Battle over budget snarls funding for revamped Ground Combat Vehicle

The Army and its industry partners could have a bumpy ride in the coming months securing full funding for a new wheeled combat vehicle program amid questions over how quickly it is needed.

Annual Pentagon budgets are expected to shrink in coming years, and defense officials already have cut $178 billion without terminating a major hardware program. 

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Defense Department officials can’t avoid raiding procurement accounts forever, though, which means the new questions about the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program are being raised at a precarious time.

Senior Army officials are standing by the program and the need for getting started now. So are industry executives who covet what could be the final major DoD ground vehicle program for some time. 

Mark Signorelli, a BAE Systems vice president, recently told The Hill the service needs the new vehicle as soon as it can get it because the Army’s current fleet of wheeled vehicles “are vulnerable” to improvised explosive devices.

“If the Army is going to operate and maintain force protection in the kind of spectrum of environment” envisioned by Pentagon planners, it will “need to do GCV and modernize the current fleet,” Signorelli said.

BAE is in the running for the GCV contract, along with industry teams led by SAIC and General Dynamics.

A report last month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) introduced new questions about the program. It said work done by an Army commission to examine the program raised questions about whether the new ground vehicle was really needed in seven years. 

“In its August 2010 report, the Red Team that was convened by the Army questioned the urgency of the need for the GCV within seven years,” the report states. “The report concluded that the funds that have migrated from the FCS [Future Combat Systems] program were driving the events and activities of the program, versus a true capabilities gap.”

The auditors are not the only ones raising questions.

House Armed Services Airland subcommittee Chairman Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) told Army officials during a recent hearing that his panel didn’t understand why the Ground Combat Vehicle had to be completed under the timeline set by the Pentagon. He suggested the timeline could be delayed. 

The veteran defense panel member also said the Army needs to explain whether “the GCV is the full-spectrum vehicle that the Army needs.”

Congressional aides say the GAO findings raised eyebrows, especially in the current budget-cutting environment. But, they say, major cuts likely will be tough to bring about because the Army considers the GCV effort its top acquisition program.

The service requested $884.3 million for the effort in its 2012 budget plan.

The service currently is conducting a number of reviews “across many of its missions,” states GAO, adding those assessments should shed new light on whether the GCV is needed within seven years.

“Decisionmakers will have to decide if the Army has made a convincing case for the GCV before allowing it to proceed into the technology development phase,” states the study.

But Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute said timing and budget austerity could ultimately doom the GCV program. 

“The Army has missed the window of opportunity it had to modernize its Cold War force. It invested heavily in networking schemes that did not come to fruition, and then was so distracted by overseas wars that it never came up with a new investment agenda for the long term,” Thompson said. “Now its budget is about to be slashed.”

The ground vehicle program is “poorly suited to the coming era of fiscal austerity,” Thompson said. “It is expected to cost over $10 million per copy but could be defeated by mines or antitank missiles costing a few hundred dollars.” 

The projected cost of each GCV also has gotten Bartlett’s attention. He has wondered aloud whether the service will be able to afford a program “that could cost up to $30 billion to procure.”