The U.S. Army will build new combat vehicles better suited for fighting insurgents in places like Afghanistan, equipment that would replace a fleet likely to be stripped from the service's massive modernization program under the Pentagon's 2010 budget plan.
The Army hopes to field the new equipment within seven years, and could begin the process of awarding a new contract this fall, Army Secretary Peter Geren and Gen. George Casey, the service's chief of staff, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Tuesday.
The equipment will replace the roughly $87 billion worth of manned vehicles that Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to remove from the Army's Future Combat Systems program. That includes armored personnel carriers, reconnaissance vehicles, and a giant mobile cannon.
Future Combat Systems plans to combine heavy firepower with high-tech gadgetry, like unmanned sensors that would help soldiers fight more effectively. The roughly $160 billion program has been criticized for using unproven technology, though the Army says some of the equipment is already in use and working well. The program is overseen by Boeing Co. and SAIC Inc., but includes work by most of the nation's biggest contractors. Much of the vehicle work is done by General Dynamics Corp. and BAE Systems.
Gates wants to focus defense spending on equipment toward current and future combat, which will likely include fights against insurgencies in places like Afghanistan rather than the more conventional wars the military has long planned for.
Gates has said a major reason he decided to cancel the Future Combat Systems vehicles is because they didn't adequately protect against the road side bombs that are popular with insurgent fighters.
Casey said the new vehicle would include "lessons learned from the current fight." He and Geren did not have a cost estimate for the new equipment.
The Army's $142 billion base budget proposal is $2 billion more than the prior year, but most of the increase comes from the higher costs of fielding a larger force. The Army was able to increase the size of its active duty force to 547,000 this year, a year ahead of schedule, significantly raising personnel costs like pay, benefits and housing.
Spending on weapons would drop, a shift that reflects the Pentagon's new focus on unconventional combat. The Army wants more money for helicopters that can be used in the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, while spending on heavy equipment like Abrams tanks and Stryker armored personnel carriers would fall.
"The Army must rethink its modernization approach," said Daniel Inouye, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "Procurement dollars will be tighter as the Army faces high personnel costs."