M1E3, OMFV, FLRAA… The US Army at the dawn of a new BIG 5

Convinced of its technological and military superiority since the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War, the US Army has not launched any major programs, concerning the renewal of its high-intensity equipment fleet, since the famous BIG 5 of 70s.

The fact is, still today, it is the Abrams, Bradley, Black Hawk, Apache and Patriot, which form the spearhead of the American mechanized and airmobile brigades, all equipment having been designed for this super- program.

As tensions in the Pacific increase, and based on feedback from Ukraine, the US Army has undertaken a profound change, both in terms of its expectations to modernize and replace its equipment, and in terms of doctrine. which oversees the management of these programs.

Without it being so named, we can clearly see that a new super BIG 5 program is now taking shape, with the M1E3 tank, the XM30 infantry fighting vehicle of the OMFV program, the V-280 Valor maneuver helicopter of the FLRAA program, the cancellation and replacement of the XM1299 ERCA super-gun, and the deployment of multi-layered air defense with the M-SHORAD and IFPC-2 programs. The question is whether it will be enough to restore to the US armies the technological and military dominance that they intend to regain?

The US Army's BIG 5 program at the end of the Vietnam War

At the end of the Vietnam War in the early 70s, the US Army became aware of the gap that separated it from the Soviet armies. Indeed, when it concentrated its resources and investments for this war halfway between high intensity and anti-insurgency, Moscow had profoundly modernized its forces, with the arrival of numerous new equipment deemed more effective than those in force. service in the United States, such as the T-72 battle tank, BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicle, SA-6 and S-200 anti-aircraft systems, and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters.

T-72M1
The arrival of the T-72 (here a T72M1) represented a shock for the Western military, leading to the design of two heavy tanks emblematic of the end of the Cold War: the Leopard 2 German and the American M1 Abrams.

To respond to this challenge, the US Army undertook to design a new generation of equipment to regain the technological and operational advantage over Russian equipment and forces.

This is how the BIG 5 super-program was born, which gave birth to five of the most emblematic military equipment of American military power from 1980 to today, with the M1 Abrams tank, the M2 infantry fighting vehicle Bradley, the Patriot long-range anti-aircraft system, and the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters, which entered service between the late 70s and early 80s.

It was the same, moreover, for the US Air Force, with the design of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, and for the US Navy with the Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carriers, the submarines. Los Angeles class nuclear attack sailors, the Ticonderoga cruisers, the Arleigh Burke destroyers and the OH Perry frigates, as well as the F-14 Tomcat then F/A-18 Hornet onboard fighters.

These programs were so effective that they continue, forty years later, to represent the backbone of American military power, on land and in the air, as well as on and under the oceans.

These remarkable performances, but also the American commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, led to an equipment doctrine favoring, on the one hand, major technological breakthroughs, very rarely successful elsewhere, and on the other hand, iterative developments. existing equipment, to ensure the interim, while waiting for these new programs which did not arrive.

The shock of the war in Ukraine and the anticipation of a conflict in the Pacific shape the new doctrine of the US Army

In fact, at the end of these two conflicts, the American armies, and more particularly the US Army, the most involved, found themselves in a situation which was reminiscent of that which was theirs, at the beginning of the years 70, after the signing of the Paris agreements.

US Army M1 Abrams Germany Cold War
One of the first M1 Abrams deployed in Germany in the early 80s. At the time, the tank only weighed 54 tonnes, compared to 66 today.

However, the perception of American technological and military superiority was such, in the 2000s and 2010s, that no sense of urgency, and above all no questioning, seemed to guide the US Army in its choices. It is in this context that an ersatz BIG 5, called BIG 6, was presented in 2019.

However, this super-program was based on the same paradigms as those used over the last twenty years, namely the search for overwhelming technological superiority, giving birth to overly ambitious programs, as was the case with the M1299 ERCA super gun. , the FARA reconnaissance helicopter, and many others among the sixty BIG 6 constituent subprograms.

Beyond this technologist bias, two other factors came to sound the death knell for the BIG 6. First, the growing certainty of having to, in the near future, confront the Chinese armies in the Pacific, according to a pattern close to that of the Pacific War during World War II.

Mostly, the war in Ukraine has shattered many certainties as to the supposed effectiveness of technological supremacy serving as a force multiplier, within the Pentagon, while highlighting the lack of effectiveness of certain equipment transferred to Ukraine.

This is how, for two years, the tone has subtly, but radically, evolved across the Atlantic, in particular with regard to future equipment programs, to face the Russian threat, and especially the threat Chinese, Beijing is rolling out a program of military and technological build-up apparently perfectly mastered, and most worrying.

The US Army is embarking on a new critical evolution of its capabilities

If the US Navy still obviously has progress to be made to regain the momentum that was once his, in the 70s and 80s, the US Army, for its part, has profoundly evolved its paradigms in terms of major equipment programs in recent years, to give birth, in spirit, to a new BIG 5, more realistic and applicable than the poorly crafted BIG 6.

US Army Europe
The US Army has evolved its lighter and more mobile component, such as the Stryker Brigades, but the modernization of high-intensity melee units remains equipped with armor designed during the Cold War, although (very heavily) modernized.

Thus, three new programs are being designed across the Atlantic, to give the US Army the means to respond to future challenges, in the Pacific as in Europe: the M1E3 tank, the OMFV infantry fighting vehicle, the FLRAA maneuvering helicopter. Added to this are developments in existing systems, regarding artillery, with an M109 with a 52 caliber tube, and the development of a medium and short range layer, in the American air defense bubble.

The M1E3 tank breaks with the Abrams evolution paradigms

In many ways, the M1E3 Abrams heavy tank alone characterizes the radical transformation that has affected the US Army over the past three years. Indeed, until only a year ago, the Abrams tank was to be brought to a new iterative evolution, the M1A2 SEPv4.

Like previous developments, this was to provide the heavy, and even very heavy, American tank with new capabilities, at the cost of a new increase in mass. Indeed, since its entry into service in the early 80s, the Abrams has gained more weight than a man married to a cordon bleu for 40 years, going from 54 to 66 tons.

The war in Ukraine has shown, for more than two years, that the excess mass, but also the logistical cumbersomeness characteristic of this tank, like the British Challenger 2, caused disadvantages becoming more handicapping than the expected benefits.

GDLS AbramsX
In October 2022, GDLS presented its AbramsX, in response to the presentation of the KF51 Panther from Rheinmetall and the E-MBT from KNDS, during the Eurosatory exhibition.

The first to anticipate this change was General Dynamics Land Systems, when it presented the AbramsX, in October 2022. More than an evolution, this tank was a real “Reboot” of the model, breaking for the occasion with many paradigms of the Abrams, such as the 4-person crew, motorization and mass.

It is certainly on this basis that the US Army imagined the new evolution of the Abrams, which should replace SEPv4, finally canceled a few months before the start of its implementation. Indeed, the M1E3, as named by the US Army, will no longer have much to do with its big brother, the M1A2 SEPv3.

Thus, the M1E3 will make extensive use of automation, to reduce the crew to only three members. The turret will be entirely robotic, or will be able to accommodate crew members only optionally. This makes it possible to reduce the volume under armor, and to reinforce the safety of the crew, in a survival cell.

The protection of the tank will rely, for the most part, on a new active-passive defense system, including Hard-kill, again, in order to increase the survivability of the tank, without making it heavier. Its engine will be simplified, perhaps it will even be hybrid, like on the AbramsX. Finally, the armored vehicle will be entirely digitalized and packed with sensors, to give the crew the best perception of its direct or tactical environment.

M1A2 SEPv3
The M1A2 SEPv3 now weighs 66 tonnes, 12 tonnes more than the initial Abrams. This excessive mass and the burden of maintaining the armor now constitute operational obstacles highlighted in Ukraine.

The ultimate objective of all these major ruptures with the Abrams family is none other than a weight loss cure that would make Benjamin Castaldi green with envy. Indeed, the M1E3 will only weigh 54 tonnes on the scale, 12 tonnes less than the M1A2 SEPv3, the mass of the tank when it entered service, to give it back the mobility it had lost, in especially on soft ground.

Thus lightened, the new tank, which will certainly only have an Abrams name, will be closer to the 50 tonnes of the Russian T-90M, and will even be lighter than the 57 tonnes of the Leclerc, long considered in commercial discourse. if not in fact, by the Americans, British and Germans, as too light, therefore insufficiently protected.

The XM30 from the OMFV program to finally replace the M2 Bradley

The replacement of the M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, and the M3 reconnaissance and combat vehicles, has been underway since the beginning of the 2000s. However, the programs have followed one another without ever succeeding until now, most often, due to unrealistic demands from the US Army.

After the cancellation of the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, or OMFV, program in 2019, precisely because of expectations disconnected from reality imposed by the specifications, the US Army launched the same program a few months later on different paradigms.

GDLS Griffin 3
GDLS offers the Griffin 3 as part of the OMFV program.

Thus, where almost all aspects of the new armor were defined by the US Army in OMFV-1, it was content to draw guidelines in OMFV-2, leaving manufacturers the choice of how to respond.

After an initial selection phase, the same two final OMFV-1 competitors, GDLS with the Griffin-3, and Rheinmetall with the KF-41 Lynx, were again selected for the final phase. The two manufacturers will have to produce 11 prototypes, 7 farms and 4 optional, to participate in the tests, this including the bodies, the propulsion systems, the armament, the turrets as well as the digital twins. Together, they have a budget of $1,6 billion to achieve this by 2026.

Like the M1E3, the infantry fighting vehicle of the OMFV program, since named XM30, aims to make extensive use of digitalization. As its name suggests, it must also be able to be used in the form of a terrestrial drone, if necessary. It will also base its protection on an active-passive system and a hard-kill system, and could benefit from hybrid propulsion.

If the XM30 and the M1E3 have had very different trajectories, the trend today at the Pentagon is to aim for simultaneous entry into service, with a first mechanized brigade equipped with these two armored vehicles, operational at the start of the next decade.

The V-280 Valor from the FLRAA program to adapt US aerocombat to the new reality of the modern battlefield

The replacement of the UH-60 Black Hawk maneuvering helicopters is part of the renewal of all of the US Army's air assets, begun in 2009, under the acronym FLV for Future Vertical Lift. The successor to the Black Hawk is being designed as part of the Future Long Range Attack Aicraft, or FLRAA, program.

SB1 Defiant Sikorky Boeing
The SB-1 Defiant from Sikorsky and Boeing did not convince the US Army as part of the FLRAA program.

This program was officially launched in 2019, with the objective of designing an aircraft capable of exceeding a cruising speed of 280 knots (520 km/h), a combat range of 300 nautical (560 km), and to transport 12 armed soldiers.

These characteristics, almost twice those of the UH-60, should make it possible to respond to developments in deep strike and enemy air defense means, forcing the devices to rotate between the collection point and the drop. zone, over much longer distances, without the rate of rotations being reduced.

Two models were selected, in the summer of 2021, to participate in the final competition. The SB-1 Defiant from Sikorsky and Boeing, based on a configuration with counter-rotating rotors and rear pusher propeller, and the V-280 Valor, from Bell Helicopters and Textron, based on a new version of the tilting rotors used on the V- 22 Ospreys.

In December 2022, it was the V-280 Valor which was selected, without much surprise, as he had taken such a remarkable lead over its competitor during test flights. 15,4 m long with a 25 meter wingspan, the Valor even displays performance superior to that of the US Army specifications, being able to transport 14 soldiers in combat over 930 km.

Bell V-280 Valor
The Bell V-280 Valor is the winner of the FLRAA competition to replace the UH60 Black Hawk

In addition, the difficulties encountered around the US Marine Corps V-22 seem to have been resolved, notably thanks to electric flight controls. The maintenance of the aircraft has also been at the heart of the concerns of the US Army, so as to guarantee greater availability than that of the Black Hawk. The downside is that the V-280 will cost a lot, $43 million per aircraft, almost four times the price of the HH-60G Pave Hawk, one of the most expensive in the Black Hawk range.

The status of the other Future Vertical Lift programs is uncertain. After the cancellation of the FARA program, which was to replace the OH-58 Kiowa reconnaissance helicopters and part of the AH-64 Apache, nothing indicates that the programs for the replacement of the CH-47 Chinook, and the AH-64 Apache, have progressed.

After the abandonment of the XM1299 ERCA, the US Army turns to a more reasonable approach to artillery

Although the M108/109 self-propelled gun did not belong to the BIG 5, having entered service in the 60s, this system continues to represent the bulk of the US Army's artillery capabilities, alongside medium-sized HIMARS systems. and long range.

Indeed, compared to the Russian 2S3 and 2S19, the performance of the M109A6 Paladin remained largely competitive until recently. However, faced with European models like the French Caesar, the Swedish Archer or the German Pzh 2000, but also Asian models like the South Korean K9, and especially the new Chinese PCL-181, all equipped with 52 caliber tubes, the performance of the Paladin is now marking time, with a range of 25 km, compared to 40 km for these new systems.

XM1299 ERCA US Army
M1E3, OMFV, FLRAA... The US Army at the dawn of a new BIG 5 15

It was therefore essential to regain the advantage in terms of self-propelled artillery. As is often the case, within the framework of BIG 6, the ambitions of the Extended Range Canon artillery program were disproportionate, with a range greater than 60 km, or even 70 km, with conventional shells, and more than 100 km with added propulsion shells. .

To achieve this, the XM1299 relied on a 58 caliber tube. Although the first test firings proved promising, it quickly became clear that the thermal and mechanical stresses applied during firing led to very rapid wear of the tube, incompatible with operational use. After searching in vain for alternatives, the program was finally abandoned a few months ago.

The fact remains that the need to modernize US artillery remains, and is even more pressing than ever. If the decisions to achieve this have not yet been made public by the US Army, the trajectory was disclosed recently, with the adaptation of a 52 caliber tube and a system of existing loading, on the M109 chassis.

If several options can be considered, the L/52 from Rheinmetall, which notably equips the Pzh2000 and the RCH-155, seems to be the favorite, even if the CN98 from the South Korean K9 Thunder also offers interesting capabilities. . Note that, recently, the US Army indicated that it might be interested in a truck-mounted gun configuration, like the French Caesar or the Israeli Atmos, to accompany its lighter brigades.

The unbeatable MiM-104 Patriot + THAAD couple supported by a multi-layer dimension with the M-SHORAD and the IFPC-2

If many major pieces of equipment in the US Army are due to be replaced in the years to come, there is one which, on the other hand, seems immovable. Indeed, the replacement of the MiM-104 Patriot anti-aircraft and anti-missile system, nor that of the THAAD exoatmospheric anti-ballistic system, which entered service in 2005, are not the subject of programs to date.

MIM-104 Patriot Bundeswehr
Despite its age, the Patriot continues to appeal on the international scene, particularly in Europe.

It must be said that the Patriot continues, even today, to seduce, particularly on the international scene, and that it has proven itself effective in Ukraine, including, it seems, against the most advanced ballistic systems. advanced vehicles used by the Russian armies, such as the Kinzhal airborne missile and the 3M22 Tzirkon hypersonic cruise missile.

However, the US Army's air defense doctrine has evolved profoundly in recent years. Where this was based on the use of the Patriot at long and medium range, and the FIM-92 Stinger, at very short range, relying largely on the supposed air superiority of the US Air Force for the rest , this is about to evolve towards a multi-layer air defense, close to that implemented in China and Russia.

Moreover, it is not so much the fear of letting the adversary obtain air superiority that guides this development, as that of seeing the US Air Force (or the US Navy) not succeed in obtaining it, due to opposing air defenses, leaving the US Army exposed to enemy medium- and long-range missiles and attack systems.

For mid-range defense, the US Army develops the IFPC-2 program for Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2-Intercept, a system using different types of missiles ranging from the Stinger (6 km) to the AIM-9X Sidewinder (40 km) and the Israeli Tamir missile (75 km) of the Iron Dome system.

The IFPC-2 consists of an AN/MPQ-64 sentinel radar mounted on a truck, accompanied by 15-tube MML launch systems, also on a truck, allowing the system to have great maneuverability, to support the divisions and American brigades.

M-SHORAD US Army
The US Army has ordered 144 M-SHORAD to provide close protection for its units.

At shorter range, the US Army has developed the M-SHORAD, a Stryker armored vehicle mounted with a Leonardo turret, armed with a 30 mm cannon, four Stinger missiles, two Hellfire missiles, a radar short-range and an electro-optical aiming system.

Note that the two Hellfire missiles will soon be disembarked, to be replaced by a pod with 4 additional Stingers, after it became obvious that the missile, initially designed to be airborne, was very resistant to the mechanical constraints linked to deployment on all-terrain vehicle. Moreover, from now on, the use of Hellfires is strictly prohibited on M-SHORAD, according to a security procedure issued by the US Army.

The four echelons of multi-layered air defense of the US Army, THAAD, Patriot, IFPC-2 and M-SHORAD, are designed to collaborate and integrate a defense system, to optimize its effectiveness, whether against missiles ballistics (THAAD and Patriot PAC), aircraft, helicopters and cruise missiles (Patriot, IFPC and M-SHORAD), and against the RAM threat (Rocket, Artillery, Mortar) (IFPC-2 and M-SHORAD).

Conclusion

As we can see, the US Army is at the dawn of a profound transformation, certainly born with pain, after two decades of failed programs. This proves very promising, to restore to American units the technological ascendancy sought, at least against Russian forces.

Indeed, the added value of the new American systems is barely debated, given the developments underway in Moscow. On the other hand, when faced with China and the People's Liberation Army, the conclusion turns out to be much less clear-cut and obvious.

As in the naval and air domain, Chinese land forces have been carrying out, for several years, a modernization program that is as effective as it is discreet, capable of being on par with American programs, with an increasingly short time gap.

PCL-181 APL
Chinese land military technology is also evolving rapidly, as shown by the PCL-181 cannon, very inspired by the French Caesar.

The whole question today is whether the time wasted by the US Army, in the years 2000 and 2010, through programs as sterile as they were costly, did not ultimately allow Chinese industrialists and military , to catch up with the technological gap that they had then, and if they have not, today, caught up with the American trajectory in this area.

If necessary, considering the performance of the most visible part of the Chinese military industrial iceberg, its naval industry, we can fear that it will prove difficult for the United States to cope with Chinese industrial dynamics in these areas, and which would be exacerbated in the event of strong tensions. or conflict.

Article from June 2024 in full version until July 20, 2024

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