For more than a decade, the Army’s been in the market to replace its Cold War-era M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the 33-ton tank first put into service in 1981. It hasn’t been easy. Although it’s showing its age, the Bradley is still considered a reliable workhorse. A new one would have to be a significant improvement to justify the estimated $32 billion it will cost to develop and build. Now BAE Systems, the British defense giant that manufactured the Bradley, is betting it’s found a design that will win over the Pentagon and the public: the world’s first green tank.
The proposed hybrid-electric vehicle, which exists only on paper, would have some advantages over the Bradley: a bigger gun, stronger armor, and room for a dozen troops inside, up from nine. Like the Toyota Prius and General Motors’ Chevy Volt, it could operate on conventional fuel or electric power, and its lithium-ion batteries would recharge when the vehicle braked. BAE says the propulsion system—similar to those used in some tractors and heavy-duty trucks—would have fewer moving parts, better gas mileage, and faster acceleration than a conventional diesel engine. “Fuel efficiency is a significant contributor to what makes the hybrid desirable,” says Mark Signorelli, the company’s vice president and general manager of vehicle systems.
Sounds cool, except in real life BAE’s green tank might not turn out to be green, just a little less brown. At a hulking 70 tons, it wouldn’t get even a single mile to the gallon of diesel. BAE says the vehicle would consume 4.61 gallons of fuel per hour when idling. That’s better than the 10 gallons burned by conventional U.S. tanks of its size, but there’s no savings in fuel economy over the smaller Bradley it would replace, according to a study by the Congressional Budget Office.
BAE isn’t the only defense company vying for the contract. Virginia-based General Dynamics, maker of the M1 Abrams tank, is proposing a more conventional combat vehicle, though it hasn’t divulged details. The Pentagon has already awarded the two companies a total of $890 million to refine their designs, and last year Congress approved another $640 million for development that hasn’t yet been spent. Only one company will eventually win the contract for the vehicles, which the Pentagon wants to be ready by 2019. The Army is interested in buying 1,904 of them, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, at a cost of as much as $17 million apiece, the Congressional Research Service estimates.
That’s four times more than a Bradley—and may be difficult for the Pentagon to sell Congress as the military shifts its resources from sprawling ground wars to smaller conflicts and fighting terrorism. “It is a shocking amount of money for a big leap in technical performance but a modest leap in operational performance,” says James Hasik, a defense industry consultant who has worked with BAE. “You’re not going to chase an insurgent with a 70-ton vehicle.”