What current operations tell us about the Army procurement system
A friend passed
along a story from Inside the Army
that ran in yesterday's Early Bird about a push in the Army's airborne community to restart the procurement process for the "Armored Gun System". The push comes as the result of a need, perceived by officers on the ground in Iraq, to have mobile, light, air-droppable firepower that can quickly turn any firefight with Iraqi insurgents into an unfair one. The officers in the 82nd Airborne also want a mobile gun system they can deploy with if they're called to do a "forced entry" operation -- an airdrop into hostile territory.
... [T]he division recently passed along an "operational needs statement" to Army Forces Command that outlines the unfulfilled requirement, said Maj. Rich Patterson, a spokesman for the 18th Airborne Corps, which oversees the division. The Army's operations and plans office, or "G-3," is reviewing the requirement with Training and Doctrine Command, but no decision has been reached, Patterson said.Analysis
* * *
The requirement for an air-droppable platform has existed at least since the late 1990s, when the division disbanded one of its battalions -- the 3rd Battalion of the 73rd Armored Regiment, which was equipped with an aging armored reconnaissance vehicle called the Sheridan. At the time, service officials thought other capabilities would become available to the paratroopers once the M551 Sheridan retired.
When the division deactivated the armored battalion in 1997, however, Army officials had already terminated AGS, which had been regarded as the Sheridan's replacement. Proposed in the 1980s as a lightweight combat vehicle that could fit aboard a C-130, AGS featured a 105 mm cannon, an ammunition autoloader and options for armor protection. United Defense LP had produced a handful of prototypes of the vehicle in 1996, when then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer terminated the program. Eliminating AGS freed more than $1 billion over the service's outyear funding plan -- money that was badly needed for other cash-strapped programs, officials said at the time.
What was not eliminated was the need to equip light forces with an air-droppable platform that had enough firepower to hold off opposing forces until heavier forces arrived, sources said.
: Ironically, the Army is building a new variant of the Stryker light armored vehicle
that has a 105mm cannon and could serve as the 82nd Airborne's direct-fire weapon of choice. I'm not sure if it's air-droppable or not, but it is C-130 capable, so presumably it could be brought in quickly once paratroopers secure an initial airhead. The first M1128 Strykers with 105mm cannon are slated to roll off the line in April 2005. Presumably, this program could be enlarged to accomodate an additional purchase for the armor needs of the 82nd Airborne and the rest of XVIII Airborne Corps.
However, what this episode highlights is a basic truth about the Army procurement system: that the battle labs and field tests of Army equipment until now have been woefully inadequate when compared to the crucible of combat. I'm not surprised for one minute that programs like AGS are getting a second look now. Some of this owes to the actual experience of combat, where the enemy gets a vote and you get to pay for your mistakes in blood. Some of this dynamic is also political. Army officers now have the political capital from experience in Iraq to use in their arguments for weapons system, instead of arguments about how well something did in testing, or at the National Training Center. Although the 11th ACR
and 1/509th Inf
are far superior to any
Iraqi force, they're not the same in political terms. (See this note
for more along these lines) And when it comes to procurement programs, everything is political because everything has to ultimately be funded by Congress.
In my lane, I've seen a lot of indicators recently that tell me the Army's force structure was broken -- specifically its allocation of personnel and equipment to combat support (CS) and combat service support (CSS) units. From the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company to daily reports of life on Iraqi MSRs, it has been made abundantly clear that CS/CSS units lack the right vehicles, personnel and equipment to do their jobs.
This is not to say that they should be refit to fight as infantrymen, or that we should use such units to conduct dismounted patrols as their primary mission. They shouldn't -- the Army needs these units to do their primary CS/CSS missions, e.g. setting up commo nodes, healing soldiers, and doing maintenance. But these units absolutely have to be able to protect themselves while they do it, and there are no more "rear areas" in which they can do these jobs in relative safety.
A couple of illustrative areas where the Army has to change its force -- specifically personnel, force structure and equipment -- to get the job done:
. The Army equips its CS/CSS units with soft-skinned HMMWVs and trucks, as well as the command echelons of its combat units. These vehicles are woefully inadequate for a theater where the "Improvised Explosive Device" is the primary threat. Consequently, units in Iraq now are bolting on after-market mod kits
to armor their HMMWVs, putting sandbags on the floor of their vehicles, and taking lots of other steps to harden these soft vehicles against the IED threat. On top of that, the Army is buying a lot of new vehicles
and armored HMMWVs
to meet the threat. Wouldn't it make sense to procure vehicles that are suitable for dealing with a non-permissive, combat environment? The current fielding of vehicles is predicated on the assumption that CS/CSS units will work in a "rear area" where there is not a significant direct-fire threat. Daily events in Iraq show that's not going to always be the case, and if you buy into asymmetric warfare/4GW theory, it may never be the case again if our enemies always choose this mode of warfare to fight us. The Army must harden its CS/CSS units' vehicles to work in an environment where there are no more rear areas. Update
: Also check out this Slate essay
which makes roughly the same point about armored HMMWVs and the Army's failure to procure them in sufficient numbers for Iraq.
- Crew-served weapons
. Currently, most CS/CSS units have only a few crew-served weapons, such as the M240B
7.62mm machine gun or the M2
.50 caliber machine gun. These are generally allocated on the basis of what it will take to secure a base cluster. However, they are not allocated on the basis of what it will take to secure these units as they do their job, or as they move in a convoy. The result is that most CS/CSS units don't have a crew-served weapon to use for these missions, and they either have to be given one ad hoc or have an external security element (i.e. MPs and infantry) attached to them for security. (Note: ad hoc fielding of weapons often doesn't work well because the soldiers in the unit don't get the chance to train with the weapons before deployment and incorporate them into battle drills.) This is a drain on manpower, and it would be far more efficient for the CS/CSS units to secure themselves.
- Individual weapons and equipment
. Some soldiers in Iraq are equipped to conduct patrols, checkpoints, and other missions in the Iraqi operational environment. These include infantry units and MP units, in which the squad or team-sized unit has a good mix of individual weaponry, night vision goggles, GPS equipment, body armor, etc. to do its job. Unfortunately, these items are not allocated on the same basis to CS/CSS units. Indeed, they're sometimes not allocated at all to CSS units. For example, an MP team has 2 M4
rifles, 1 M249
machine gun, 1 (sometimes 2) M203
grenade launcher(s), a GPS device, and 2 PVS-7
or PVS 14
night vision goggles per 3-man team. A comparable small unit in the CS/CSS community, such as a signal retrans team or a section of ambulances, probably only has its M4/M16 rifles. It probably doesn't have extra firepower, and the basis of issue for other items like NVGs and GPS varies widely. Typically, such items are allocated to platoons or companies, but not to the lower-level elements that actually need them. The result is that such units cannot defend themselves adequately while doing their CS/CSS mission. Not having NVGs and GPS also constrains them, forcing them to work with units that do have them, or curtail their operations significantly. But the real problem is the inability of these units to secure themselves with the equipment on their MTOE, whether they're running a convoy or manning a checkpoint or setting up a health clinic.
The list goes on, and includes such things as communications equipment and extra vehicles for MEDEVAC. But the basic point remains the same. The Army's procurement system has bought a lot of stuff over the last few decades that is now being used in Iraq. Most of it (like the Interceptor Body Armor) works very well. Some of this stuff (like soft-skinned vehicles) needs to be refitted in order to fight in the Iraqi operational environment. Other items, like the Armored Gun System, may merit a second look. Ultimately, what's needed is a bottom-up, holistic review of the Army's force structure to see what the lessons learned in Iraq mean for the way the Army builds and equips its units.