The Combined-Arms Team:

The Next Combat Vehicle – New Horizons

Slide 1
Figure 1. MPC technology demonstrator. The MPC is the first phase of the U.S. Marine Corps’ effort to replace its aging Amphibious Assault Vehicle with the ACV. The ACV’s mission will be for a pair of them to be able to carry a reinforced infantry squad with two days of supply at speeds compatible with the M1A1.

Now that the U.S. Marine Corps has accepted a two-tier or spiral-development acquisition strategy for replacing its aging Amphibious Assault Vehicle, it is clear that fielding the Marine Personnel Carrier (MPC) will become the first phase of this effort. Termed the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV 1.1), current off-the-shelf vehicles have demonstrated high reliability and better swim performance than initially thought. Discussions on the concept of employment for this vehicle envision no change in the employment principles of current operational units.

Why is this important to the Army? The refined capabilities of this platform compel us to explore both the challenges and opportunities this new vehicle brings to the ground combat element (GCE). This article’s purpose is to develop likely capabilities these vehicles represent, discuss the resulting potential tactical implications and recommend planning considerations as the combat viability of this asset is fully explored.

Likely capabilities

The ACV 1.1 program’s general framework is to provide a vehicle with enhanced technology that adds combat capability to the operating forces at a reasonable cost. The Marine Requirements Oversight Council validated this requirement during Gate 2 reviews, which recommended a material solution of an advanced-generation wheeled armored personnel carrier. The vehicle’s mission is for a pair of them to carry a reinforced infantry squad with two days of supply at speeds compatible with the M1A1. This will allow the GCE commander to form a task force with armor protection, firepower and maneuverability to conduct mechanized combined-arms operations. Such organizations have the inherent capabilities to exploit maneuver as a defeat mechanism while conducting missions ranging from deliberate attack to the economy-of-force trio of guard, screen and covering force.

The likely optics available to the platform allow a stabilized thermal-sight capability. The optics will feature various levels of magnification to enhance target location, target discrimination and engagement. This provides the vehicle commander the ability to guide dismounted infantry around enemy strength and, in so doing, set the terms of tactical dismounted combat that are favorable to the supported squad. In addition to optics and unaided vision, the vehicle tactical displays have the potential to orient crews to sectors of observation that offer the greatest likelihood of threat engagement. Tactical planners will have to consider how these enhanced situational-awareness tools impact squad-level areas of interest and influence as they refine employment concepts at each organizational level.

On-board armament can include both an Mk-19 (40mm) grenade launcher and a .50-cal machinegun, which can separate from each other. Having two of these vehicles at squad level will enhance tactical-employment options and simultaneous employment. The characteristics of these two weapons complement each other across a wide range of missions and rules of engagement (RoE). The Mk-19 provides a solid area-suppression capability, able to fire into local deadspace, and it can provide the volume of fire needed to break contact when squad disengagement is warranted.

Finally, the ammunition options available to the Mk-19 can allow technology growth as new threats mature. The .50-cal machinegun, on the other hand, can add long-range pinpoint fires to counter sniper threats and limit collateral damage in urban areas when such RoE dominate the landscape.

Crew and passenger survivability is enhanced with current armor technology and improved blast mitigation techniques in seat and compartment design. The use of an externally mounted weapon system has the potential to greatly reduce the vehicle’s visual signature, exposing only the weapon system when occupying hull-down fighting positions. On-board smoke launchers, coupled with potential engine-exhaust smoke generation, provide for both visual- and thermal-screening systems to support squad disengagement when required.

Potential tactical considerations

The road speed, cross-country performance and waterborne mobility of the vehicle enhance the GCE’s ability to use maneuver as a defeat mechanism. The vehicle’s road speed will allow the transfer of units at almost twice the current rate. This will allow CGE commanders to concentrate dispersed units at the point of their choosing to counter enemy moves or exploit hard-won success. While this vehicle’s ability to keep pace with the M1A1 has yet to be validated, the potential of such an integrated combined-arms team can place all the components of combat power in a tight tactical package, able to dominate its assigned sector or zone of action.

Finally, the vehicle’s waterborne-employment characteristics have yet to be mastered. Off-the-shelf prototypes have negotiated surface conditions exceeding initial design requirements. Using this capability to exploit river crossings, shore-to-shore movement or even ship-to-objective maneuver has yet to be discounted as a viable operational approach.

When contrasted with other combat-vehicle designs, the MPC’s lighter logistical footprint holds great promise within the expeditionary littoral environment. Fuel consumption is lower than its tracked vehicle counterpart, which will lower the bulk-fuel transfer requirements for the force. The observed reliability of off-the-shelf prototypes operating in the waterborne environment holds great promise to lower repair-part demands within the supply system because of less required corrective maintenance. A caveat: This observation needs to be validated for land operations over difficult terrain akin to the operating ranges of Twenty-nine Palms, CA.

While the addition of a vehicle with the preceding characteristics holds promise, many tactical details demand operating-force refinement. The idea of fielding a pair of vehicles to support a squad highlights the 2x3 paradox. In short, this effect results from a combat team designed to operate in pairs when vehicle-mounted and transition to a traditional triangle structure when dismounted. When mounted, the squad would exploit mounted-movement techniques such as traveling, traveling overwatch and overwatch. However, once dismounted, current approaches would have the vehicle act in a support-by-fire role as the squad moves at some distance from the mechanized elements in historical formations, including line, V, wedge or echelon. In closed terrain, such as an urban corridor or restricted trail, the support-by-fire approach falls short of the potential that an integrated squad team offers.

Planning considerations

One approach to improving the mutual support between vehicles and dismounted units in closed terrain is using the employment characteristics of each system to dominate the confined avenue of approach. Vehicles operate using the “wingman” concept, with each providing covering fire and observation. They move in coordination with the dismounted squad, which assumes a V or diamond formation oriented on the vehicles. This allows a fire team to provide close protection to each vehicle. The remaining fire team can skirmish forward of the squad to provide early warning and direct subsequent action, or it can position behind the vehicle pair with the weapon teams supporting the squad and act as a local reaction force.

This approach allows each component of the squad-vehicle team to exploit its unique employment characteristics at the tactical level on restrictive terrain. Given the increase in urbanization within the littoral battlespace, it is incumbent on leaders at all levels to develop team-employment approaches that integrate each member’s ability to add to the fight.

One way to pull these concepts together would be to form a tactical-employment team using Marines from the School of Infantry and the Assault Amphibian Vehicle School – both located at Camp Pendleton, CA. Both these organizations have the requisite tactical expertise, ability of develop programs of instruction and operational experience to collaborate on moving this dialogue forward. Early engagement on this effort will allow for refined requirements and will validate employment techniques as we look to build integrated combat teams at the lowest level.

As the planned tactical employment of these vehicle-infantry teams matures, several combat-power integration approaches hold promise to maximize small units’ ability to influence the battlefield. Earlier work-ups will foster the formation of key warfighting relationships and trust between the squad leader and vehicle commanders. By establishing habitual relationships, these war-winning relationships can be sustained and gain in credibility and strength. Cross-training and vehicle-orientation programs have the potential for each member of this squad-level team to gain a complete understanding of the strengths and weakness of each team component and how they contribute to combat potential within a maneuver-based paradigm.

Finally, while Army squad structure and tactical approach differ from those of the Marine Corps, understanding the two capability sets and how they complement each other ensures enhanced interoperability within the joint warfighting environment. Evolving cross-domain engagement concepts compel each service to better understand how the totality of joint force capabilities is leveraged for mission accomplishment. The Center for Army Lessons-Learned (CALL) at Fort Leavenworth, KS, has detailed archives with combat experience on the employment of wheeled-vehicle infantry teams in recent counterinsurgency operations and can provide one point of departure for this interservice dialogue. The counterpart to CALL on the Marine Corps’ side is the Marine Corps Lessons-Learned System, and it provides operational insights into the methodology taken by Marines in outlining their operational approach and requirements for this key mounted warfare vehicle. Maturing this capability will provide a landing force able to keep pace with other members of the mounted-warfare community and strengthen the warfighting options available to the joint force commander.

Preliminary steps being taken now will set the stage for successful inclusion of wheeled fighting vehicles into the squad level of the landing force. When properly integrated into a tight tactical structure, they can enhance the squads’ combat potential with armor protection, increased firepower and unprecedented tactical speed in both open and closed terrain. The ability of these teams to combine unique mounted and dismounted combat characteristics has the potential to once again move forward the combat capability of our squad-level units, limited only by the imagination of our noncommissioned officers as tempered by their hard-won combat experience.