December 1, 2009  

A vehicle for modern times

What the next combat vehicle should look like

The Army leadership will soon restart its stillborn effort to develop and produce a new family of fighting vehicles. More is at stake than just beginning another weapons-buying program. The design and building of the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) follow-on to the aborted flagship component of the Future Combat Systems (FCS) will be the centerpiece of ground force modernization. The design and performance of the GCV will reflect how the services will fight for generations. The characteristics of the GCV will eventually influence all other ground programs from the network to sensors, aircraft, fire support and dismounted soldier systems.

The track record for equipping ground forces has not been good. The Army in particular has seen most of its major new programs canceled since the end of the Cold War. FCS is just the latest in a string of failures from the aborted Crusader artillery system to termination of the Comanche helicopter. Sadly, too often the ground services are able to field new systems only after the sight of dead soldiers forces an immediate, expedient and off-the-shelf solution. It comes as no surprise that eight years into two conflicts the only new vehicle to show up in the theater of war is the Mine Resistant Armor Protected vehicle (MRAP), essentially an armored truck purchased outside the deliberate acquisition system that has proven very effective at protecting against the lethal effects of roadside bombs. But MRAP is not a fighting vehicle by any means. It has virtually no off-road mobility and is poorly armed.

This article is a pre-emptive strike, an attempt to offer some ideas about the concept that will define GCV. It’s important from the start to get the concepts right and clearly understood. The GCV concept must fit the needs of today’s wars and yet be sufficiently expansive and adaptable to meet the needs of forces fighting higher-order battles. The sweet spot that should define the operational characteristics of the GCV must be at the center left of the conflict spectrum that traverses pre-insurgency to high-level hybrid wars (think: the Philippines, Lebanon or the march to Baghdad). The sweet spot must also be defined by the place where contemporary wars are fought: at the small unit level, specifically close combat companies, platoons and squads.

In the fall of 2007 Army Gen. David Petraeus asked me to visit Iraq with the purpose of suggesting which cutting-edge technologies then in the field held the most promise for exploitation in the future. I visited ground combat units struggling to adapt new materiel to fit the unique circumstances of irregular warfare. A year later, I visited Afghanistan for a similar purpose. From these excursions, I wrote a monograph titled “The Past and Present and Prologue: Future Warfare through the Lens of Contemporary Conflicts.” In this piece, I listed what I thought contemporary wars were telling us about the shape and character of future ground forces.

The high point of my visit to Iraq was the day I spent with the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry “Manchus” at Taji. These soldiers were the first to be equipped both with the Army’s newest mounted vehicle, the Stryker, and with Land Warrior, the Army’s first attempt to equip the individual soldier with a networking device connecting him to his buddies, his leaders and the outside world. I discovered that it was the synergies that came from combining these two cutting-edge systems that empowered the Manchus to fight in a different way.

My visit happened on a very hot day. Two soldiers waited to greet me as they stood alongside their Stryker, bent over by the crushing burden of more than 100 pounds of gear. I walked around the vehicle followed by one of the soldiers. As I peered into the crew compartment, he leaned over and whispered:

“Hey, sir, know what we call this thing?”

“No, what?” I asked.

“We call it the Mothership.” He said as he glanced at his buddy with a knowing grin.

The Mothership analogy was in fact an unintended soldier metaphor that symbolized how fundamentally irregular war experience was altering perceptions of mounted combat. After receiving Land Warrior and Stryker, the Manchus had what they called “an Apollo 13 moment” as they experimented with their kit to optimize it for this new kind of war. They adapted the Stryker to perform as a long-range, long-term transporter, a rally point, a rest center and a command-and-control node at the squad level. It performed as a sensor and firepower platform, a planning and organizing facility, among many other functions. During the Cold War, an infantry fighting vehicle was designed to approach a dismount point some distance from the objective. The ramp went down and the squad continued the assault supported by vehicle’s machine guns. The Manchu soldiers in Iraq, however, approached the enemy at night, stealthily, and arrived at the enemy’s doorstep before dismounting. The scene painted for me by these infantrymen was more of a SWAT team takedown than a traditional combined-arms mounted assault.


My day with the Manchus and other subsequent visits to Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the conclusion that the GCV must be designed as a universal carrier. The universal aspects of the carrier should embrace all ground services, not just the Army. Experience in contemporary wars has shown a remarkable convergence in how all ground components, the Army, Marine Corps and special operations forces, fight at the tactical level. This convergence of function should be matched with a convergence of operating characteristics such that the general needs of all ground combat services will be embraced by the GCV design.

One reason for the failure of the FCS concept was that it contained too many compromises in an effort to place all mounted combat functions inside a single platform. As one senior veteran of the FCS wars put it to me: “You lose too much when you try to put a tank on top of an ambulance.” To avoid this error, the GCV should be optimized for the common purpose of transporting a squad-sized team to the fight, not just infantry but any small team likely to be placed in harm’s way, such as engineers, military police, psychological operations forces and many others.

Watching the Manchus in action also convinced me that the experience of contemporary wars strongly supports the argument that the dividing line between mounted and dismounted combat no longer exists. Today’s soldiers walk into battle with more than they can carry. Studies have shown that the practical limit of what a soldier can carry into sustained combat is a third of his body weight, or about 40 pounds. Body armor alone today approaches this limit. Other essential accoutrements such as weapons, ammunition, food and water push the soldier’s load above half his weight. A Manchu soldier equipped with Land Warrior is burdened by about 120 pounds. The Manchus’ experience with Land Warrior shows that to gain a significant advantage over the enemy, tomorrow’s soldier will be required to add the weight of many technological devices, to include access to the network and the ability to carry and control sensors. The bottom line is that overburdened ground forces fighting in a country as inhospitable and vast as Afghanistan, whether heavy or light, Army, Marine or SOF, must ride to war. They are all to one degree or another tied to a mounted tether. The challenge will be to determine how the tether should be designed to be optimally effective in contemporary wars.

The campaign to build a vehicle impervious to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) is not going well in Afghanistan. Our forces there are relearning the immutable lesson of history that the enemy will always improvise in order to find expedient means to destroy a vehicle. In fact, every vehicle deployed to Afghanistan, including MRAP and Stryker, is vulnerable to IED attack. The 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, a Stryker unit operating near Kandahar, has suffered serious casualties from IED attacks during the past few months. The vehicles have proven to be too thinly armored to survive the very large explosive power of Taliban IEDs and too immobile to maneuver off road to avoid them.

Larding on too much armor to defeat an IED or an explosive penetrator inevitably makes the vehicle too heavy and cumbersome to be an effective fighting machine, particularly in primitive places like Afghanistan. The lesson of contemporary wars is that IEDs can best be defeated by designing a vehicle capable of avoiding them. In Afghanistan, virtually all casualties are suffered within 500 meters of a road. The new universal carrier must be able to travel and maneuver off roads that today are studded with IEDs. It must be agile enough to maneuver across valleys and negotiate the narrow confines of village streets. The design must strike a balance between the need for protection and the need to traverse primitive bridges, cross planted fields and negotiate through narrow canals and tight urban passages.


To perform the counterinsurgency role properly, the GCV must not only be fast but also quiet. The example of the Manchus’ assault on insurgent hideouts in Iraq points to the need for tactical units to approach insurgent positions undetected. To achieve absolute surprise, the vehicle must be linked to an overhead “unblinking eye” capable of sending a continuous image of the target from rehearsal to takedown.

Irregular wars require speed of movement and maneuver. Engagements against insurgents are always fleeting. The dispersed nature of operations in primitive places demands that isolated tactical units, squads and platoons, aggregate quickly from scattered locations to engage massed enemy attacks. The need to mass spontaneously in irregular warfare demands a vehicle capable of sustained speeds of 70 kilometers per hour over broken and undulating terrain. Only a tracked vehicle designed for stealth as well as speed and protection can meet this requirement.

Speed of action should complement speed of movement. As we have seen in tragic places like Combat Outpost Wanat and Firebase Keating in Afghanistan, small units must be able to respond to enemy attacks immediately with overpowering, precise, discrete, intimate and sustained killing power. Experience has shown that immediate reaction to enemy contact cannot be achieved by external systems such as fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Artillery is more responsive and less vulnerable to atmospheric conditions, but the battlespace in Afghanistan is too vast to allow all tactical maneuver inside the artillery range fan. Thus the GCV when employed as a mothership for small-unit operations must have a self-contained onboard weapon for sensing and engaging a dismounted enemy directly with overwhelming firepower.

The GCV program must optimize the network for irregular wars. American dominance on future battlefields will be guaranteed by dominance of sensing sciences and the ability to proliferate information over the network. But experience in recent irregular wars has changed how such dominance is defined. Gone are the claims that net-centric warfare will lift the fog of war absolutely. We now know that the enemy has a vote and will find expedient ways to offset our ability to see, decide and act first.

The conceptual answer to this dilemma is to change the design focus of the network from the operational and strategic to the tactical; to change the customer from the general to the individual soldier. Focusing the network on the soldier will emphasize connections over capacity. The objective must be to give every soldier the ability to maintain virtual “touch” with his buddies. He should be well-connected inside or outside the GCV and should lose no situational awareness when making the transition from mounted to dismounted combat. The soldier’s network should be a military corollary to the social networking sites ubiquitous to American youth.

The mothership principle will demand that the GCV be optimized to operate in small units for prolonged periods in inhospitable terrain and climate. In the past, limitations induced by logistics and complexity only allowed small units to sortie from large bases for limited periods. Experience in recent wars suggests that in the future small units must operate away from forward operating bases for days or weeks, only returning periodically for supplies, fuel and refit. Prolonged small-unit operations will also demand that the GCV have the ability to perform all of the primal combat functions (fire, maneuver, intelligence, command and control and logistics) within a small clutch of vehicles, perhaps no more than two or three collected together for sustained support operations in remote and dispersed villages and urban areas.

A sad fact of today’s acquisition system is that all too often the operational environment changes faster than the acquisition cycle. FCS was conceived during the 1990s, when the ground services demanded a force capable of rapid strategic speed and tactical agility. But once the bullets start to fly, ground forces tend to shift their requirements from speed to killing power and protection. This is exactly what has happened since 9/11. The future might require that ground combat vehicles operate in more conventional environments. We know now that the acquisition system is simply too cumbersome to react to new operational environments that shift from speed to protection and back again. Therefore it is imperative that the GCV design be flexible enough to allow an immediate “spectral shift” in its fighting qualities to perform on a more lethal, dense and higher tempo battlefield.

One thing is certain, however: No legacy system, no matter how heavily modified, will meet the needs of all the ground services for operating across the conflict spectrum from irregular to conventional war. The only practical solution is to build the GCV around the concept of a universal small-unit carrier and then stretch the system as far as possible to accommodate other functions. In the near term, the design simply cannot accommodate every possible variant. Thus, the ground services will have to rely on older systems to perform big war tasks until new programs are begun to replace the venerable M1 Abrams tank and the Bradley fighting vehicle.


We are eight years into a war that might last a generation. Yet the ground services still do not possess a fighting vehicle optimized for today’s wars. This situation is all the more incongruous given the fact that soldiers and Marines have paid a hugely disproportionate cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. They deserve the best, but have yet to receive it. The GCV program promises to atone for almost a decade of neglect. To be successful it must be a national effort that embraces all ground services. It must be done quickly while avoiding the tragic haste of the MRAP program. Time is short. We are still at war. The lives of our soldiers and Marines are on the line. Let’s get on with giving them the fighting system they deserve. AFJ

MAJ. GEN. ROBERT H. SCALES (RET.) is president of consulting firm Colgen Inc. He served more than 30 years in the Army, commanding two units in Vietnam.