The MRAP experience still shows how military requirements need to hew to the state of the art in attainable technologies.
Early this month, the US Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command held a conference at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland to discuss ways to reduce the weight of armored vehicles by 40 percent, but without reducing protection. The story is worth reading, as it highlights the Army’s angst, dating to at least 1999, of missing the next fight that the Navy and the Air Force may charge into. The trouble, of course, is that heavy armor takes too long to deploy, and dispatching paratroopers without backup has historically induced disasters. So, Colonel Chris Cross, director of the science & technology division at the Army’s Capabilities Integration Center, commented for the press release that he’s working on this project because
I don’t want my son commanding an inadequate force when we put him in the fight in 15 or 20 years. We take it personally when preparing the Army for the future. That means investing now in the capabilities we need so that in 2040, soldiers have the agility, the capability and the assets they need to be successful when the nation calls.
I find two problems with this approach. The first is the time horizon, in which the Army hopes for results that will be useful in 15 to 25 years. As Richard Danzig wrote in Driving in the Dark: Ten Propositions About Prediction and National Security (Center for a New American Security, 2011), military forces’ ability to forecast military needs with accuracy has been unimpressive, and not just in the United States. Danzig, a former Navy Secretary, thus argued that procuring weapons that you’ll expect will still be useful in thirty years is a very dicey business. The trouble, as retired IDF Colonel Meir Finkel explained in On Flexibility: Recovery from Technological and Doctrinal Surprise on the Battlefield (Stanford University Press, 2011), is that you have no hope of understanding what will go wrong in thirty years, as you have only some hope of avoiding surprise even now.
The second is the drive for results where none may be possible. Cross complains that the Army’s current inventory of armored vehicles is inadequate, but I am still trying to imagine how even that which is impossible could still be inadequate. If so, one’s enemies won’t be able to attain similar kit either. And as I wrote last week in a related context for Real Clear Defense, another pursuit of unobtainium will do no one any good.
How does this relate to Colonel Cross’s project? Reducing weight by 40 percent without reducing protection sounds like a snipe hunt. Smart people in the business have been working on lighter armored vehicles for decades, and we wound up with MRAPs. They’re impressive, but they’re not light. Even then, it’s not obvious that reducing the weight of armor is essential—the bulk of the weight of the vehicles of any armored formation is made up by the columns of trucks that keep them serviced and fueled. Lighter armor may be very expensive, but without a justifiable improvement in strategic mobility.
As the adage goes, if you don’t have a solution, you may not have a problem. But if there is a broader solution, as Finkel’s title makes plain, it is to stay flexible in industry. The Army may spend money reaching for unobtainable technologies, but the next time it suddenly needs a material response to an emergent threat, the answer likely won’t come from a sudden breakthrough. This is particularly true in a field like materials science, where the clock cycle of innovation just isn’t that fast. Like v-shaped hulls, titanium undercarriages, remote weapons stations, and reactive tiles, the next wartime advance will come incrementally, utilizing modified, off-the-shelf technologies that smart engineers quickly notice and incorporate into existing designs.
James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.