July 21, 2009:
The U.S. Army is having a really hard time figuring out what it's next tank will be like, and that's turned into a major problem. Recently, the Department of Defense forced the army to cancel its $150 billion FCS (Future Combat System) because it was too expensive, too vague and not very convincing. FCS included a replacement for all current armored vehicles. Now the army is pleading for a chunk of the lost FCS billions so that it can get to work on replacements for M-1 tank and the M-2 (IFV) Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The big problem is that the army really doesn't have a design for either of these replacement vehicles. The even bigger problem is that armored vehicle design has hit something of a plateau. There's really no exciting new, game-changing, concepts to justify a new tank or IFV.
Step back a moment and consider the brief history of armored fighting vehicles. These beasts are only about a century old (if you count armored cars, the tank didn't show up until 94 years ago.) The first tanks were crude, but in the 1920s and 30s, much progress was made. By the time World War II broke out in 1939, you would recognize the tanks. They had the same shape and function as today's tanks. All that's happened in the last 70 years is that tanks have gotten twice as heavy, and main gun caliber has gone from 50mm or 75mm, to 120mm or 125mm. Tanks got faster, and acquired computerized fire control, laser rangefinders and thermal imagers (to see through dust, smoke or darkness). As was the case during World War II, some armies had better tanks, while their opponents often simply had more. During World War II, and since, it's been learned that crew quality is crucial. The side with the better crews usually wins, even if they don't have the most powerful tanks.
Right now, the United States has one of the best tanks (the M-1) and the most combat experienced and well trained crews. How do you improve on that? As the army discovered with FCS, it's not easy. In fact, so far, it's been impossible. But he army is asking for five months to come up with an acceptable plan (and vehicle designs). The Secretary of Defense is inclined to let them try, but the army is facing long odds here. If you believe in miracles, the army has a shot. If you can perform miracles, the army needs you right away.
Otherwise, the army will continue refurbishing, and using, its 16,000 M-1s, M-2s and other armored combat vehicles. The 12,000 recently acquired MRAPs are armored vehicles, but not combat vehicles. The Department of Defense spent over $20 billion on MRAPs, to deal with a weapon (roadside bombs) that doesn't win wars, but does make it dangerous for American troops to drive around hostile neighborhoods. The MRAPs are only three percent of the army's vehicle fleet, and are likely to be given away or scrapped before they die of old age. The army doesn't want to use its M-1s and M-2s until they expire of old age, but unless there's a breakthrough in armored vehicle design, the M-1 is destined to become the B-52 of armored vehicles. It's hard to improve on, if not perfection, then very adequate.