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The Army decided to replace Bradley Fighting Vehicles 17 years and $22b ago. They still don't have a prototype.

This convoluted road to nowhere stems from the Pentagon shifting the goal posts, having unrealistic expectations and refusing to accept what industry offers.
Image: U.S. Army Bradley Fighting Vehicles at sunset in Iraq in 2003.
U.S. Army Bradley Fighting Vehicles at sunset in Iraq in 2003.Scott Nelson / Getty Images file

Last Friday, the U.S. Army kicked off a competition to design a successor for the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a 33-ton tank-like workhorse used to carry troops into battle and provide fire support with its rapid-fire cannon and anti-tank missiles.

While it’s sadly typical for the military to feature cost overruns and flawed requirements, what makes the procurement process for the Bradley so outstanding is that it’s been riddled with financial waste and poor stewardship before the project has even started.

Soldiers are now relying on 40-year-old armored vehicles that haven’t been fully upgraded since the decision was made to start from scratch with a replacement.

The Army has been promising a replacement for its thousands of Bradleys since 2003. Already upwards of $22.9 billion is calculated to have been blown on calls for and rejections of previous submissions. The competition announced last week is the fourth, and there are few signs that whatever doomed earlier rounds has been overcome now; the third one was axed mere weeks ago.

Worst of all, soldiers are now relying on 40-year-old armored vehicles that haven’t been fully upgraded since the decision was made to start from scratch with a replacement, leaving them in the lurch while the Army hopes that the fourth time’s the charm.

An examination of this expensive, convoluted road to nowhere reveals that the root causes are the Pentagon’s shifting goal posts, a lack of realistic expectations about what can be technologically achieved, and an apparent unwillingness to accept the solutions offered by the arms industry.

The M2 and M3 Bradley entered service in the 1980s and have featured prominently in the nation’s campaigns in Iraq. The Bradley’s own development was so convoluted and expensive that it became the subject of the comedy film “The Pentagon Wars.” However, the vehicle proved effective in the 1991 Gulf War.

But a few flaws have troubled the Bradley over time: It’s heavier than similar vehicles in other armies due to the armor that’s been added over the years to protect the troops it carries, which in turn has left its engine and electrical systems underpowered. It doesn’t have room for a full nine-person squad, and its floor wasn’t designed to protect against improvised explosive devices and mines.

In 2003, the Army launched a sweeping replacement program called Future Combat Systems, which sought to replace many vehicles, including the Bradley, using a common chassis and computer network to share sensors and communications. Supposedly, speed and sensors would compensate for diminished armor protection in the vehicles.

But it turned out that approach didn’t work, as the warfare in Iraq led the Army to realize that its vehicles needed more protection against rocket-propelled grenades and IEDs. The idea that technology could prevent vehicles from ever being ambushed was proving naïve. Moreover, the Army bit off more than it could chew by trying to develop a common hull for more than a dozen vehicles designed to perform very different missions!

After devouring $21.4 billion, the Future Combat System initiative was canceled in 2009 and a second venture launched instead: the Ground Combat Vehicle program. This time, the Army wanted the highest level of protection possible — and that led to design concepts of 50 to 65 tons, so heavy they exceed weight limits for many bridges in Eastern Europe. So, $1.5 billion later, the Ground Combat Vehicle program, too, was canceled by the Army in 2014.

While the United States was left with a fleet of aging Bradleys, other countries — namely Russia — were modernizing their equivalent military vehicles. That led the Army to express a sense of urgency when it launched its third replacement attempt, this one called the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. The urgency reflected new concerns that a land conflict with the Russian military was a genuine possibility.

The term “Optionally Manned” reflected the fact that the Army wanted the vehicle to be operable by remote control when embarking on highly dangerous missions. The Army also wanted the vehicle to include revolutionary new defense systems and have a bigger gun, with a caliber twice the size of that on the Bradley, so it could outmatch its peers on the battlefield.

These were highly ambitious requirements, and the Army insisted that they had to be met on a very rapid timeline. In fact, they seem to have been too ambitious.

Of the three companies that showed interest, one dropped out, saying it was a business decision. A second produced a working vehicle but needed an extension to secure permits for delivery and was ruthlessly disqualified. That left only one company still in the so-called “competition,” though it was deemed impressive by industry observers.

The disqualified German Lynx KF41 bid for the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle prototype competition.Igor Zehl / CTK via AP Images file

But Congress, responding to negative reports, cut nearly half of the program’s funding in December. Then, the Army announced it was canceling the competition on Jan. 16, insinuating that the sole remaining vehicle failed to meet specifications anyway.

Industry observers believe the major problem was likely the same weight-versus-protection tension that had plagued the earlier replacement efforts. In this case, the Army wanted the vehicle to be light enough so that two could fit in a C-17 transport plane, but also expected a high degree of armor protection that was likely unobtainable with existing armor technology — particularly for a rushed competition.

The revised competition kicked off by the Army on Feb. 7 will reportedly take a slower, more exploratory approach before formulating specifications that might be unachievable as happened last time. This more flexible process may yield better results than its predecessors, but it shows alarming inconsistency. In the space of a few months, the Army went from demanding rapid results using predefined specifications to embracing a slow, noncommittal development process.

It’s stunning that after the first two high-profile failures, the Army wasted more time and money — although fortunately less than in previous attempts — on yet another failed procurement program.

Some experts even argue that the program’s rapid self-destruction constituted a kind of success because it didn’t drag on for years after the industry failed to deliver hoped-for proposals. But not only is that underwhelming expectation problematic in and of itself, it also overlooks the fact that two companies that invested their own resources in meeting the Army’s specifications were left with little to show for their efforts, further tarnishing the Pentagon’s credibility after the previous failed efforts.

This Groundhog Day exercise in spending billions of dollars on three failed attempts to replace the same 40-year-old vehicle also highlights a deeper problem: how frequently large Pentagon procurements go completely off the rails due to short-sighted and inconsistent program management. It also indicates a continued unwillingness to accept limitations in what’s feasible given the current technology.

It’s stunning that after the first two high-profile failures, the Army wasted more time and money — although fortunately less than in previous attempts — on yet another failed procurement program. No one won in the latest fiasco: not the taxpayer, not the arms industry, and certainly not soldiers who will likely have to make do with even more aging Bradleys before a new vehicle comes along.