official with knowledge of the matter detailed the pros and cons of each plan.
The fastest plan presented to Esper would have fielded the first OMFV in FY-24, soliciting vehicles already in production, most likely in Europe.
Slightly modified versions of BAE Systems' Swedish CV90, short for Combat Vehicle 90; General Dynamics Land Systems' British Ajax scout vehicle; and the German Puma Infantry Fighting Vehicle made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall would all have been contenders.
Vehicles in Asia, like Hanwha Defense Systems' South Korean K-21 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, would also have gotten a look.
However, those only offer slight advantages over the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in certain areas, like larger cannons.
“A couple of them don't have a missile,” the official said. “And Bradley does have a missile. From a sensor standpoint, I think the 2nd GEN [Forward Looking Infrared] that Bradley has is better than any of the sensors in any of these other vehicles in the world.”
The plan also would not have given the Army much time to thoroughly test each vehicle.
“From a protection standpoint, we don't really know,” the official said. “We don't have classified test data on how these vehicles perform against various threats. So we think they're comparable to Bradley, and in some cases a little less capable, but we don't really know. And we're working an effort to try to get data from foreign governments about how these things performed in test,” which can be a slow process fettered by bureaucratic red tape.
The slowest plan called for fielding the first OMFV in FY-28 and would have pursued a clean-sheet design, first downselecting to the two best concepts, then awarding prototype contracts and proceeding to an engineering and manufacturing development phase that would produce one winning design.
The official said not only was 2028 too slow, but Esper was also concerned about the Army's ability to pull off a clean-sheet combat vehicle, given the service's track record with Future Combat Systems and the Ground Combat Vehicle, both of which were canceled.
“But if we did something a little quicker that was building off of mature platforms, that seemed like a very reasonable compromise to him,” the official said.
As a result, the clear winner was the plan that called for fielding the OMFV in FY-26, essentially a “copy and paste” of the current Mobile Protected Firepower schedule for the Army's new “light tank,” according to the official.
The service is going for a “heavily modified off-the-shelf” model with this schedule, meaning a mature chassis and turret integrated with new sensors and shooters as well as protection, the official said.
The Army, which has not yet released requirements to industry, has unofficially put forth a few capabilities it would like to see on proposed vehicles, like a 50 mm cannon.
If the vehicle cannot hold a 50 mm cannon, the service would prefer to use a 30 mm -- the same as the Bradley -- rather than have to establish a U.S. production line or import ammunition from another country for a 35 mm or 40 mm cannon.
One drawback to the plan is that it's “risky,” leaving no room for vendors to make adjustments once the ball has started rolling, according to the official.
This could already be a concern, as the service told industry last week it was “contemplating a longer proposal development period . . . and concurrent bid sample delivery.”
The time line established before the proposal delay would issue a final request for proposals in early FY-19 and award EMD contracts using middle-tier acquisition, or section 804, authority in early FY-20. Low-rate initial production is slated to begin in FY-23.
However, contractors are anxious the service has not yet updated them on the delay's impact on the program's already strict time line or its cost.
“We're a little worried,” an industry source told Inside Defense.
Contractors expect a briefing later this month, as they grapple with how to be sure their investments will pay off.
Esper's office declined to comment further on the new time line.
Congress has over the last several years given the Army grief about its inability to get a new combat vehicle program off the ground. The service is still smarting from the $21 billion failure of FCS and its unsuccessful attempt at the GCV.
Despite a lack of solid constituency for the OMFV, lawmakers have shown early support for the program. Authorizers scaled back a proposed limit on Next Generation Combat Vehicle funding in the FY-19 policy bill, settling on a slight increase of $7 million for the program.
Appropriators have signaled their support by approving the Army's request to reallocate $80 million from the Bradley upgrade program toward OMFV development.
The lawmakers freed up an additional $160 million in procurement funding previously under the Bradley modification program line.
Sources agree there is conditional support on the Hill, but the Army has yet to solidify its standing with lawmakers who have not been presented a full, clear proposal, as well as possible trade-offs with current programs, which could affect money flowing to certain districts.
Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT) in a September hearing of the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee on Army Futures Command, which oversees the OMFV program, cited the scars of vehicle programs past.
“The Army has struggled over the years in terms of new acquisition programs,” he said. “The Future Combat Systems program, which I think was terminated by Secretary Gates. The Ground Combat Vehicle, which I think was terminated by Secretary Hagel.”
“Again, the demise of those programs [was] something that . . . [House] Armed Services Committee and particularly subcommittees like readiness had front row seats while that was all going,” he added. “So again, I think that what you're trying to do, which is to reset the whole approach here in terms of acquisition -- certainly makes a lot of sense.”