On 21 January, the US Army’s Manuever Center of Excellence (MCoE) at Fort Benning, with the support of Army Contracting Command in Warren, Michigan, issued a sources-sought request (rather a request for information, or RFI) for something it calls an “Ultra Light Combat Vehicle” (ULCV). The issue is mobility for the Army’s infantry brigades. Today, their transport options are MRAPs, Humvees, and cargo trucks. The former are very good for fighting urban insurgencies, but all options largely restrict the infantry to 'road marches’. This desired ULCV would be air-droppable, air-portable, and an excellent hill-climber—vertical mobility modes that light infantry crave.
In the past week, several journalists and commentators have picked up this story, but with a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. Matthew Cox at Military.com announced that the US Army is looking to build an “air-droppable armored vehicle”. Dan Gouré at the Lexington Institute never mentioned armor, but criticized the ideas as “Stryker Light”, saying that "the ULCV is not yet even an R&D program.”
After reading those stories, I have two points of order:
- The ULCV is not to be armored.
- There will be no R&D program: it’s intended as an off-the-shelf procurement.
So that we can analyze the idea, let’s summarize the requirements. According to that RFI, the ULCV should be able to
- Carry a squad of nine troops, their equipment, and their body armor (about 3,200 lbs.)
- Survive a rollover
- Drive off-road with ease (that’s 75 percent of the foreseen usage profile), up to ridges and summits
- Carry at least a machinegun, and ideally a “medium-caliber weapon” (unspecified)
- Ride internally on a Chinook, sling under a Blackhawk, and drop out of a Hercules
- Cruise at least 250 miles (though it’s not clear if that’s on- or off-road)
I must say that I’m delighted that the Army is thinking modestly, about what can be done now, rather than about what possibly could be done someday with enough money. I’m thinking, of course, about the FCS and GCV programs that Gouré was appropriately lamenting. In contrast to the FCS program, this is not about providing motor transport to a bunch of Starship Troopers who eschew heavy armor for their supposedly fog-of-war-lifting electronics. In contrast to the GCV program, this isn’t about creating an Israeli-style behemoth which will stress the Army’s logistics like an Abrams tank. Rather, this is just about motorizing the light infantry off-road. That’s all, it’s important, and it’s eminently doable.
While I do think that the Army is for now appropriately thinking small, I want to suggest where this concept could go. In the past few weeks, both the Army’s vice chief of staff and its head of training and doctrine have speculated about replacing tens of thousands of soldiers with robots and avatars (avatars!). I find that chatter crazy, but I can readily imagine either robotic or optionally-manned artillery, anti-tank, assault gun, surveillance, and logistics vehicles based on this ULCV. As we might remember from the campaigns in Grenada and Panama and the Tora Bora, the benefits of adding even a little mobile firepower to light infantry can be impressive. If the vehicle needn’t carry troops under armor, then the Army might ask only for a little armor around ammunition boxes and electronics.
Of course, at no point should these be considered a substitute for actual tank troops, and the MCoE isn’t suggesting so. It’s just that there are plenty of places that Abrams and Bradleys and Paladins can’t go. Off-road motorization of the light infantry is a real need for the US Army, and an RFI for a ULCV is a great start.