What We Need from General Dynamics in the AMPV Competition

The drama continues in the US Army’s effort to replace its longest-serving armored vehicles, the M113s. General Dynamics is threatening to complain to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the mobility standards required and the technical data provided in the competition are inadequate to support its bid. But as incumbent competitor BAE Systems itself knows from experience, neither of these arguments should be allowed to alter policy. What’s needed now is not more legal filings, but some brilliantly competitive engineering.

Let’s briefly recount the story. The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) program issued a request for proposals (RFP) some months ago that appeared to favor rebuilt Bradley fighting vehicles taken from storage. General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) then filed a protest with the Army Department—a very unusual step before bids have been made, much less a contract awarded. After a brief delay, the Army rejected GDLS’s protest, but the company has responded with a vague threat to escalate the complain to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). So what’s the specific grievance? As Sydney Freedberg of Breaking Defense relates, GDLS spokesman Peter Keating has demanded that the Army either

  1. relax its mobility requirements so GDLS’s eight-wheel-drive Stryker could qualify or
  2. provide enough technical data on the tracked Bradley that GDLS can come up with its own tracked offering.

Next, let’s deal with each of those issues in turn.

Mobility. Whatever the outcome, I have argued previously that a performance-based competition is important, if only for keeping all bids low. The Army has stated that it isn’t necessarily specifying a tracked vehicle. But on reading the RFP, it is fair to conclude that the mobility requirements can be more easily met with tracks. And we’ve been here before. As one executive in the business put it to me this week, denial of the protest

     shouldn’t have been unexpected… This whole thing continues to be reminiscent of the battle BAE engaged in in the late 1990s to kill the [Interim Armored Vehicle program] because they claimed the Army was favoring wheels over tracks. Now GDLS is complaining that the Army is favoring tracks over wheels.

GDLS, of course, won the IAV program with what is now called the Stryker. And last week, ten congressmen from Ohio and Michigan sent a letter to Pentagon procurement czar Frank Kendall, asking him to mandate that the AMPV requirement be filled by a mixed fleet of Strykers and Bradleys. As I have written before, there is an argument for splitting the purchase between vehicles with different off-road mobility requirements. GDLS could make a strong argument that an eight-wheeled vehicle would make a more cost-effective command post or ambulance. But the time for that lobbying is drawing short.

And of course, strictly speaking, the Army is proposing a mixed fleet, even with tracked AMPVs. The armored utility vehicles in its wheeled medium brigades are already wheeled Strykers, and the armored utility vehicles in the tracked heavy brigades may be tracked AMPVs. Whether that’s necessary is a matter of requirments-writing. But GDLS and its supporters in Congress should be careful what they ask for. Navistar might say that a four-wheeled vehicle would work as well—and that surplus MaxxPro MRAPs would be much cheaper than newly-built Strykers. Indeed, Navistar has made just that argument, displaying such a vehicle at the 2013 Association of the United States Army show last October. If it’s really performance that matters for mobility, and not method, then the Stryker is no shoo-in.

Technical data. On the other hand, if the Army really does just want a Bradley, then GDLS could have an important complaint over the completeness of the technical data package (TDP) that it has provided on the surplus Bradleys and M113s that the RFP offers bidders. The Army says that it sent everything; GDLS asks how that’s possible, as the documents reference other documents that weren’t provided, and that aren’t publicly available. TDPs can be powerful: we might ask whether the scope of this package compares favorably to what the Army provided on the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV), in the re-competition of that contract back in 2009. Based on the prints, Oshkosh unseated BAE Systems, and as a result, that long-time incumbent’s factory in Sealy, Texas is closing.

What’s less compelling is GDLS’s complaint that BAE Systems has an inherent advantage from its long experience with the Bradley and M113 programs. To quote General Giap, this is true, but it is irrelevant. As a matter of law, the Army observed in its response (see page 11) that “BAE’s status as the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] of the Bradleys and M113s means that it enjoys some natural advantages that the government is not required to neutralize.” That is, for very path-dependent reasons, some companies are just better at some things than others, and there’s no public value in trying to fix that. And as a matter of requirements, the Army has taken pains to stress that the AMPV is not a Bradley per se: the RFP requests a vehicle that is better protected than even a Bradley with the most recent Urban Survivability Kit (BUSK) upgrade.

So, parts from Bradleys and M113s may be a good start, but they aren’t the whole solution. The greatest gall in this complaint is thus found in GDLS’s assertion that it cannot compete, because it needs more information on BAE Systems’ vehicles. This is not just untoward, but nonsense: GDLS has tracked vehicles of its own. In the analogous and ongoing M113 replacement contest for the Royal Danish Army, General Dynamics teamed up with Danish firm Falck Schmidt to offer a turretless version of the ASCOD tracked vehicle from its Spanish subsidiary GDLS Santa Barbara. That firm has sold ASCODs to Austria and Spain, and has been funded by its third customer for further development for the British Army.

After twice ending upon the losing end of these arguments in other contests, BAE Systems seems to have substantially concentrated on its engineering over its lawyering. And it has made great progress with its Bradleys and M113s. But the underlying design of the former dates from the early 1980s, and the latter, the 1960s. After many modifications, both continue to serve in armies around the world, but neither represents a cutting-edge automotive solution in every respect. Today, GDLS has the capacity to design and build some great vehicles too. In lieu of more protests, we would prefer to see the company aim for an innovative solution for the AMPV that would prove much superior to anything else on offer. That’s what competition is supposed to bring forth, after all.