February 20, 2015

Every morning’s news from Ukraine reminds us of the continued relevance of heavy armor on modern battlefields. Russian T-72s aren’t the most modern tanks, but they’re effective enough against an underprepared enemy. What’s more alarming is what’s under development to the east—Uralvagonzavod’s T-14 Armata project. In response, Poland’s Ministry of Defense is aiming to replace its own T-72s and derivatives with a new, domestically developed tank as well. Yesterday, I was in Warsaw to discuss that project at a seminar hosted for the Polish MoD by the British and Swedish Embassies. What follows is the substance of my remarks.


An overall portfolio of procurement programs has a broader set of entirely related objectives as well. The modernization plan should provide economic sustainability for the domestic armaments industry, and global access to the best technological capabilities and production capacities. At the same time, it should also provide long term political autonomy in the sourcing and further development of weapons, so that alliance or not, no one’s security is too dependent on anyone else’s. This is what Patrice Franko of Colby College calls the “trilemma” of international armaments cooperation. Again, it’s very hard to get all three at once, and with limited funding, any defense ministry needs to consider seriously which priorities matters most: cost, quality, or time; and economy, technology, or autonomy.

What makes this harder is the long term economic trend in armaments. Since the end of the Second World War, and through almost the present, the ratio between R&D and procurement spending has been inexorably shifting towards the upfront investment of the former. As noted here a few weeks ago, there’s thus an uneasy feeling that each additional dollar of spending has been buying less incremental advance over time. While that finding is debatable, armaments development hasn’t been getting easier over the past 70 years.

So, economy, technology, and autonomy are all valued, but getting that technology economically has been getting harder. This sets up two tradeoffs for any modernization in the alliance. First, to aim for the greatest advance possible or for the greatest autonomy, we could develop wholly new technology. But to do so economically, we could base our development on an existing weapon system—what marketers call a line extension. Secondly, to develop weapons more cheaply and with better access to technology, we could collaborate across borders, but to preserve autonomy, we could do so purely domestically.

In terms of recent combat vehicle developments recently, the first question can be answered with “lots of money”. The new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) program in the US, which merely aims to produce a utility vehicle from existing Bradley fighting vehicles, is already a multi-hundred million dollar endeavor. The now-defunct Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program tore through hundreds of millions before it ever produced a prototype. The Austrian-Spanish Cooperative Development (ASCOD) program has involved similar monies—and just for extension of an existing design—in several iterations. And the French Vehicule Blindee de Combat pour Infanterie (VBCI) program has actually involved over a billion euros in R&D. Spending less to get more may be possible, but the track record across countries is not encouraging in that regard.

With that sort of money required, it’s easy to understand why programs have crossed borders: to share the impressive costs with another defense ministry. The nature of the sharing, however, has changed over time. As Marc De Vore of the University of Saint Andrews has recounted, the history of armaments cooperation across NATO has proceeded in three phases. The first, in the 1950s, was an attempt at open markets with common purchasing. For a variety of very understandable political reasons, that did not work. Since the late 1960s, the third tendency has been very much the opposite: exquisitely architected programs with as many customers as possible. One might call that the Joint Strike Fighter approach. The management of that program has been very difficult, with many demanding customers to satisfy, and many national industries to keep busy.

But for a period in the 1950s and 60s, bilateral programs were almost the rule, particularly in aircraft. These two-nation arrangements produced some memorable programs, like the Transall and the Alpha Jet. The generally provided enough access to technology and economical production capacities, and they proved relatively manageable, with only so many governments to satisfy.

If we look at the commercial and programatic success of recent combat vehicle development programs, we find something of a pattern with respect to these two questions: wholly new versus a line extension, and national versus multinational. Some of the biggest failures in combat vehicle development in the past two decades have been found in purely national attempts at wholly new products. Frankly, many of these have been in the US and the UK, where overly ambitious requirements in cost and performance produced programs that couldn’t produce. There have only been a handful of wholly new product attempts in multinational programs, and the record is mixed, so we shouldn’t try to draw too strong an inference.

In contrast, observe that line extensions have produced the most successful programs over time: notably in the LAV-III, Leopard 2, and CV90 families of vehicles. These are almost NATO standards. The ASCOD program has also been very successful recently, if for a smaller set of countries. Significantly, even these seemingly national programs have important international components. Much of the production of the LAV-III is shared between the US and Canada, and many of the CV90’s components come from the countries in which the vehicles are employed.

The operational experience of those users has, in several wars and international peace-enforcement campaigns, provided live-fire testing, which led to important feedback for engineering development. This has in turn reduced life cycle costs and managed obsolescence through commonality across armies. The recently historical record provides an important lesson: a proper point of departure in a combat vehicle development is very important for securing access to global human capital, particularly in training, logistics, and knowledge management. There are sound reasons for not trying to go alone.

So ponder this as a fundamental question of national security. If you think that battlefield conditions call for a wholly new war-fighting concept that is unattainable without a complete rethinking of the concept of the tank, then a purely national program, and a wholly new start, may be warranted. That’s effectively the ground-based equivalent of a stealth fighter—potentially game-changing, but probably very expensive. On the other hand, if a wholly new effect can be achieved on the battlefield with a more modest development—without reinventing the wheel (or track, that is), then a cooperative line extension of an existing product family may be more advisable.

Frankly, all requirements are subject to budgets. And while the $40 billion that the Polish MoD intends to spend on modernization in the next ten years is a large sum, it must cover all programs across the domains of land, sea, and air. The new tank is but one of fourteen priorities for the Polish MoD. So these two fundamental questions of procurement must be soberly asked and answered before limited development funds are committed to an ambitious idea.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.