Watchers of the Army’s largest ever high-tech weapons project, the Future Combat Systems, may have experienced a classic case of déjà vu last month — when the service announced its latest plan to rush FCS technologies to the front lines.
“We’re listening to our soldiers and commanders in the field, and we are giving them the capabilities they need — as fast as we can so that they can win in the current fight,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said June 26.
Slightly more than a year ago, a similar pitch was heard at an Association of the U.S. Army conference, where officials unveiled with much fanfare a video of recent experiments that showed that some of the FCS hardware — specifically sensors, robots and drones — was going to be ready for real-world combat sooner than expected.
Even as far back as July 2004, Army officials trumpeted plans to “accelerate the delivery of selected FCS capabilities [called spin-outs] to the current force.”
Conceived as a family of sophisticated combat vehicles, cannons, missile launchers, robots and aerial drones — all connected into a common network, FCS was once viewed as the realization of the Army’s dream of becoming a truly high-tech force. But the project has faltered in recent years for several reasons, including skepticism from lawmakers who don’t see the benefits of FCS and question its $160 billion price tag.
Other hurdles for the program have been its inability to live up to the hype and the realization that the Army may have put too many eggs in the FCS basket, at the expense of more pressing needs, such as armored trucks, communications systems and other essential combat equipment. It has also been difficult for the Army to promote FCS because of its piecemeal delivery.
A resounding wake-up call came earlier this year when Defense Secretary Robert Gates lumped FCS into the category of programs that suffer from “next war-itis” — a term he coined to describe the military services’ obsession with planning for a future war and not focusing on winning the current one.
The timing of the latest announcement that the Army will be expediting the deployment of FCS sensors and robots, however, is not a reaction to Gates’ comments, said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. The notion that the Army wants to speed up the FCS program is not new, Vane said at a Pentagon news conference. “Gates’ comments reinforced the direction we’re going,” he added.
The goal is to begin equipping infantry brigades with selected FCS technologies by 2011 — three years earlier than previously scheduled.
The equipment to be expedited includes unattended ground sensors, a non-line-of-sight missile launcher and network kits for humvee trucks. Small surveillance unmanned aircraft and reconnaissance robots also are expected to be part of that list.
The move appears to have pleased Gates. “I was very impressed by the briefing that I received with the restructured FCS program, and in part because it focuses on what they can do nearer term to help the infantry brigade combat teams and to get new technologies into their hands,” he told reporters. “I think FCS, as they’ve restructured it, deserves support.”
But even if the program scored a political victory by winning over a skeptical secretary of defense, there may still be more trouble ahead, according to observers and industry analysts. One fundamental question that the Army has not answered is why it has not been able to accelerate the deployment of these sensors and robots sooner, considering that these technologies were developed years ago and have existed at least in prototype form.
The value of small robots and unattended sensors became evident in Afghanistan in 2001, and soldiers in Iraq began asking for unmanned surveillance aircraft in 2003. Although several hundred bomb-disposal robots have been shipped to the war zones, the idea that infantry brigades will not be fully equipped with these technologies until 2011 is reminiscent of the Army’s equipment plight in 2004, when it was caught with insufficient supplies of body and truck armor, and spent two years ramping up the industrial base to meet the demand.
As much as the Army wanted to move up the deliveries of robots and sensors back in 2004, it did not have an industrial base that could produce large enough quantities, concludes an industry analyst.
“The industrial base is the real answer” to why FCS has not delivered on earlier promises, said the analyst, who requested anonymity.
“The government chose a bunch of developmental companies that could do interesting little developmental projects but really had no mass production capabilities,” he said. Some companies such as AeroEnvironment and iRobot have expanded their production capacity during the past several years and are now able to deliver larger quantities of small UAVs and ground robots. Honeywell, which makes a “micro air vehicle” that is expected to be part of the FCS program, also was able to increase production. But for the most part, the companies that design many of the high-tech systems on the Army’s wish-list are engineering shops that only can build small numbers of prototypes, the analyst said. “It’s a very serious industrial base problem.”
Not only does the Army need manufacturers that can meet large orders, but also companies that can comply with the military’s strict ruggedness specifications, as well as provide training and maintenance support in the field. Army acquisition officials have spent the past several years working with several companies that design robots to modify existing commercial systems for military use. These industrial base readiness problems have slowed down FCS, said the analyst. “That’s what is taking so long with the FCS unmanned vehicles.
“It is a significant problem and it will continue to be a significant problem,” he said. Military technology planners may come up with a great idea, “but we don’t know who can build it … It’s an interesting policy dilemma.”
In its “Annual Industrial Capabilities Report to Congress,” the Defense Department echoed these concerns about the nation’s industrial capabilities to make robotics vehicles.
A study by the Pentagon’s “joint ground robotics” group concluded that a limited number of contractors have capacity levels that could “support minor additional workloads at this time,” the report said, although it predicted that “capacity will be available to support future unmanned ground vehicle workloads.”
All 18 of the contractors assessed were rated either a “low or moderate industrial/technology risk,” the report said. “The analysis also identified two high financial risk contractors that will continue to be monitored.”
The Defense Department is currently conducting a study of the unmanned vehicle market to “determine what changes, if any, to defense industrial policy are needed,” said the report.
As to what the future holds for FCS, the Army insists that the program will overcome current obstacles. “We are not into contemplating the defeat of FCS,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, Army deputy chief of staff for resources.
The $160 billion price tag for FCS will ensure that scrutiny of the program will continue. In addition to around-the-clock oversight from the Government Accountability Office, FCS is being watched closely by the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, John Young. In a June 2008 memo to his staff, Young singled out the FCS as an example of a program that is not working hard enough to reduce costs.
Young cited a Reuters news story in which Lt. Col. Scott Turner, the Army’s deputy director for FCS integration, said “If you look at the capability it brings, I don’t think the price is that bad.”
Young’s point was that these statements contribute to the escalating cost of weapons systems, including FCS. “I am not aware of any system that can legitimately take that attitude,” Young wrote in the memo. “Stop assuming and granting, and saying that prices will automatically be higher. We must all work to lower prices.”