Here's What You Need To Remember: The "Big Five" military systems are iconic today. But each had to overcome significant bureaucratic challenges before entering military use. What would the U.S. Army look like today without them?
In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Army embarked on a series of procurement programs designed to revitalize the force, and to counter the overwhelming numerical advantage of the Warsaw Pact. The “Big Five” represented a collection of procurement programs designed to re-establish the technological supremacy of U.S. land forces, and reinvigorate conventional capabilities in the wake of the Vietnam War. These systems, including the M1A1 Abrams main battle tank, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Patriot air-defense system, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopter, continue to provide the foundation of U.S. military landpower.
Yet all of these systems came under criticism at the time, and each program needed to surmount obstacles on its way to serviceability. What if some or all of these programs had failed?
Most of the concepts behind the Big Five systems were born in the 1960s, under the understanding that the Army would need to replace the second generation of post–World War II equipment. However, the Vietnam War distracted the attention of the Army and diverted funding from procurement into operations, slowing the pace of modernization. In many cases this was fortunate, as some of the early ancestors of the Big Five were rejected and restructured due to the lack of mature technologies.
Still, as the Vietnam War wore to a close in the early 1970s, the need for a new generation of equipment became more pressing. The Army wanted a new main battle tank (MBT) to replace the M-60; a new armored personnel carrier (APC) to complement and replace the M113; a new air defense missile system; a new attack helicopter to replace the Cobra; and a new utility helicopter to replace the UH-1 Huey. In all area technology had moved substantially forward from the late-1950s status quo, but especially with regard to the last three. With respect to the new MBT and APC, doctrinal turmoil in the Army had begun to point to the need for greater mobility, both on the offense and the defense.
The Big Five are now normally associated with the Second Offset, a body of thinking that emerged from the Office of Net Assessment (as well as other places) and that posited that the United States needed to leverage its technological advantages over the Soviet Union in order to have a plausible chance of defeating the Red Army in battle. Technological superiority, in this framework, could “offset” the Warsaw Pact’s superior numbers. Second Offset thinking really came of age in the period after the Yom Kippur War, which demonstrated the lethality of precision-guided munitions on the modern battlefield.
But the Second Offset was pursued with less coherence at the time than appears the case in hindsight. Many of the Army’s technological systems had begun to lag, in part because of the lack of capital investment during the Vietnam War. Consequently, the origins of each of these programs lay before the Yom Kippur War. It is only in retrospect that the Big Five look like a coherent effort at full-force modernization. Moreover, technology shifted considerably across the period of program development. In the case of some systems, such as the Apache, core technologies did not reach maturity until the 1970s.
All of the Big Five faced rocky roads to serviceability. Three of the five programs (M1A1, Apache, and Bradley were built upon massive program failures, and the fate of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle was in doubt until the mid-1980s. An alternative to the M1A1 was the MBT-70 project, a more linear development of the M-60 tank, and even after the construction of a prototype the Abrams was forced into competition with the German Leopard II. The AH-64 Apache emerged after the failure of the AH-56 Cheyenne, a failure caused both by technological over-reaching and inter-service conflict. The Bradley went through a bewildering array of evolutions, and still had to compete with the reliable, already-in-service M113 armored personnel carrier. The Patriot missile system ran afoul of inter-service prioritization, with some arguing that its long-range air defense mission properly belonged in the Air Force. Even the Black Hawk, which had the smoothest path to service, suffered from concerns about cost overruns.
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While it is difficult to imagine the Army not acquiring the Black Hawk in large numbers, each of the other four programs could easily have resulted in a much different system. Had the MBT-70 program succeeded, the Army would have had a tank earlier, but substantially less capable, than the M1A1, which would have made later upgrades correspondingly more difficult. If the Bradley hadn’t survived doubts over its cost and mission in the 1980s, the Army would have had to press previous vehicles into longer service, as well as develop a new program in the cash-starved 1990s. The Cheyenne helicopter suffered from so many problems that, if purchased in numbers, it might well have turned the Army and the Department of Defense away from heavy investment in the close attack mission. Air Force or even Navy (some variant of Aegis) systems might have taken away the mission set of the Patriot missile.
The Big Five became part of the Army’s long-range planning even before the advent of the doctrinal tumult of the late 1970s. While the Big Five platforms are often associated with the kind of maneuver warfare exemplified by AirLand Battle, in fact they were also compatible with Active Defense, the more positional doctrine adopted by the Army in 1976. These systems undoubtedly did enhance the mobility and lethality of the Army, but the manner in which the Army would utilize that combination remained up in the air until the systems became more mature. As it happened, the systems (especially the combination of the Bradley and the Abrams) provided a perfect fit for how the Army wanted to fight on the central front in the 1980s.
But of course, none of the “Big Five” saw combat against the Red Army or its Warsaw Pact allies. The collapse of the Soviet Union made the central front irrelevant. But they were certainly consequential in the Gulf War. The combination of mobility and power offered by the Bradley and the M1A1 may not have “won” the war, especially after airpower had badly attrited Iraqi forces. A previous generation of U.S. equipment, updated with modern sensor and communications equipment, would still have inflicted decisive defeat on the Iraqis. However, the Iraqis likely would have inflicted much higher casualties against advancing U.S. forces. It’s an open question how the United States would have thought about the legacy of the Gulf War if its casualty rates had been substantially higher during the conflict.
The “Big Five” remain the core of U.S. ground forces today. Indeed, they have all served in capacities that go well beyond the intentions of their designers. None, at this point, have definite schedules for retirement. Taken together, they represent a remarkable, if complicated, story of success. Failure of any of the Big Five would have affected U.S. land operations in both Gulf Wars in unpredictable ways, and potentially to the effect of significantly higher casualties. The drawing out of the procurement process into the post-Cold War period, where cash for major ground combat systems had grown more scarce, would also potentially have had ripple effects across the entire force.
Robert Farley is a frequent contributor to the National Interest. He is a visiting professor at the United States Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. This article first appeared in 2018.