Key point: The Bradley would need more armor and a bigger gun to fight tanks. But is that worth the cost and increased weight?
The M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle is nominally used to carry infantry into battle, but is frequently misidentified by journalists as a tank. This is understandable, as the tracked vehicle currently tips the scales at thirty-three tons from all the add-on armor it has received, and bristles with both a twenty-five-millimeter Bushmaster automatic cannon and a TOW antitank missile launcher.
Oddly, critics of the vehicle have sometimes complained that the Bradley’s sheer firepower often makes the infantrymen it carries onboard an afterthought. In theory, the onboard mechanized infantry squads are supposed to dismount in denser terrain to scout out enemy positions and ambushers, maintain defensive perimeters, and flush adversaries out of buildings and other built-up areas that the Bradley can’t reach.
However, a notable limitation of the M2 as a troop transport is that it can carry just seven dismounts—in earlier models, just six—while a mechanized infantry squad currently has nine men. Each mechanized infantry platoon therefore has to divide three squads between four Bradleys, meaning that all the members of squad are not able to ride in the same vehicle.
The Army is halfway through a two-stage update process for its roughly 1,800 remaining M2 and M3 Bradleys, to restore automotive power to the chassis and upgrade its computer systems to be more accommodating of to future improvements. In January 2018, it emerged that an even more ambitious M2A5 upgrade is being planned for the mid-2020s, which might stretch out the hull to carry more armor and personnel and install a more powerful thirty-millimeter cannon turret.
That’s right: the Army’s biggest and baddest troop carrier might get even bigger.
The M2A4 Automotive Tune-Up
The U.S. Army’s Bradleys have likely seen even more use in combat than the more famous M1 Abrams main battle tank. In swirling mechanized battles in the open deserts of Iraq in the 1990–91 Gulf War, the Bradley reputedly destroyed even more armored vehicles than Abrams.
Only three Bradleys were destroyed by enemy fire in that conflict, though considerably more were lost to friendly fire. However, more than a decade later, the Bradley suffered dozens of losses in the United States’ prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, despite efforts to bulk out the vehicle’s protection with bricks of explosive reactive armor and additional armor plates. The Bradley was simply not designed with protection from mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as a priority, and sometimes sustained more damage from them than more lightly armored Stryker wheeled APCs.
While measures to beef up the armor and improve sensors have been partially effective, the extra weight has taxed the vehicle’s engine and electrical systems to the limit and degraded mobility. Starting in 2012, the Bradley began undergoing an upgrade to a new M2A4 standard, which is being implemented in two “Engineering Change Proposals.”
ECP1 is nearly complete, and involves restoring the Bradley to its original automotive performance by installing heavyweight torsion bars and track upgrades, improved suspension and new shock absorbers. This will reduce wear, improve reliability and raise the ground clearance—which would also improve survivability versus IEDs.
The second ECP is intended to revamp the vehicle’s electrical systems and power train to accommodate higher power-consumption demands imposed by new vehicle systems and install smart power-management software. Originally slated to begin in 2018, a new report explains that there have been delays to EP2 due to reliability problems and software bugs; the upgraded Bradleys are experiencing system breakdowns every 281 miles on average, instead of the desired four hundred, due to power-pack failures and problems with the transmission oil cooler. Nonetheless, implementation of EP2 is expected to begin soon, especially after new software comes out in February.
The Bradley upgrades also pertain to the very similar M3 Cavalry Fighting Vehicle, which is used by armored reconnaissance units, and the M7 FIST artillery direction vehicle. Once complete, they M2A4 model will exhibit higher performance and be ready to take on even more weight for a more ambitious upgrade to a conceptual M2A5 model.
The M2A5: Bigger Hull, New Turret or Both?
In 2017, Bradley program director Chris Conley stated in an interview that the M2A5 would involve a third-generation forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, a laser pointer and color external cameras to allow the Bradley to more easily detect and engage enemies at long range. These components would be designed for cross-compatibility with concurrent upgrades to the Abrams main battle tank.
Late in January, Shephard Media journalist Grant Turnbull published a tweet with an image describing more extensive upgrades to the Bradley turret and hull, which are separately expected to take between four and five years to develop. The U.S. Army has allocated $600 million for development and component purchases for the new model, a sum likely to increase once a new defense budget is released. It is not clear if the Pentagon will seek to implement only one of the improvements or pursue both at once.
The hull upgrade would apparently stretch the Bradley’s hull out further so that it can accommodate additional armor, a new transmission and carry an eighth dismount—leaving it just one soldier short of a full nine-man squad. Weight would increase to under “40 tons”—which could still amount to an increase of over 20 percent! Supposedly this new configuration could afford onboard infantry “two to five times more protection.”
Improved defensive systems might include an Active Protection System, which can shoot down incoming missiles and rocket propelled grenades. While the Army recently began installing the shotgun-like Trophy APS on a brigade of Abrams tanks, it is testing a different Israeli system called the Iron Fist on the Bradley, which supposedly may pose less risk of harming friendly troops.
The proposed upgrade to the turret improves firepower by replacing the twenty-five-millimeter chain gun with a thirty-millimeter XM813 Bushmaster II autocannon—the same weapon currently being installed on Stryker wheeled infantry carriers. This might not seem like a major improvement, but the thirty-millimeter shells weigh twice as much as the twenty-five-millimeter shells, meaning they have greater blast effect and can penetrate more armor.
According to one analysis, this would extend the gun’s effective range to nearly two miles and improve armor penetration to 30 percent. This would make the Bradley more effective at hunting down opposing IFVs, which are quite prolific in modern battlefields from Syria and Iraq to Ukraine, and are being designed with more robust armor and upgraded armaments. Furthermore, the new gun can use programmable air-bursting ammunition, which can strike targets hiding behind cover or swat drones and helicopters from the sky.
The bigger shells would have the downside of reducing ammunition from three hundred to just 180 rounds. However, though the Bushmaster II has the same maximum two-hundred-round-per-minute rate of fire, it is claimed to be more accurate; combined with the greater power of each rounds, it claimed to require fewer shells to achieve the same effect.
The new turret would also sport major improvements to both the commander’s and gunner’s sights, ethernet to network the two together, and improved laser rangefinders and navigation systems. The tweet also lists a “5.56-millimeter suppressor weapon,” which may be some form of remote-controlled machine gun for protection from attacking infantry.
Of course, the downside to giving the Bradley a bigger hull and gun is that the heavier vehicle will become more difficult and expensive to deploy across the globe. However, the Army wants its Bradleys to be more survivable both when faced by the rocket-propelled grenade and IED threat encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to new guided antitank missiles and enemy IFVs that would appear in a high-intensity conflict against a near-peer adversary. Now that even the lighter-wheeled Stryker APCs are receiving new cannons and missiles, the Army clearly wants the Bradley to remain survivable and deadly in the toughest combat environments—even if that makes a bit more challenging to transport it to the battlefield in the first place.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in February 2018.