DARPA’s Adaptive Vehicle Make program shows the measured promise of innovative approaches for engineering innovative armaments.
Anyone up for designing a new swimming tank? For counterattacks against possible Chinese landings in that first island chain, the Japanese Army wants to buy 52 amphibious assault vehicles. The most likely candidate, according to Stars & Stripes this week, is refurbished AAV7s from excess USMC inventories. That would be enough to put a whole battalion of infantry ashore at once, which may be more than most of those outcroppings of rock can take. But that very same AAV7, the USMC says, lacks the mobility that it needs for overland movement, as evidenced by its performance on campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan. So, the service years ago launched the later-cancelled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program, and more recently, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) program. The ACV is intended to be a mostly off-the-shelf vehicle, and an 8×8 wheeled one at that. But is there a better way than either buying off the lot or betting the farm on the new new thing?
The issue is all the more topical this season, with the arrival of the much-ballyhooed Defense Innovation Initiative, imploring industry not just to innovation, but to think different, as it were. As always with these demands for different, enter the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Back in 2012, in the aftermath of the EFV debacle, DARPA aimed to crowdsource the effort for a new assault vehicle. Articles in the Wall Street Journal, MIT Technology Review, and Wired gushed about the novelty of it all, as if Tony Stark were building that first Iron Man suit in a cave—just in concert a bunch of geeky friends on the Internet. I even joked with some friends about submitting a design, figuring that we couldn’t possibly do worse than an EFV—we’d fail too, but fail quickly and cheaply.
Fairly, though, the problem with the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) was not that General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) wasn’t trying hard enough. The company made its money through more than a decade of development efforts, but the failure was a gross embarrassment, to be avoided just for its adverse reputational effects. Rather, GDLS had simply signed up to try to pack ten pounds of stuff into a five-pound sack, and have over-promised how hard it could stuff that sack before the seams blew. Some years ago, some friends at BAE Systems, who as UDLP had bid on the design contract to design what would eventually become the EFV, told me that they knew way back in 1996 that GDLS’s approach was practically infeasible. BAE’s design would never have moved as fast through the water, but it required neither that massive supercharged diesel nor the variable geometry hull. With greater likelihood, it would have worked reliably; it just would have done less. The Marines, however, had their Requirement, and that was that.
So what of this crowdsourcing effort? Back in 2012, I asked an engineer and former Marine Corps officer what he thought about all that. His response [edited somewhat for clarity] was a general warning about the difficulties of designing weapon systems that are supposed to play in the same sandbox as other weapon systems:
It’s an interesting experiment, but designing the widget isn’t the main challenge. It’s scoping the “requirements” and undertaking the operational utility trades. Crowd sourcing will get to the 90 percent obvious solution, but then the details will get them. However, if DARPA could be successful if it can effectively referee, and do what really needs to be done in the development world—but which isn’t—iterating requirements and design. Requirements are almost always handed down like they were inscribed on stone tablets, and carry over for a decade—not to mention all the new stuff that gets added on in the mean time. This is not just the usual Gucci kit-creep, but the evolution of mandatory equipment like SAASM or maybe M-Code/GPS III receivers, cryptography, munitions insensitivity, JTRS radios back in the day, live-fire testing, etc. The main stuff isn’t always easy, but the peripheral interoperability requirements of the bureaucracy often enough drown and draw out the programs. That’s just from the design development aspect—the budget bit is always in flux. Best wishes, though!
That is to say that in military parlance, in most programs, “requirements” generally aren’t actually things required, but things wished for. DARPA seems to be thinking just that. The agency at least describes the effort with the right language:
Begun in 2010 as part of DARPA’s advanced manufacturing initiative, [Adaptive Vehicle Make] is a portfolio of programs focused on the reduction of complex military system development timelines by a factor of five or more. The technical approach encompasses multiple efforts addressing all aspects of the manufacturing process, from requirements representation [emphasis added], through design, to final physical build of a full-scale complex defense system.
In 2013, DARPA announced its winner. The prosaically-named Team Ground Systems beat out over 200 other teams and 1,000 other entrants to win the $1 million prize in the first Fast Adaptable Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) challenge, to design the drive train for a radically simpler amphibious assault vehicle. That design then went to the Applied Research Laboratory of Pennsylvania State University to “validate the manufacturability feedback, foundry configuration, and instruction generation tools as part of the build process.” After that, “the as-built design” went to race car engineering firm Ricardo in Michigan for construction of a testable prototype. That firm notably brought its design skills to assist the old Force Protection in developing the Ocelot vehicle for the British Army, so there’s reason to believe the right garage guys are on the job.
We still haven’t seen a vehicle yet, and marines around the world still need to get ashore. And that’s why our enthusiasm for crowdsourcing, like any novel innovative approach to engineering, should be tempered, but cautiously optimistic. It’s not easy to create a credible combination of tank and boat overnight. Sometimes the product on the shelf actually is the right idea. The current candidates for the ACV are some pretty well-regarded vehicles, and companies like Hägglunds and Singapore Engineering have been in this business a while too, so it’s hard to know. But other times, what’s on offer is being sold because the “requirements” have long gone unchallenged. Enthusiastic small teams can attack the inertia of rule and regulation, but victory may require huge personalities and deep pockets. DARPA helped hugely once before, prying open the bureaucracy for Tom Cassidy and the Blue Brothers at General Atomics. In the so-far slow clock-cycle industry of military automotive, the result here may not be akin to another Predator. But more of these crazy ideas are worth watching, and worth funding. That is, after all, what DARPA is for.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.