It seems simple enough: Being there requires getting there. Since the United States first engaged military adversaries overseas, getting to the combat theater has been and continues to be a transportation challenge. As effective firepower becomes heavier and more capable, the challenge grows. The U.S. Army is wrestling with this very problem as it makes another run at acquiring an armored fighting vehicle to replace the M2 Bradley to carry its infantry soldiers into combat.
Roughly a year ago, the Army went out to industry with its first official Request for Proposals (RFP)to acquire an Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, or OMFV. One of the critical characteristics of the vehicle was that it had to be air-transportable, allowing two OMFVs to fit the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III outsize transport jet. At the same time, the original RFP required that the OMFV be armored well enough to be survivable in a combat environment.
To be able to meet both criteria, the Army elected to have the heavy armor for protection as an add-on kit to reduce the weight so that two OMFVs could fit on a C-17. Soldiers would attach the armor once the OMFV was delivered to the battlefield.
Despite early optimism that industry could meet the required RFP specifications, of the three bidders – BAE Systems, General Dynamics, and Raytheon-Rheinmetall – only General Dynamics met both the air transportability and survivability requirements. The company failed, however, to meet other requirements and was disqualified. Consequently, the Army canceled the RFP this January and went back to the drawing board.
To give the OMFV program new life, the Army published the Industry Day Narrative for Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, a 14-page document derived from one-on-one conversations with industry and a market survey. The most significant difference between the previous RFP and the current Narrative is that survivability (being well-armored) is the number one priority, with air transportability listed at number seven after mobility, growth, lethality weight, and logistics.
The Narrative goes on to describe the Army’s desire to field an infantry fighting vehicle that will “maneuver through the enemy’s disruption zone and deliver Soldiers to their dismount point unharmed.” Though a worthy objective, “unharmed” doesn’t seem realistic. One of the questions posed by industry regarding the desired OMFV characteristics and the Army’s answer went to the heart of the air-transportability issue. “Question 17: How often does the Army envision this vehicle being deployed by air (percentage of mission profile)? If deployed by air, is the C-17 the air transport vehicle? Answer 17: The Army anticipates that the Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCT) will continue to deploy primarily via water and rail but must maintain the ability to transport via air an option for commanders. The C-5 and C-17 will be the primary aircraft used to transport the OMFV.”
But when speed is a factor, air transport is the only option.
The characteristics desired in the OMFV and the operational expectations are reminiscent of “Cold War” thinking, harkening back to a time when U.S. ground forces were to rely on prepositioning of heavy armor, tanks, and infantry fighting vehicles in Europe and on Marine ships stationed at sea. The hope was that the equipment in Europe would be ready to engage the Soviet Union coming through the Fulda Gap. However, when the U.S. got involved in the Middle East, equipment was carried by air from Europe and the United States to the fight, where it was immediately available to ground forces. Between ten and 22 days later, the first ships started arriving. If the contingency were in the Pacific, getting to the fight would be even more demanding.
Once the air bridge begins, if transporting two OMFVs in a C-17 is not a priority, then the Army must plan on each plane only carrying one. Since the C-17, with its outsize cargo capacity and short-field landing capability, is able of delivering an OMFV closer to where the vehicle will be used, wouldn’t this capability make air-transportability a higher priority – especially since the C-17 can land on shorter runways than the C-5? Additionally, in the case of cargo throughput, big is not always better. At the cargo offload airports, ramp space is always limited. The maximum number of aircraft on the ground or MOG becomes the limiting condition In a given ramp space, the ratio of space for C-17s to C-5s historically has been five to three. With an offload time considerably shorter than that of the C-5, the C-17 can deliver its cargo of OMFVs more quickly and achieve greater throughput.
There are always tradeoffs in developing weapon systems. Survivability is a critical characteristic and should be number one as a priority. However, if time is crucial in engaging an adversary, then air-transportability is critical in getting the OMFV firepower to the fight. Put technology to work in developing lightweight, protective armor so air-transportability can be a higher priority. Otherwise, the OMFV will be survivable – but late to the battlefield.
(The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.)
Read more from Dave Patterson.
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