Critics of New Army Vehicle Get a Lot of Mileage Per Tankful
On the red clay shores of Victory Pond, Sgt. Kent Brewer clambers proudly into the commander’s seat of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, a Space Age tool of war that some critics call an $11-billion boondoggle.
But not Brewer, a native of Billings, Mont., who is teaching other soldiers how war might be fought in late 20th-Century Europe.
“If you’ve ever played ‘Star Wars’ video games, then you can shoot this,” says Brewer, showing off the weapons system inside the cramped turret of the Bradley, a tracked vehicle that looks like a tank but isn’t.
“With this sight, we can kill an enemy tank even at night, something the Soviets can’t do, or at least can’t do as well,” Brewer says.
The sighting system on this potent but costly weapon gives the gunner two levels of magnification and the ability to see in the dark, Brewer explains. He demonstrates how a device that looks like a sawed-off steering wheel with buttons fires the Bradley’s TOW anti-tank missiles, its 25-millimeter cannon and 7.62-millimeter machine gun.
The Army says it needs the Bradley’s considerable firepower to counter the Soviet edge in Europe, where 20,333 U.S. and other NATO tanks face 52,600 tanks from the Kremlin-led Warsaw Pact.
But critics of the Bradley--and there are many--call it a lemon and argue that it is a textbook case of what is wrong with the Pentagon.
In addition to the $1.55-million price tag and the nearly 20 years it took to design and deliver the weapon, a debate also rages over whether the Bradley is the right weapon.
“This is not the vehicle that will defeat the Russians,” says Phillip G. Svalya, an attorney who represents Henry Boisvert, a former engineer for FMC Corp. of San Jose, Calif., the maker of the Bradley.
Acted as Whistle-Blower
Boisvert, acting as a whistle-blower, is suing FMC for allegedly failing to meet contract obligations on the Bradley by not taking corrective action after prototypes failed swimming tests. The Justice Department declined to join the suit, which is pending.
In a war, Svalya argues, Bradley formations could be trapped and destroyed between the rivers that lace Europe.
That kind of talk angers many soldiers at Ft. Benning, “the Home of the Infantry” near Columbus, Ga.
“The Bradley would make a good bass boat, except it’s almost too fast to troll,” boasts Army Lt. Col. Mike Tesdahl, who directs the Army’s Bradley training program.
As Tesdahl extols the virtues of the vehicle, Brewer prepares a 50,000-pound Bradley to swim across Victory Pond.
Brewer and his crew need about three minutes to transform the Bradley into an ungainly boat. It rumbles down a gentle slope, chugs across the pond and gingerly climbs a red clay bank.
A crewman scrambles out and takes 25 seconds to lower the front edge of an incongruous green canvas “swimming skirt,” which rises from all four sides of the vehicle and prevents it from swamping in turbulence.
The short cruise ends with all hands safe and dry. But a small sign on the front left-hand corner of the vehicle warns: “Soldiers Can Drown,” a sober reminder that the skirt doesn’t always work: A dozen Bradleys have sunk or been swamped in about 3,000 swimming tests. No one has drowned.
The commander of the 29th Regiment, Col. John Fuller, wishes that the Bradley was a better swimmer.
“If I were to design a weapon, which you and I as taxpayers could afford, I would design a better swim capability,” Fuller says. “I would rather not have to erect a swim barrier.”
Army boasting about the Bradley’s firepower angers the critics.
“Enough of this Rambo rhetoric concerning the Bradley,” said Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), as he released a study last March concluding that infantry riding in the Bradley’s predecessor, the M-113, were less vulnerable to enemy fire. The M-113, said Roth, is more efficient because it carries 12 infantrymen plus a crew of three, versus six infantrymen and a crew of three in the Bradley.
6 Times Costlier
The Bradley’s price tag makes it a little more than six times as expensive as the M-113.
Congressional watchdogs also have found fault with the Bradley’s electronic sighting system, its transmission and even its bilge pump.
Anthony Battista, an expert on procurement employed by the House Armed Services Committee, called the Bradley a gold-plated boondoggle, “a textbook example of how not to build a weapons system.”
The Bradley is named after Gen. Omar N. Bradley, the “soldier’s soldier,” who led the 1.3-million-man 12th Army Group to free Paris in World War II and was later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The vehicle traces its history to 1964, when the Army began casting about for an M-113 follow-on. Eight years later, the Pentagon approved production of the Mechanized Infantry Combat Vehicle, equipped with a 20-millimeter cannon, to weigh 35,000 pounds and cost $115,000 apiece.
Within the next year, the Army decided to equip the vehicle with a more rapid-fire cannon to fight other armored vehicles. That meant adding more armor, to protect the troops against anti-tank fire, and boosted the weight by 7,000 pounds, to 42,000 pounds.
Four years later, the Army decided to add TOW missiles to enable the Bradley to fight tanks. But that forced the designers to expand the turret from one to two people, widen its diameter from 48 inches to 60 inches and add another 8,000 pounds, bringing the weight to its current 50,000 pounds, according to a report by Battista.
“They just kept hanging weapons on it--like a Christmas tree,” says another congressional investigator, Frank Papineau.
Because so much extra weight went into the turret, the Bradley became top-heavy. To meet the contract requirement that it be able to swim the numerous rivers in Europe, the Bradley required the troublesome swim skirt.
Giving the Bradley the speed and firepower to put it at the heart of a tank battle created another problem. Its armor is thin compared to battle tanks, and it carries far more explosive ammunition than the M-113.
Pentagon war games indicate that the Bradley is more likely to draw anti-tank fire than the M-113 and tests have shown that because it carries more ammunition, it could be blown to smithereens if struck by an anti-tank projectile.
Those dangers led to fireworks on Capitol Hill and prompted the Army to rearrange ammunition inside the Bradley to make it less vulnerable.
Congress passed a resolution in May requiring the Army to find a better way to protect the Bradley against anti-tank rounds, possibly by adding so-called “reactive armor” which could take the weight up an additional 3,000-to-5,000 pounds.
The criticism from Congress has also sparked a sometimes bitter Army campaign to “Save Our Bradley,” or “SOB.”
Retired Army Gen. Mike Lynch, a Bradley critic, has said he was under pressure from other officers to support the weapon.
“I am not anti-Bradley,” Lynch says. “I am pro-Army. I am saying that anybody who peddles the Bradley with all that crap on it doesn’t have the Army’s best interests at heart.”
But despite all its misgivings, Congress has consistently endorsed the $11-billion Bradley program.
So far, the Army has bought about 3,500 vehicles of the total projected order of 6,882 and stationed most of them in Europe.
The numbers still add up in the Kremlin’s favor. The U.S. Army has a total of 21,650 armored personnel carriers, including 7,500 M-113s, far short of the Red Army’s 70,000 armored personnel carriers. The Soviet figure includes 24,000 BMPs, roughly the equivalent of the Bradley, according to the Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The BMP, for Boyeva Mashina Pekhota or Infantry Combat Vehicle, entered the Soviet arsenal in 1966, more than 15 years before the Bradley, and carries the Sagger anti-tank missile, roughly the equivalent of the U.S. TOW. The Soviet version is substantially lighter, 32,000 pounds, and swims without a swim curtain.
Critics of the Bradley say that the BMP is faster and more maneuverable. The Army argues that, in battle, the U.S. vehicle would prevail because of superior firepower and armor.
The argument over the relative merits of the two machines are ceaseless but Steven R. Bowman, an analyst with the Congressional Research Service, has concluded that the Army is probably right.
The Army contends that much of the criticism stems from confusion about the mission of the Bradley.
“The Bradley looks like a tank but isn’t,” says Fuller, the commander of the 29th.
Despite its weight, the Bradley travels fast enough--40 m.p.h.--to keep pace with the latest Army tank, the M-1 Abrams.
“It is a revolutionary improvement in our capability,” says Fuller, who like most of the dozen soldiers interviewed at Benning, favored the Bradley over the M-113.
The M-113 armored personnel carrier seems primitive compared to the Bradley. It looks like a flat-topped metal box with benches inside and is armed only with a .50-caliber machine gun with a bead sight like that found on a BB gun.
During a demonstration at Benning, a Bradley ran circles around an M-113 over a bumpy course. The M-113 was forced to back out of an eight-foot wide ditch that the Bradley eased across. And in the firing demonstration, the M-113’s .50-caliber machine gun wildly sprayed tracer fire in the general direction of a target 3,300 feet away, but hit it only sporadically.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.