The Army Just Selected Its First Light Tank In Decades
The light tanks, known as as Mobile Protected Firepower Vehicles, will provide armored fire support for light infantry.
For the first time since the Cold War, the U.S. Army is set to acquire and field a new light tank. The service announced today that General Dynamics Land Systems has won its Mobile Protected Firepower program competition and has been awarded a contract worth up to $1.14 billion.
The initial Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) contract award will cover an initial low-rate production order of 96 vehicles. The Army expects to take delivery of the first examples, from an initial lot of 26 MPFs, in December 2023 and have its first unit fully equipped with them by 2025. The service presently plans to buy a total of 504 new light tanks, with most of them arriving by the end of 2035. It's not immediately clear if this figure includes any of the preproduction examples that General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) already supplied for testing.
The GDLS MPF design, which is set to public receive a formal name this fall at the Association of the U.S. Army's main annual convention in Wasghtion, D.C, is based on the company's Griffin II. Its main armament is a 105mm gun – unlike the 120mm type found on the original Griffin demonstrator – mounted in a turret derived from the one on the M1 Abrams tank. It uses a version of the fire control system used in the M1A2 System Enhanced Package Version 3 (SEPv3) variant, which you can read more about here.
Griffin II was itself derived from the Austrian-Spanish ASCOD armored vehicle series, which also formed the basis of the much-troubled Ajax infantry fighting vehicle for the British Army. GDLS has also put forward another version of the Griffin, known as the Griffin III, as a contender for the Army's Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) program, which is focused primarily on finding a replacement for the service's Bradley fighting vehicles.
“The MPF program did exactly what the Army asked, which was to complete a competitive and accelerated rapid prototyping effort with Soldier touchpoints,” Doug Bush, the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology, said in a statement. "MPF is a benchmark program, as the acquisition and requirement communities worked together to complete the [middle-tier acquisition rapid-prototyping] phase and move this system into production in just under four years."
“This achieved everything we were intending to," Army Brig. Gen. Glenn Dean, the service's Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems, told reporters at a roundtable earlier today, according to Breaking Defense. "We had two vendors. They were competitive."
The MPF program began in 2015 and the Army down-selected to designs from GDLS and BAE Systems in 2018. BAE Systems' entry was based on the M8 Buford Armored Gun System (AGS) light tank, which was developed for the Army in the 1980s under a separate program that was then canceled in 1996.
The M8 had been slated to replace the service's last light tank, the M551A1 Sheridan, a Vietnam War-era design that had an overly complex 152mm gun/missile launcher as its primary armament. The last M551A1s were retired from active duty service in 1997. A small number of Sheridans remained in inventory for use as mock enemy vehicles during large-scale training exercises until 2003.
Under the Army's current plans, the majority of the new MPFs will be spread across four battalions. These units will provide additional armored firepower for the service's dismounted Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs), which currently only have light tactical vehicles – Humvees that are now in the process of being replaced by Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLTV) – armed with .50 caliber M2 machine guns, 40mm Mk 19 automatic grenade launchers, and TOW anti-tank missiles, for organic mobile fire support.
“The answer is in the name," Army Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team, told reporters when asked what the primary mission of these vehicles would be earlier today, according to Breaking Defense. "It’ll give the light infantry units a mobile, protected firepower that … can remove impediments on the battlefield [like light armored vehicles and fortifications] to ensure our infantry women and men make it to the objective."
Exactly how these vehicles will be deployed and employed would seem to remain to be seen. Light is relative in the case of the MPF design, which is is said to be around 38 tons. This is only around two tons lighter than the Army's new M2A4 Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, but is 20 tons heavier than the M551A1. It is of course substantially lighter than the Army's latest versions of the M1 tank, which are over 70 tons.
The Army had originally described MPF more in terms of a spiritual successor to the Sheridan, which was not only air-transportable, but also air-droppable. The requirement for the new MPF to be parachutable onto the battlefield was subsequently dropped. A single Air Force C-17A Globemaster III cargo aircraft is expected to be able to carry two of them at a time when flying them to forward airstrips.
It's unclear whether any of the Army's airborne formations will now receive these new light tanks. However, a picture, seen below, from the previous test that the service released today shows an MPF flying an 82nd Airborne Division flag.
The Army's selection of a winning MPF design also comes amid a renewed debate about the future of tanks and other heavier armored vehicles based on observations from Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The MPF program itself had first emerged as part of a broader shift in focus within the Army, and the U.S. military as a whole, toward being better prepared for more conventional conflicts in light of Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and its subsequent support for separatists in that country's eastern Donbas region.
Regardless, a quarter of a century after the retirement of the M551A1 from combat duty with no direct replacement in the wings, the Army is now set to begin buying a new fleet of light tanks.
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