Future tanks could surprise critics
New vehicles are likely to be more agile and fuel efficient, but heavily armed.
Just seven years ago, every self-styled strategic thinker knew that history had ended, that the dot-com boom would last forever, and, in military circles, that the tank was dead. The steel behemoths that had ruled the plains of Europe for six decades were too ungainly for a new world order that required rapid deployment of troops to small conflicts across the globe.
In 1994, Chechen guerrillas armed only with rocket-propelled grenades had destroyed more than 200 Russian armored vehicles in 30 days, and the U.S. Army was so slow in deploying its heavy machinery to the Balkans in 1999 that the ground forces never participated in the war in Kosovo.
"Power is increasingly defined not by mass or size but by mobility and swiftness," then-presidential candidate George W. Bush said at the Citadel military academy in September 1999. "Yet, today our military is still organized more for Cold War threats than for the challenges of a new century -- for Industrial Age operations, rather than for Information Age battles."
Just three weeks later, Gen. Eric Shinseki, President Clinton's Army chief of staff, announced a "transformation" program to replace the Army's 70-ton M1 Abrams main battle tank with vehicles weighing less than 20 tons, light enough to be flown around the world into areas with only dirt landing strips.
This "Future Combat System," as the Army termed it, would be protected not by heavy armor but by a linked computer network of sensors, robots, and precision weapons designed to find and destroy the enemy from a distance.
September 11, 2001, seemed the final proof of lightweight warfare. Nineteen terrorists with box cutters bypassed the entire American military. The United States retaliated against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan with special forces and smart bombs, but no tanks.
Sixteen months later, the Bush administration rebuked Shinseki for insisting on a larger, heavier ground force for the invasion of Iraq. But Iraq showed that the age of the armored dinosaur was not over after all.
It was 70-ton M1s and 34-ton M2 Bradley infantry carriers that spearheaded the Iraq invasion -- not only by racing across the open desert but also by pushing deep into downtown Baghdad, shrugging off the same RPGs that had destroyed the Russians in Grozny a decade before. And once the insurgency began, the nimble 2.6-ton Humvees that the Pentagon preferred for "low-intensity" operations proved fatally vulnerable to ambush by rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.
It was the 70-ton Abrams that plowed through IEDs and RPGs as coalition forces retook Falluja and Najaf. As late as 2002, the Army's armor school at Fort Knox had been teaching tankers to bypass urban areas altogether. But in Iraqi cities today, said Col. David Hubner, who led armored forces into Samarra, "I'd tell my tankers, 'You should have the same mind-set as Tyrannosaurus rex. There's nobody who's going to take you out.' "
While heavy armor is crushing the enemy when called upon in Iraq, back in Washington, the Future Combat System is facing extinction. "The project is over budget, behind schedule, and probably impractical," declared a July cover of Congressional Quarterly; the headline inside was "Dream Army's Rude Awakening."
The FCS has four big problems. The first is financial: The Army is squabbling with outside estimators over whether the program as planned will cost $130 billion, $200 billion, or as much as $300 billion.
The second problem is technological: By the last independent assessment, the computer network protocols, the digital radios, the armed scout robots, the system to shoot down incoming RPGs -- all told, 32 of 49 "critical technologies" that make up the Future Combat System -- have been tested only as "basic technological components" and only in a "simulated environment."
The third challenge is physical: The vehicles that are the linchpin of the FCS have swelled to 26 tons, making them too heavy for the Air Force's standard C-130 transport but still too light to match the protection of the massive M1's armor.
The fourth obstacle is conceptual: The Army has crammed so many ideas into the FCS -- "18+1+1 Systems" (that is, 20 systems), including a computer network, seven kinds of robots, and eight kinds of manned vehicles, according to the latest official Pentagon white paper -- that even program officials struggle to describe what the goal of the FCS program actually is: an updated brigade, built around a light-to-medium-weight armored vehicle, which will be supported by many more computer networks, sensors, and robots than any current mechanized unit.
Yet when describing the FCS, Army spokesmen oscillate unconvincingly between impenetrable jargon such as "soldier-centric" and late-night infomercial-speak such as "see first, understand first, shoot first, and finish decisively!"
So the same vultures of conventional wisdom that circled the heavy tank just seven years ago are now eyeing the Future Combat System. In 1999, everyone said that tanks were too big and too hard to maneuver in a modern, unconventional war, especially in cities. In 2006, everyone says that FCS vehicles are too small and too delicate to survive in a modern, unconventional war, especially in cities. And now, as then, the conventional wisdom appears to be mostly wrong.
The Army's inarticulate enthusiasm for the FCS has fostered three self-defeating myths: that the 26-ton FCS vehicles will replace 70-ton M1s in every capacity; that FCS units will deploy en masse by air to anywhere in the world; and that FCS troops will outfight every enemy, from Arab insurgents to North Korean missiles, by substituting information technology for heavy armor.
Congress, think tanks, and reporters are understandably incredulous. "You've got to be careful not to be taken in by all this great revolutionary bullshit, because none of it is field-tested," said retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, a vitriolic and influential critic. But some very real lights are hidden under this bushel of unproven high-tech hype:
- Although the Army will mothball some big tanks, FCS brigades will serve alongside heavy-armored units -- using today's M1 Abrams and M2 Bradleys upgraded with new electronics -- until well after 2020, providing a hedge against technological shortfalls or unexpected threats.
- Whatever the limits of airlift, the hybrid-electric FCS vehicles will be much more fuel-efficient on land than the huge turbine-driven M1s -- which get half a mile to the gallon -- maneuvering more quickly and needing fewer of the supply convoys that have proven so fatally vulnerable in Iraq.
- Whether their high-tech defenses materialize or not, the eight variants of the 26-ton FCS vehicle will have at least as much old-fashioned armor as anything today except the M1. In fact, of the 332 vehicles that run on tracks rather than tires in a current "heavy brigade," from mortar carriers to mobile command posts, 111 are lighter and less-armored than their proposed FCS replacements.
The revolutionary rhetoric was overblown from the beginning, and since 1999 the Army has quietly reinserted traditional military virtues into the program. As recently as April, for example, the Pentagon white paper depicted the FCS "reconnaissance and surveillance vehicle" as a lightly armed platform reliant on long-range sensors, but data given to National Journal in recent weeks show instead a heavily armed machine capable of fighting ambushes as it advances and sentries as it scouts ahead.
The FCS vehicles aren't well suited for head-on slogging matches with big enemy tanks -- that will remain the job of the massive M1 -- but they are arguably better than the M1 for the fluid wars of the future that will have no clear front line.
The truth about the Future Combat System is that it is far less revolutionary than the Army likes to claim. And that's a good thing: It means that it is far more likely to work than the critics believe.
You Say You Want a Revolution?
The U.S. is a superpower of technology. But American ingenuity goes only so far. This summer, after six years of sticking to a 20-ton ceiling for the FCS, the Army publicly accepted that some variants would weigh as much as 26 tons.
"There are too many compromises in an 18-ton vehicle," said Col. Charles Bush of the Army staff's Force Development Division. "The sweet spot is about 24 to 26 tons," he said. "At that weight, I can achieve most of my lethality, survivability, and deployability objectives."
At this weight, the Army says, the FCS can provide all-around protection against mines, the rocket-propelled grenades favored by guerrillas, and quick-firing cannon shells as large as 30 millimeters, the standard caliber of the guns on Russian-made infantry carriers.
An FCS vehicle won't stop the 125 mm shells fired by larger Russian-made tanks -- in both wars with Iraq, shells fired by such tanks bounced off the M1's front armor -- but an FCS vehicle will provide protection equal to that of the M1's side and rear, and to the armor on all sides of the latest-model M2A3 Bradleys that have accompanied the bigger tanks deep into Baghdad, Falluja, and Najaf.
In fact, the infantry carrier variant of the FCS closely resembles the Bradley. The FCS vehicle has a slightly larger gun, 30 millimeters instead of 25; it loses the Bradley's TOW anti-tank missiles, which have seen little use against Iraqi insurgents and which fly so slowly that a targeted tank could fire back, lethally, before they hit; and the FCS has double the carrying capacity -- a full squad of nine infantrymen instead of the Bradley's four to six.
And the quarter-century of materials research since the Bradley's basic structure was designed in the 1970s has made it possible to get the same protection in a 26-ton vehicle as in the old 34-ton tank.
Another evolutionary improvement lost in the revolutionary hype is that almost every bit of super-technology being developed for the FCS could be installed on the M2 Bradley or the M1 Abrams. Shinseki's successor as chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, has repeatedly overhauled the FCS program, ultimately delaying deployment of a fully FCS-equipped brigade by four years (to 2016). But he has ensured that current armored vehicles will be retrofitted with selected FCS technologies.
Even the computerized communications-and-command network -- the fundamental system linking all of the FCS's disparate parts -- builds on a principle a decade old. In 1997, the Army tested a prototype of such a network on every M1 tank and Bradley in an armored brigade, and then expanded it to an entire division. In 2003, a stripped-down version of that network, "Blue Force Tracker," was hastily installed on selected vehicles of other Army and Marine units going into Iraq. Troops have increasingly come to rely on the new technology.
"It was great to be able to look on the screen and see blue icons" representing friendly units, said Capt. Sam Donnelly, a staffer for a battalion command post during the Iraq invasion. "But our primary means of command-and-control was an FM radio, a map, and thumbtacks." As the campaign progressed, however, troops warmed to the new system -- and as units dispersed beyond the effective ranges of their Cold War radios, Donnelly said, "the only real contact we had with them was through [network] text message."
Still, the weakness of the improved communications network was the lack of good information. Donnelly's unit fought through repeated ambushes, and the Army nearly lost a critical bridge over the Euphrates, "Objective Peach," because neither scouts nor spy planes nor sensors spotted 8,000 Iraqis with 70 armored vehicles lurking under old-fashioned camouflage until they counterattacked. Since then, network upgrades and more unmanned drones have hardly made U.S. forces immune to surprise attacks.
The Stryker Experience
One way to judge whether the FCS vehicles will work is to look at the Army's other light-armored solution to modern warfare: the Stryker, a personnel carrier that moves on giant rubber tires instead of tracks and, in its 19-ton basic configuration, doesn't stop anything bigger than a .50-caliber bullet.
Ordered in 2000 as an "interim" step toward the FCS, Strykers were supposed to substitute information for mass. They were battle-tested in Iraq, where they came protected not only by their new electronics but also by an extra 2.5 tons of old-fashioned armor.
That additional metal made a difference, said Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, who was a battalion commander in the eastern half of Mosul in 2004 and 2005: "Twenty-seven RPGs hit Strykers in my battalion alone; not one of them penetrated." His unit of 70 Strykers was also hit by 250 roadside bombs and car bombs: "My vehicle was hit by three; my sergeant major's was hit by five," he recalled. "I only lost one soldier to an IED. He was exposed in an [open] hatch."
The unit had been stripped of its armored vehicles and heavy artillery in the early 1980s, when the enemy was the newly Islamic Iran that threatened interruption of vital oil supplies far from established U.S. bases. The Army tried to create a force that could be deployed quickly to the Middle East by air: first, the "Rapid Deployment Force"; then an experimental "High-Technology Light Division," with air-droppable armored vehicles and missile-shooting dune buggies. The end result was plain old "light divisions" consisting of foot soldiers, towed artillery pieces, and a handful of Humvees.
The unit that actually did dash by air to Saudi Arabia in 1990, after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, was the 82nd Airborne, a division of foot soldiers backed by a handful of air-deployable but notoriously breakdown-prone M551 Sheridan light tanks. The 82nd's troops had so much less firepower and mobility than the Iraqi tank divisions arrayed against them, and so little hope of stopping an attack, that they bitterly called themselves "the speed bump."
But Saddam's tanks stayed put in Kuwait, and the heavy U.S. M1 tanks, M2 infantry carriers, and self-propelled M109 howitzers arrived by sea to devastate the Iraqi armor. So, in the drawdown that followed the Persian Gulf War victory, the Army sacrificed its light forces to save the heavies.
In 1996, Gen. Dennis Reimer, the Army chief of staff, not only phased out the Airborne's last M551 Sheridans, the only air-deployable armored fighting vehicle in service, but also canceled its replacement, the M8 Armored Gun System, which could be stripped down to 19 tons for airlift and then beefed up to 26 tons with bolt-on armor -- the same weight as an FCS machine fully loaded for combat.
Armored Gun Resurrected
The Army missed this light-armored capability just three years later in 1999, when its heavy forces struggled to quickly deploy from Germany south to the Balkans, and missed it even more in 2003, when Turkey denied U.S. forces permission to cross its territory into Iraq.
Instead of the 15,000 soldiers and 1,500 armored vehicles of the 4th Infantry Division, the northern front shrank to the 2,000 foot soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, reinforced by just 41 Humvees, 15 M113 armored personnel carriers, five M2 Bradleys, and five M1 tanks, all laboriously delivered by air.
The elite Airborne still managed to fight off much-larger Iraqi forces. But with so few vehicles, troops could not dash south to trap Saddam's loyalists before they retreated into his hometown of Tikrit and formed the first center of the insurgency.
Before a 2005 deployment to Afghanistan, the 82nd Airborne was "begging" to break the few Armored Gun System prototypes out of storage, said MacGregor, the Army critic, who considers the cancellation of the gun system one of the Army's great missed opportunities to fill the light-armored gap. "We've wasted years."
Maybe not so coincidentally, one of the FCS variants, called the "mounted combat" version, has a 120 mm cannon and looks a lot like an updated Armored Gun System vehicle. Described by many as "the replacement for the Abrams tank," the mounted combat FCS vehicle is actually nothing of the kind. It is the resurrection of a light-armored capability that the Army had for decades and then threw away.
What "lightweight" vehicles bring to battle is not just new electronics but also, ironically, more old-fashioned mass -- not to the tank brigades, which hardly need it, but to the light infantry, which desperately does. Bitter experience in Iraq shows that even up-armored Humvees are vulnerable to roadside bombs.
Robert Scales is a retired Army major general and an influential author who has fought for more light-armored vehicles since the mid-1990s, when he started the "Army After Next" war games that gave birth to the FCS. Scales has collected data from Korea, Vietnam, and Falluja showing that "soldiers mounted [in armored vehicles] are 10 times less likely to become casualties than soldiers who are not," he said. But "there's nothing in my data to relate thickness of armor to survivability," he added. Even light armor saves lives.
"Eighty-one percent of all deaths in combat since 1945 have been [among] dismounted infantry," said Scales, who is now a consultant to the FCS program. "Yet the Army's had 23 percent of the defense budget since 1952. That's why we go to war in Humvees."
The Mobility Myth
But armor is only half of the solution to the wars of the 21st century. The other half is speed -- deploying quickly to the war zone, and then maneuvering quickly within it. How to balance the weight of armor with the necessity for speed remains the Army's dilemma.
America is the superpower of the air, just as Britannia once ruled the waves. Still, the U.S. Air Force has its limits. The Army, however, based its Future Combat System on a naive faith in its sister service's ability to transport the equipment to any battlefield. Until this year, Army spokesmen insisted that the FCS vehicles would weigh less than 20 tons, making them light enough to fly in fleets of C-130 transports, land on dirt strips, and roll off ready to fight.
"The problem with that concept is that it was developed by tankers who didn't have a clue," said Robert Killebrew, a retired infantry colonel who worked for Scales in the war games of the 1990s and is now part of his team again. Killebrew, who served with the Special Forces in Vietnam, has commanded ad hoc dirt airstrips set up for C-130s, "and I'll tell you," he said, "you beat them to pieces with that kind of traffic; they cannot be maintained, they're easy targets for artillery and rockets -- and the Air Force doesn't have that many C-130s, anyway."
The United States has 514 C-130s. With each plane carrying one FCS vehicle -- still do-able with the current 26-ton design, if crews unbolt most of the armor, fly it separately, and then bolt it back on, a process the Army says should take less than eight hours -- it would take all 514 to lift a single brigade's 332 FCS armored vehicles and a reasonable amount of supplies.
But even that unlikely scenario wouldn't keep Shinseki's promise to "deploy a brigade anywhere in the world in 96 hours." Most C-130s, fully loaded, have a range of only 1,000 miles, a third of the way across the Atlantic.
The newer, larger C-17s can carry three FCS vehicles, fully armored, around the globe. But even the Air Force's boldest budget requests only 220 C-17s, which means a theoretical maximum carrying capacity of 660 FCS vehicles or, more realistically, one brigade with a few of its hundreds of supply trucks.
The dirty secret is that Scales and company never actually wanted the C-130 for rapid deployment overseas. They knew perfectly well that the plane's range was just too short. They wanted the C-130 to maneuver brigades in 500-mile sprints once they had arrived in the war theater, outflanking ground-bound enemies in an airborne blitzkrieg. Imagine being able to "drop five brigades around Baghdad," Scales told National Journal in 2003. "The war's over in a day."
Faced with the limits of air transport, the Army now talks of airlifting only about one-third of one brigade behind enemy lines: "We could move a battalion through the air in an operationally meaningful way," said Col. Robert Beckinger, the FCS manager for the Training and Doctrine Command.
That's dialing things way down from the war games of the mid-1990s. But it is still many more armored fighting vehicles than the United States ever moved by air before it gave up its last airmobile light armor in 1996.
For all the romance of airborne war, it is when the FCS vehicles reach the ground that they could really speed up operations. Built to burn jet fuel, the M1 Abrams's turbine engine makes the 70-ton tank one of the fastest vehicles ever to fight once it's on the battlefield, but the long journey to that battlefield is painfully slow because of frequent stops for gas.
"Every eight hours, you're going to burn 300 gallons, whether it's moving or not," because the engine also powers the tank's electronics, said Capt. Ray Bolar, an Army tank officer who has served two tours in Iraq. Even compared with six months of fighting in Ramadi in 2005, Bolar said, being a supply officer in the 2003 invasion "was maybe the hardest thing I have ever done."
Driving around the clock, the M1s covered 350 miles in 72 hours, nearly 120 miles a day, twice as fast as Patton's 3rd Army moved in 1944. But the M1s had to pull into improvised refueling stops three times a day.
By Scales's count, unarmored fuel trucks made 30,000 supply runs, averaging 800 miles apiece, through Iraqi territory to keep the big tanks moving. Support units got scrambled in the process. "Some New Mexico National Guard guys somehow got roped in and followed us to Baghdad," Bolar said. "It was, 'You got fuel?'
'You're coming with us.' "
That April, at the moment of U.S victory, commanders nearly withdrew the famously successful quick-strike "thunder runs" of tank columns into downtown Baghdad because of a supply shortage. Instead, they shut down their M1s for two hours while the more fuel-efficient M2 Bradleys stood watch. Meanwhile, in the fiercest fighting of the day, the rear guard escorted unarmored trucks full of volatile fuel and ammunition into the city.
To keep the road into the city open, Maj. Harry (Zan) Hornbuckle, then a captain, held a crucial highway intersection called "Objective Curly" through eight straight hours of fighting. "I didn't have any tanks," he said, and his five Bradleys had no extra armor, just external storage racks for his troops' equipment: "The RPGs would hit the duffel bags and detonate [prematurely]."
All of his vehicles, and all of his men, survived the fight. But when the unarmored supply column drove through, "a couple of fuelers and a couple of ammo trucks got destroyed," Hornbuckle recalled. "That was the only killed-in-action of the day."
Despite desperate retrofitting with armor, the supply convoys remain the most vulnerable part of the U.S. force in Iraq. "Most people don't understand how dependent M1s and Bradleys are on that logistical umbilical cord," Scales said. Heavy armor can smash into cities, he said, "but it can't stay there and control populations."
By contrast, Stryker units routinely kept their much lighter vehicles in downtown Mosul for three days at a time without resupply, said Lt. Col. Gibler. And in the Shiite uprising of 2004, one Stryker battalion drove 300 miles from Mosul to Al Kut in the south -- fighting insurgents along the way -- in 48 hours.
The Army contends that an FCS brigade will need 10 to 30 percent less fuel than today's heavy brigades, 66 percent fewer mechanics, and one-third fewer supply trucks. Defense programs from fighter jets to warships have promised, and failed, to deliver such efficiencies before -- although the goal is more realistic this time because "you couldn't design a less fuel-efficient engine than the M1's," Killebrew said.
The FCS prototype chassis now being completed is the first U.S. military vehicle with a hybrid-electric drive. That means not only better mileage on the go but also enough batteries to run electronics with the engine off, and even a lighter transmission.
All of the mundane machinery of the FCS benefits from 30 years of refinement since the M1 and the M2 were designed in the late 1970s, said Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright, the FCS program manager. Compact electric motors replace bulky hydraulic and mechanical systems. High-strength rubber tracks replace traditional steel tracks, allowing for a lighter suspension and saving almost two tons of weight.
The 120 mm cannon uses the same ammunition as current versions but weighs about a ton less and has recoil systems that enable a 26-ton vehicle to withstand the shock. Unlike today's mix of M1s, M2s, M109s, and M113s, Cartwright added, "every one of these manned ground [FCS] vehicles has the same engine, a common computer, a common chassis." And the FCS vehicles simply have less mass to move and maintain.
The Replacement Myth
In 1999, Gen. Shinseki proposed replacing the entire Army armored infrastructure with a uniform force of Future Combat System vehicles. Skeptical Capitol Hill staffers joked about a "big-bang theory" of modernization.
But the money never matched the ambition. As early as 2000, Army officials and documents acknowledged that it would take decades to replace the last M1s and M2s. Today, the Army's budget plans call for equipping just 15 of its 42 active-duty brigades with FCS vehicles, with the first brigade fully fielded by 2016 and the last by 2020. Larger tanks will remain in service through at least 2035, said Rickey Smith, an Army "capabilities integration" expert.
And the service will equip many M1s and Bradleys with FCS electronics. An all-FCS force, Smith said, is something "the nation can't afford and wouldn't want."
Even ardent FCS advocate Scales emphasizes using combined arms -- all kinds of light and heavy forces -- rather than relying on a single silver bullet to fight any war. "You don't just dump a bunch of [FCS] vehicles in the midst of the enemy," he said.
Scales's war-fighting scheme has Special Forces scouting the ground first, then airborne Rangers seizing the landing strips, then C-17s carrying FCS raiding parties behind enemy lines -- acting as the winged hammer to an overland anvil of both FCS and heavy brigades, with M1s on hand to crack the toughest nuts.
Modern armies always mix battle-tested and cutting-edge weapons, said Bruce Gudmundsson, a retired Marine major and the author of the definitive trilogy On Armor, On Infantry, and On Artillery.
"FCS aficionados feel compelled to compete directly with the M1," he said, but the two systems are very different -- and complementary. "Adding networked, [light-] armored vehicles armed with precision-guided missiles to our armored forces is a good idea," Gudmundsson said. "Replacing traditional armored vehicles with them is not."
War remains a brutal business. As long as the physics of breaking human bodies stay the same, the sheer weight of metal will have its uses, just as does the finesse provided by training, tactics, and intelligence. For all of the Army's emphasis on information technology, the future force will need mass as well.
"It won't be perfect in any environment," Killebrew said of the FCS. But it will be more adaptable across all environments, a "nice balance" between the foot sloggers of the light infantry and the fuel hoggers of the heavy armor. And, he added, the unpleasant surprises of the last five years are proof that "the Army has got to have more balance than ever, because we don't know how future wars are going to be fought."