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Combat Vehicles 

Army’s Next Combat Vehicle: New Beginning or FCS Sequel? 

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By Sandra I. Erwin 

The Army is racing toward a September deadline to present a convincing case to the secretary of defense that it should receive funds to begin designing a new combat vehicle next year.

The goal is to persuade Defense Secretary Robert Gates to let the Army keep billions of dollars in its budget — which would have been spent on the now-canceled Future Combat Systems — to fund a new project.

This could be a tough uphill battle for the Army, considering how intensely — and unsuccessfully — service leaders had pleaded for Gates to not terminate the program. As originally conceived, FCS was a family of combat vehicles, robots and sensors connected into a battle command network.

Gates allowed for some pieces of the program to stay alive but ordered the cancelation of the combat vehicles that were being designed as replacements for the Abrams main battle tank, the Bradley infantry vehicle and the Paladin howitzer.  

The Army for years had struggled to explain why it needed FCS and what benefits the system would bring to the force. Gates regarded it as a symbol of an earlier era, when the Pentagon believed that high-tech weapons were more important than people skills. On several occasions, he chastised FCS for lacking “utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades.” He also was displeased by the huge price tag — $160 billion — and by the Army’s management of the program. Because FCS was so complex, the service outsourced the “systems integration” to a private contractor, the Boeing Co. Gates also complained that the Army’s FCS-centric strategy for modernizing its combat brigades did not make room for the mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) trucks that are now being shipped to deployed units. The Defense Department is spending nearly $30 billion on MRAP vehicles, which are considered essential for soldiers to survive in mine-infested war zones, but the Army had no formal plans to include the vehicle in the design of its future FCS brigades.

Army leaders now must make a strong pitch to Gates that whatever new combat vehicle program they end up proposing will represent the needs of the fighting force.

Before he canceled FCS, “Secretary Gates gave us three opportunities to make our case,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference in Washington, D.C. “But I could not convince him that we were incorporating the lessons of the current fight. I thought we had an 80 percent solution. He didn’t think we had enough,” he said. “That was a fundamental disagreement.”

Gates assured Casey that the FCS money would be “fenced” to pay for a replacement. Casey believes the Army can field a new vehicle in five to seven years.

In April, Casey directed the Army Training and Doctrine Command to come up with a new concept by Aug. 31. This is lightning speed for the Army, considering that it had been working on FCS for more than eight years and had little hardware to show for it.

Army officials recognize that they are walking a fine line. They must meet the September deadline in order to secure funding in the fiscal year 2011 budget. But if they are perceived as rushing the process, they will be criticized for not having thought it through enough, said Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, Army deputy chief of staff for resources.  

This is being done with a “sense of urgency” Speakes said at a Pentagon news conference. The Army will deliver a “detailed blueprint” of how it will integrate a new ground combat vehicle with the existing vehicles and MRAPs into all its brigades, he said. The secretary of defense “wanted us to get it right.”

The budget leaves the building by mid-December. “If we’re going to make adjustments to programs, it has to be done in fiscal 2011,” said Speakes.

One big problem for the Army is that it wants financial support for a vehicle that still is on the drawing board. A similar scenario dogged FCS for years and ultimately led to its demise.

It is important for the Army to bring forward a convincing case not just to the secretary of defense but also to Congress, said Speakes. “We can’t sit with a program that’s not well defined and expect to enjoy continued support.”

But it’s not yet clear how this new concept for a future combat vehicle marks any drastic departure from FCS. In mid-June, Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli hosted a “ground combat vehicle blue ribbon panel” workshop to solicit “broad, candid ideas, thoughts, and information from distinguished individuals from across the Defense Department, academia and interested groups.”

The vice chief’s directive was that the Army “should consider a wide perspective,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Harrison, director of joint and futures capabilities at Army headquarters. Chiarelli specifically wanted to go beyond the “requirements and force development” community that traditionally has been responsible for recommending what weapon systems the Army should buy. He asked for “input from people who have the best interest of the soldiers at heart,” Harrison said in a Pentagon talk radio webcast. “We are opening up the tent.”

Chiarelli, who previously was second in command — under Casey — of U.S. troops in Iraq, has been an outspoken critic of the Army’s acquisition process and its repeated failures to meet the needs of combat troops.

Speakes said the latest approach proves that the Army is not “going off in isolation” to develop its future vehicle. “It’s a commitment to get popular support,” he said.

The Army is not going down the same path as it did with FCS, insisted Lt. Gen. Ross Thompson, principal military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

But Thompson still defended the notion — that was central to FCS — that the pieces of a brigade should “work together” in a network. He also stood up for FCS as a novel concept that “bumped up against the old way of doing things in the Army, the Defense Department and Capitol Hill.”

The new vehicle program, like FCS, will still be a “system of systems,” but it will not be managed by a single contractor. “We’re going to take one large major acquisition program and break it up into smaller programs, maybe four,” said Thompson. “All programs have to work together inside an operational formation. When we created FCS we wanted the technologies to work together early on.”

The Defense Department no longer wants to rely on “lead systems integrators” such as Boeing to oversee large programs. LSIs were popular when FCS got under way and lately have fallen out of favor. But there’s hardly a dividing line between a prime contractor and an LSI, and nobody is talking about ending the use of prime contractors, Thompson said. “You could have a dozen lawyers in a room” and they probably would not be able to articulate clearly the difference between an LSI and prime contractor.

Boeing still retains its systems integrator role for the development of the non-combat vehicle pieces of FCS. The company will be the prime contractor for equipping three brigades with new missile launchers, tactical unmanned ground sensors, urban unattended ground sensors, small unmanned ground and air vehicles, and network integration kits.

After the three brigades are completed, the Army will reevaluate its options, Thompson said.

Gates did not necessarily object to fielding these technologies to more than three brigades, but he contended that there may be other pieces of equipment that soldiers need that were not factored into the original FCS plan. One of Gates’ main criticisms of the Army’s weapons procurement approach is that its budget is focused on big-ticket items and relies on “supplemental” funds to pay for more mundane soldier equipment needs.

Speakes said he is worried that Gates’ mandate to fund all Army equipment requirements in the regular budget will make current modernization plans unaffordable. 

“The Army has to take existing funds and make this work,” said Speakes. The budget beginning in 2011 must pay for the surviving pieces of FCS, maintain the current force and build a concept for a new combat vehicle that has legs, he said.

Following Gates’ April announcement that FCS vehicles would not be funded in the 2010 budget, “We realized that we hadn’t been specific,” said Speakes. “We lacked a tailored concept” for how to modernize a brigade not just with new vehicles but also with MRAPs and armored humvees.

The lack of specificity about the new vehicle could also become a problem this time around. Over the summer, he said, “We are seeing a potential erosion to our budget authority because of the ambiguity of our program.”

The Army is pleased to be getting a do-over after a bruising FCS defeat, but officials are still apprehensive about the future because they fear the Army will be penalized for its past mistakes. “We’re very concerned about the Army’s ability to sustain the funding that we need,” Speakes said.

As was the case with FCS, members of the defense committees on Capitol Hill are voicing angst about the Army’s still undefined future ground combat vehicle and overall modernization. If the Army does not lock in support now, it may lose it, Speakes laments. “There are pressing needs in this country, and a natural desire to move money in other directions” such as health care or other domestic priorities.

Thompson predicts a bumpy road ahead as the Army tries to sell its plan to lawmakers. “There is some turmoil now in defining the requirement and putting together the acquisition piece. But while we’re in turmoil we need as much stability as possible in the funding,” he said. “The Army does need a ground combat vehicle and must continue to modernize … If funding erodes in the out-years, the Army will not be able to modernize.”

Rickey Smith, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, oversees the group that is drafting an “operational and organizational” plan for a new combat vehicle. But the blueprint is not expected to specify details such as vehicle weight, tracks or wheels, or armor protection. The group only will ask for certain levels of “survivability, reliability and mobility,” said Smith.

“There are a lot of variables.”

Technology “maturity” was a major criticism of FCS. The Army, for instance, wanted to equip vehicles with high-tech systems such as active protection — systems that protect a vehicle by detecting and destroying incoming projectiles. The Army spent years developing these systems but ultimately realized that they were too costly and created complications such as greater demand for power generation, Speakes said.

Gates did not buy into the Army’s vision that FCS would not need as much armor as a tank because its omniscient access to information would keep vehicles out of harm’s way. He blamed the Army for not having enough armored trucks in Iraq, hence the MRAP program.

Thompson seems bothered by the attention paid to MRAP as if these trucks could conceivably become substitutes for combat vehicles. The Army owns 12,000 MRAPs, he said. That’s only 3 percent of the Army’s wheeled vehicles. “They are not fighting vehicles,” Thomson said. “They’re protected trucks to get soldiers from point A to point B. Soldiers don’t fight from an MRAP. People sometimes confuse that and say MRAPs are replacement for Bradleys or tanks,” he said. “There is a key distinction that is not well appreciated sometimes.”

The combat vehicle fleet currently includes 16,000 Bradleys, tanks, armored personnel carriers and howitzers. “They need to be modernized,” Thompson said. The Army launched five programs in the last 20 years and none reached fruition.

Although Gates promised Army leaders that they could transfer money that they would have spent on FCS into a new combat vehicle, service officials are not about to propose one as expensive as FCS. “We’re not going to come up with another program that’s $150 billion,” said Casey. “The next one is going to be simpler,” he said. He acknowledged that FCS always had been a tough sell. “We could not explain it. We spent more time explaining the program, unsuccessfully, than actually working on the program.”

Therein lies the dilemma for the Army: How to sell a project to build a new vehicle that has not yet been designed and must be built for future war scenarios that nobody can predict. All the while, the project must still satisfy Congress’ demands for precise cost schedule and performance estimates. “We recognize that there’s a lot of reason for concern out there,” said Speakes. On one hand, the Army is criticized for being “slow, ponderous, fossilized, irrelevant to the needs of soldiers,” he said. But as a taxpayer, “you demand a well thought solution.

“We’ve had a painful journey since 2003. We ought to be able to summarize those lessons and come forward with a convincing case. But it’s irrelevant if it doesn’t get into the budget.”               
Reader Comments

Re: Army’s Next Combat Vehicle: New Beginning or FCS Sequel?

The article is not misleading. The word 'combat' used in the article is not automatically synonymous nor interchangeable with the word 'armored'. What is clear is that true combat ops (up for further definition etc) do not utilize MRAP or other tactical wheeled vehicles.

Bob T on 04/05/2010 at 12:29

Re: Army’s Next Combat Vehicle: New Beginning or FCS Sequel?

It's highly misleading to claim that no armored vehicle programs in the past twenty years have reached fruition. The Army has bought lots of Strykers and MRAPs—all armored and heavily used in combat. It's just that the Army keeps canceling its developmental programs in favor of off-the-shelf or contractor-developed products. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Indeed, it may signal that the efficient developer of new products is not necessarily TACOM.

James Hasik on 08/17/2009 at 12:18

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