The Buzz

This Is Everything the U.S. Army Wants for the Wars of the Future

In 2014, having withdrawn from Iraq and looking to end its official combat mission in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army started to assess the impact of more than a decade of almost exclusively fighting insurgents and terrorists. In that time, it had trained its troops primarily for that mission and bought gear specifically for those nebulous conflicts.

But the world seemed to be getting more complicated and troops would need new weapons and gear to help deal with these threats. So, the ground combat branch went on a modernization blitz.

In December 2016, the Army released a “top 10” list of its modernization efforts. The programs ranged from vehicles to aircraft to individual weapons and medical equipment.

In March 2014, Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. Moscow then began to supply tank and artillery support to insurgents fighting the government in Kiev, reigniting concerns about a potential conventional ground conflict in Europe between traditionally armed opponents.

Shortly thereafter, Islamic State spilled over from Syria into Iraq, kicking off a regional crisis. The group’s dramatic rise promised years of new, if limited fighting against terrorists in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Suddenly the Army found itself searching for tools to deal with what dubbed a “hybrid” of high- and low-tech foes. The enemy was often “elusive and ambiguous,” U.S. Army Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the service’s Vice Chief of Staff, said on Oct. 27, 2016.

Legislators and experts routinely criticized the service for focusing too much on militants and terrorists. By 2017, it was true that the Army’s tanks, helicopters, mobile howitzers and rocket launchers and many other major systems were simply improved versions of decades old designs.

To be fair, the Army had been working steadily on improving its equipment since the end of the Cold War. However, it had suffered a number of high-profile setbacks in the process.

Between 1991 and 2010, the Pentagon had ultimately canceled the advanced Future Combat Systems armored vehicles, the deadly Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the futuristic RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter despite millions of dollars in existing investments. Congress-approved automatic budget cuts — a process known as sequestration — did not help matters.

But none of that meant America’s ground combat branch was standing still.

New Vehicles, Large and Small:

By 2016, the Army had endured nearly 30 years full of failed attempts to improve to its vehicle fleets — particularly the M-1 Abrams tank and M-2 and M-3 Bradley fighting vehicles. The biggest success story was the service’s purchase of the controversial Stryker wheeled armored vehicle.

In 2009, the Pentagon canned the ambitious Future Combat Systems program. At least on paper, that project promised the Army a whole suite of new tanks, armored personnel carriers and mobile artillery pieces.

In addition, wheeled drones would work with troops on foot. Attempts to salvage the infantry fighting vehicle portion to replace the aging Bradleys ran into still more difficulties.

So it was important for the service to close out 2016 making progress on a simpler project to finally replace hundreds of Cold War-era M-113 armored personnel carriers. The new Armored Multipurpose Vehicle — aka AMPV — held the potential to become a stepping stone to replacing other vehicles, including the M-2 and M-3.

In December 2016, defense contractor BAE Systems delivered the first prototype AMPV — effectively a version of the Bradley without a the gun- and missile-armed turret. Two months earlier, the Army had still not decided whether this particular type would be the basis for all of the variants it had in mind, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.

Separately, the Army was working with General Dynamics and Kongsberg Defense Systems to give the lighter Stryker more firepower. The infantry versions of the eight-wheeled armored vehicles could carry only one .50 caliber machine gun or a 40-millimeter automatic grenade launcher.

Together, the American and Norwegian firms created the new Stryker Dragoon, featuring a fully-enclosed turret on top with a hard-hitting 30-millimeter cannon. Army commanders in Europe had specifically asked for the improved armament to counter potential Russian threats.

“The Russians, it turns out, had upgraded and fielded significant capabilities while we were engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Allyn said at a General Dynamics’ facility in Michigan as the company debuted the new vehicle in October 2016. This presented an “unacceptable risk” for American troops.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Army was making progress on replacing the iconic Humvee light vehicles with a new, better protected truck called the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, or JLTV. In March 2016, after nearly a decade of tests, trials and contract protests, the ground combat branch placed the first actual order for the vehicles.