TECHNOLOGY TOMORROW LAND FORCES
Future Combat Systems Didn’t Truly Die
Photo: Defense Dept.
Mention the words “Future Combat Systems” around Army officials, lawmakers or think tank types and their gut reaction will inevitably be a groan. In fact, it’s probably not a good idea to mention the program in the presence of senior service officials at all.
Eight years after its cancellation, some say the service’s reputation has still not recovered from the $18 billion spent on a program that went nowhere. Shortly after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates pulled the plug on the program, the Army went into a procurement trough. Sequestration and the Budget Control Act necessitated tradeoffs and readiness was prioritized over modernization.
But did Future Combat Systems truly go nowhere? A look at current Army research-and-development priorities and what the Army is acquiring suggests that the service will end up with most of the core FCS elements and capabilities despite the program going down in flames, and the subsequent tight budgets.
The idea was to field a dozen new vehicles, along with a sophisticated communications backbone — both of them requiring lots of software and advanced — sometimes undeveloped technologies. For Gates, it was obvious after years of restructuring, delays and cost overruns that the service had bit off more than it could chew and it would be throwing good money after bad with an ultimate price tag of something close to $92 billion.
But another of the secretary’s stated reasons for canceling the program was that the era of big armies facing off against each other was over. It was a world of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. That was the “future,” not the Cold War’s Fulda Gap scenario, where Russia faced off against U.S. tank forces on the plains of Europe.
The counterinsurgency fight continues in Afghanistan, but the “big armies” are back. A resurgent Russia forced the military to quickly supplement its budget with the European Reassurance Initiative, to gird against the threat from the East. And a war on the Korean Peninsula appears closer than ever.
The pendulum may someday swing back to “small wars,” but for now Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks of fighting near-peer competitors in anti-access/area-denied battle zones, where forces will have to be both mobile and survivable, which happened to be two hallmarks of the FCS program.
Eight years later, it is interesting to look at some of the FCS subsystems and where they are today, purely from a technology readiness level. The Army may get its Future Combat Systems — or something akin to it, and sooner rather than later. It looks like it will be an evolution, not a revolution as conceived.
Here is a list of FCS’ main elements and where they are today, or where they will be relatively soon:
Manned Vehicles: The centerpiece of the program was to be its tracked and wheeled fighting and support vehicles. Its non-line-of-sight cannon lived on as the M109A7 155 mm self-propelled Howitzer, which can provide the shoot-and-scoot capability as FCS promised. It is now in low-rate initial production. Check that off the list. The Army is also upgrading Strykers with 30 mm cannons, leveraging technologies stemming from FCS.
The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, another FCS consolation program, is on track to replace the M113 armored personnel carrier. It will come in five variants: general purpose, medical evacuation, medical treatment, mortar carrier and mission command. These will replace most of the FCS support vehicles. Check.
Robotic Vehicles: FCS was to be a mix of manned and robotic vehicles. When Army thinkers were conceiving the program back in 1999, the service was just scratching the surface on what robotics could do for it. It initially had four unmanned aerial vehicles, then later pared that down to two. Today, UAVs of every size and shape — fixed wing and rotary — are readily available, including handheld models appropriate for the platoon level. The service continues to invest R&D dollars in robotic wingman technology for ground vehicles. FCS’ robotic mule, which was intended to carry supplies, lived on and a version of it was fielded for a year in Afghanistan. It is moving toward program-of-record status. Robots on the battlefield are moving beyond what FCS originally envisioned. Check.
FCS Network: Tying all these platforms and their sensors together would be a communications and information technology backbone. A requirement to move data around the battlefield certainly did not go away. The Army did, and will continue to modernize its command-and-control system and it has evolved steadily since 2009.
The Warfighter Information Network-Tactical lived on — and while it has its critics, the Army must have such a protected system in place. Further, new high-throughput satellites and antennas, and more compact digital radios means that any Army vehicle can be connected to the network, if required. Check.
Soldiers: While not formally part of FCS, the Army also sought to modernize soldier technology by connecting troops to the network. Originally called Land Warrior, this became the Ground Soldier System and has morphed into Nett Warrior. The Army’s goal of turning soldiers into sensors and linking them to the network is here and now. The only question is whether it can keep pace with what the commercial IT industry has to offer. Check.
In no way is this column suggesting that Gates made the wrong decision in terminating FCS. It had too many contracting and acquisition problems to list here.
Early documents called for it to feature “clean sheet designs” with “revolutionary and “leap-ahead” technologies. Keep in mind FCS wasn’t supposed to be fully fielded until 2032. A lot has happened in the technology realm since then, and there is more to come in the next 15 years.
FCS didn’t truly die in 2009. It just turned out that technological evolutions are more realistic for the Army than revolutions.