The Long War’s Arms Race

 This article suggests the Canadian army's decision to scrap the MGS program in favour of a renewed main battle tank might have been prophetic - the American military is learning that their wheeled Stryker vehicles [a variant of the Mobile Guns System (MGS) that the CF planned on acquiring until the Spring of 2006 when the program was scrapped] are vulnerable to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). As the article suggests, many critics are questioning the viability of the wheeled platform on a battlefield where IEDs are the primary threat.

The irony of this MGS/Stryker vulnerability is that this is precisely the type of battlefield for which the weapons system was intended, at least in Canada. To quote from the "Army Transformation" website (any bets on how long this will stay on the DND website?)

The most important force driving transformation though, is the changing nature of the very real threats to stability throughout the world, to Canada itself and to any land component units deployed on missions. What was, in previous years, described as the asymmetric threat - terrorism, suicide bombers, riots, explosive devices, well-armed militias - has now simply become the threat, and, unfortunately, probable. That threat is located mainly where the population is, that is where the bulk of the people live in failed and some developing states. The previously used term of "conventional" threat, that of an attack by another country with military forces, through massed infantry and tanks on land, supported by air and naval units, has now become the asymmetric threat and exceptionally unlikely. [my emphasis added]

The threat described sounds an awful lot like Iraq and Afghanistan today. This might be due in large part to then Chief of the Land Staff Ric Hillier's vocal advocacy of the vehicle's purchase immediately after completely a tour in Kabul. When describing the need for the MGS in an interview with Chris Maclean in the Jan/Feb 2005 issue of Frontline Defence, the just-appointed CDS said the following regarding the army's acquisition priorities:

Priority number three: "Without question, the direct fire piece is a fundamental part of reducing the new level of risk on missions that we are deploying on now. We have to be prepared to face down, deter and deal with whomever we encounter when we arrive from militia forces to terrorist groups or suicide bombers. The mobile gun system, a direct fire cannon on a wheeled armoured vehicle (the LAV chasis), was announced by the Minister just over a year ago and is a fundamental part of that need. The U.S. is developing that system, and we feel it meets our requirements exactly.

In fairness, to General Hillier, although he didn't mention it in his Frontline interview, the Army Transformation website does cite the transportability issue many are currently linking to the current decision to revert back to Leopard 2 main battle tanks [ie we had no strategic lift before, therefore we couldn't use the tanks we had].

The strong qualities of a Leopard parked in Valcartier or Edmonton are useless to the soldiers in Kabul, Eritrea, Bosnia or anywhere else we need direct fire.

This argument might hold more water, if the CF was actually in the process of acquiring a significant strategic lift capability. However, the addition of 4 C-17s, and 3 JSS will not suddenly give Canada an independent strategic lift capability; it will merely help. As the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence report The Government's No. 1 Job: Securing the Military Options It Needs to Protect Canadians details, an independent capability would require far more platforms that are currently in the procurement pipeline. Thus, the government will remain heavily reliant on contracted strategic lift, such as the commercial shipping charter DND now has on retainer, for substantial overseas deployments.

but I digress...

The more interesting issue here is what appears to be an intriguing arms race between the Western militaries operating in these new asymmetric environments, and the IED makers who keep packing more explosives into their bombs. As the IEDs get more powerful, the Western armies turn to increasingly more heavily armoured platforms.

The CF progression was something like this:

Iltis Jeep (no longer used) -> G-Wagon (now confined to Kandahar Airfield) -> LAV III -> Nyala Patrol Vehicle -> Leopard 1 Tanks -> Leopard 2 Tanks

The Americans followed a progression like this:

'Regular' Humvees (followed by a rush to find more armour) -> Up-Armoured Humvees -> Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles in addition to the Abrams Main Battle Tank.

As the article details

[The Americans] are moving to begin to replace the far more numerous Humvees with a new generation of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. They are called MRAPS, and their V-shaped hulls are designed to deflect bomb blasts outward.

The Pentagon has requested nearly 7,800 of the new vehicles at a cost of $8.4 billion and is considering ordering thousands more.

Compared to Humvees, military officials say the new vehicles provide twice as much protection against IEDs, which cause 70 percent of all U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Armored Humvees were "the best we had," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. "Now we have something better, and we're going to get that to the field as best we can."

The problem, however, as proponents of the Stryker have detailed, is that the insurgents are building bombs so big that even the mammoth Abrams tanks are becoming vulnerable. Presumably, if the insurgents in Iraq can build bombs big enough to defeat American tanks, the Afghan insurgents can do the same in Kandahar with the new, better armoured Leopard 2s. So, what's out there that's more heavily armoured than a main battle tank? Others far more knowledgeable about counter insurgency and so forth than this author can likely comment on the proper means of responding to changing guerilla tactics. From this vantage point, though, it seems like the advantage in this arms race will always rest with the bomb maker - bombs are relatively cheap, and there are surely fewer limitations on their size than on the armoured vehicles they're aimed at [transportability, fuel consumption, stress on frames and axles, to name three]. A focus on increasing armour, as a means of providing force protection is surely valid; if for no other reason than casualties negatively affect the public's perception of the war effort. Ultimately, however, it seems that at a certain point the bombs will be too big for anything to stop, and the focus must ultimately turn to finding the bomb-makers.

The resultant issues for the air and maritime services are twofold:

  1. As the Army continues to bulk up, what happens to the rest of the capital budget?
  2. Are the CF's strategic lift platforms, minimal as they are, capable of transporting this new, heavier equipment?

1) A quick inventory of the new, heavy armour purchases could include:

Armoured Heavy Support Vehicle System (AHSVS)
82 vehicles for $87 million

Expedient Route Opening Capability (EROC)
16 vehicles (acquisition, along with two years of integrated logistics support, training and field service support) $29.6 million.

Leopard 2 Tanks
100 (including an initial 'loan' of 20 tanks, the upgrades and enhancements to the new Leopard 2 fleet, and an initial acquisition of spare parts) $650 million

RG-31 Nyala Patrol Vehicles
75 vehicles (the initial order for 50 included an option for the contractor to perform 'in-theatre' operator and maintainer training, with the follow-on training to be carried out by military instructors for $64M) $95M

Now, excluding the Leopard purchase which appears to have used the previously allocated, but unnecessary, MGS funding, that's $212M purchased with incredible speed for the here and now of Army operations in Afghanistan, in the slightly more than 15 months since the CF has been operating at full capacity in Kandahar, with another 21 months to go. For comparative purposes, that's about $60M more than the estimated yearly cost of all 3 JSS, when they arrive, and only $30M per year less than the full-up annual cost of all 17 C-130Js. In other words, that's a lot of money, without any apparent long term planning, when there is, as yet, not funding for the Single Class Surface Combatant.

2) As for the transportability, as previously mentioned, the purchase of the JSS will only give the CF a minimal sea-lift capacity. The JSS project was also commissioned when the Army was going to buy the 20 tonne MGS, not the 55.15 + tonne Leopard 2s. What impact will this have on the JSS's requirements in terms of deck and ramp strength?

As the Army keeps getting heavier to improve force protection in Afghanistan, one has to wonder what impact this will have on air and maritime procurement in the CF, as well as the future of 'joint' operations.