The U.S. Army wants to spend a billion dollars on a light tank, a vehicle it doesn’t need, because it already had a vehicle that fit the exact same role. And the Army canned it.
The United States military is shifting its focus from almost two decades of low intensity conflicts, conflicts it is still involved in, to a more conventional force, meaning more tanks and artillery development and less counter insurgency operations. This is a paradigm shift towards countering the U.S.’s more traditional foes, Russia and China. That shift had led several military leaders into thinking the next war might be what Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called a “Great Powers Land War.”
U.S Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said that the switch could take up to 30 years, meaning that the military is going to have to revamp its equipment, from ground vehicles and rotary wing platforms to communications and individual soldiers’ gear. The Army even recently launched something it calls Modernization Command, with the stated mission to “make soldiers and units more lethal to win the nation’s wars, and come home safely” with “commercial innovations, cutting edge science, and technology.” Headquartered at the Army Material Command at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, the new command budgeted over $1 billion as a start.
If that seems like a throwback to the Cold War to you, you’re not alone. Even the the Army’s thought process on what it needs seems to be taking a step back in time.
One thing on their agenda: a light tank. Yet it seems, perhaps, that the Army has forgotten it has already recently spent over $8.9 billion on so far, with further costs coming with current generational upgrades: The M1126 Stryker.
The concept of a light tank is a throwback to the days before mechanized infantry and Infantry Fighting Vehicles or IFVs, like M2 Bradleys and Strykers. Their job was to move quickly across the battlefield to support infantry operations in places, or at speed, unable to be reached by a normal medium or heavy tank. They could also act as a recon vehicle.
The last light tank the U.S. fielded was the M551 Sheridan, though due to doctrine changes in the 1960s, the Army technically had no official “light tanks,” and thus the Sheridan was dubbed an “Armored Reconnaissance/Airborne Assault vehicle.”
It was air droppable, could swim across water crossings, and was light enough that it wouldn’t get stuck in the mud, as opposed to its big brother, the M48 Patton, main battle tank.
Unfortunately, it was also protected by aluminum armor which was needed for it to be light enough to be dropped from a plane, but which also made it easily defeated by most anti tank weapons of the time. It fired a 154mm caseless round that would sometimes come apart, leaking its propellant all over its loader, and even if its loader wasn’t covered in propellant, it was painfully slow to load. The Sheridan could fire about two rounds a minute, while in comparison the M48 Patton could put as many as sixteen downrage. Its engine was also notoriously unreliable. Of the first 74 Sheridans sent to Vietnam, a full 16, or almost 22 percent, suffered fatal engine problems.
Somehow, the Sheridan limped on until 1996, when it was finally retired from service.
The idea of different-sized tanks for different battlefield roles eventually faded away, as they would all be replaced by a Main Battle Tank concept. One tank to rule the battlefield. There was no lack of supporting firing power moving forward with the soldiers on the ground since a Main Battle Tank, despite its weight of over 60 tons, was supposed to be fast enough to keep up with the mechanized infantry. It was clear that the only tank the U.S. military would need was its M1 Abrams platform.
Until November, when the Army decided that for whatever reason, they wanted a light tank again. Though, just like in the 1960s with the Sheridan, they don’t want to call it a light tank. The Army sent out a final, formal request for proposals for the new program, known as Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF), to several defense contractors.
The Army has laid out a few broad specifications on what it wants. The new tank should be able to be between 25-30 tons, half the weight of an M1 Abrams, and be protected against small arms and air bursting artillery shells, with additional kits offering defenses against other threats, such as shaped charges. It should be able to support operations in offensive roles, and be able to engage fortifications, and enemy armor. Its requirements, oddly, do not list if it must be tracked or wheeled, nor any specific caliber of offensive weapon.
“I don’t to say it’s a light tank, but it’s kind of like a light tank. It’s not going to go toe-to-toe with a tank. It’s for the infantry,” David Dopp, the MPF project lead said in an Army News Service release.
Three major firms have already rolled out designs for the MPF, two of which are titans in the contractor world: BAE and General Dynamics. The third is a much smaller contractor team of SAIC and Singapore’s ST Kinetics. The Army plans on spending $1.4 billion on the project over the next four years.
The Army keeps saying this project is going to “fill a gap” its conventional forces have to bring firepower to it’s light infantry formations. Fast, heavily armed, light and maneuverable.
This brings us back to the Stryker.
Also known as the Interim Armored Vehicle, it was originally developed by General Dynamics Canada and has both 4x4 and 8x8 capabilities. It earned the name “interim” because it was supposed to be a temporary fix for the Army’s needs until vehicles from the Future Combat Systems program were fielded. The Future Combat System program was a massive modernization program that ran from 2003 to 2009 and cost upwards of $92 billion. The program is a huge failure of acquisitions from a critical lack of oversight.
None of what they had planned were ever fielded, and the Stryker earned its stripes fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Stryker’s chassis is also a modular design and supports a wide array of variants, the main being an Infantry Carrier Vehicle. Other varieties include command, fire support, medical evacuation, mortar carrier, recon, anti- tank guided missile, and a nuclear, biological, chemical, recon vehicles.
Recently the Army poured nearly a half billion more dollars into fielding a “dragoon” variant, which arms the Stryker with the Bradley’s deadly 30mm Bushmaster chain gun or a Javelin anti-tank missile launcher. They were sent to the US Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Europe, meant as a direct counter to Russian ground forces in a possible future conflict in the theater.
They also rolled out the M1128 Mobile Gun System (MGS) variant, with a 105mm M68A2 stabilized rifled cannon, and which looks like exactly what the Army is trying to create with it’s current MPF. It’s already capable of firing six rounds per minute via an autoloader, and able to move at 60 mph over certain terrain. The package weighs in at about 20 tons, and it looks exactly as you would expect a Stryker with a tank gun placed on top of it would look.
The MGS is not air-droppable, which seems to be one of the Army’s main hitching points with the MPF platform and why it wants to move in that direction. Yet the problem with the MGS wasn’t that it was never going to be air droppable. Rather, right before the MPF was announced, General Dynamics was actually working on making the MGS the airborne vehicle of the Army’s dreams. They even carried out feasibility tests in 2004, dropping the MGS out of a C-17 Globemaster III, a test the MGS passed. General Dynamics then quit development without explanation. It instead focused all of its energy into the Griffin-General Dynamics entry into the MPF project.
The Griffin is eight tons heavier, will almost certainly be slower, and much more expensive than the already established Stryker. It is based on the hull of the British Army’s new Ajax scout vehicle, and will be paired with the previously-designed XM360 tank gun from the doomed Future Combat Systems project, which was cancelled due to cost overruns.
The British Ajax, much like the Stryker, uses a modular format. It has six different variants, though it is hard to see the US Army investing in yet another family of vehicles.
The XM360 is a 120mm hybrid type, smoothbore cannon that can fire normal tank rounds and yet-to-be-designed smart rounds at beyond line-of-sight. Previous attempts to use a “smart” tank round were mostly a failure. The 120mm STAFF round was discontinued after subpar performance during the Gulf War and was blamed for several friendly fire incidents.
We can look towards the newly updated General Dynamics M1A2SEPV3, which despite being a mouthful is its real name, to see what kind of smart rounds they have planned for the Griffin. The 50-pound Advanced Multi-Purpose (AMP) round is connected via digital data link and will be able to instantly reconfigure itself depending on what the tank’s crew is aiming at. Adjusting to things like anti-tank, anti-fortification, and anti-air functions. The idea is that a single AMP can replace the four different rounds tanks currently have to carry to have the same capabilities.
It’s not known if the rounds, originally built for the M1A2’s M256 smoothbore gun, will be compatible with the Griffin’s planned XM360. Though, one of the main selling points that General Dynamics is pushing over it’s competitors is that the Griffin’s controls and turret will be identical to the M1A2, making training crews much easier. Also, the AMP was original developed around the Future Combat Systems, though it was never involved with a live fire test from a XM360.
Again, all of this prompts a question: Does the Army actually need a light tank?
After it fielded the MGS, the Army found that the strange vehicle didn’t really have a role on the battlefield. After fielding 142 of the vehicles by 2008, it shut down production. This means that just a decade later, the Army wants to replay the whole scenario over again.
The Army suffers from horrible short-sightedness like spending $50 billion on 24,000 Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, only to end up tearing them apart for scrap in a junkyard a few years later. It never settled on what it actually wanted in the XM2001 Crusader Howitzer, which cost $2 billion before being cancelled in favor of the XM1203 NLOS Cannon, another Future Combat Systems program that was then cancelled.
The fact that General Dynamics actively abandoned a more cost effective alternative in making the MSG an airborne option to try to sell the Army on a repackaged version of a project they had already rejected is telling of the Army’s acquisition process. Previously President Trump said he would talk to contractors on wasteful spending because spending on certain projects “was out of control.” This was before he decided he wanted to raise defense spending by 10 percent, which is actually lower than both Mattis, and Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Commitee on Armed Services, who wanted to raise it to nearly $700 billion.
Is the MPF program and the XM360 crawling back from the scrap heap a sign of the return of the blank check days of the Future Combat System?
Unlike the past where the Army would spend billions and take ten years just to work out a prototype, the Army plans to rapidly approve and field it’s MPF.
The service plans on picking a winning MPF design during the 2019 fiscal year, which begins on October 1, 2018. With the General Dynamics entry only having token competition, it seems all but guaranteed that the Army will pay them twice for a light tank that they had already rejected once before, while resigning the one they already had to the bone yard.