Future Combat Systems Technologies Not Keeping Pace With Expectations

By Sandra I. Erwin

When the Army kicked off its largest-ever weapons modernization program in 1999, expectations were enormous.

The Future Combat Systems would bring revolutionary change to the Army in many ways. It would, for the first time, connect every vehicle in the Army in a single network. Most significantly, it would allow the Army to become gradually less dependent on fossil fuels, gunpowder-based weapons and heavy armor.

The discussions were dominated by visions of an all-electric, laser-firing fleet of fast-moving tank-like vehicles unburdened by the weight of conventional armor.

Five years later, reality has set in, and the expectations are somewhat tempered, although the fundamental nature of FCS—a family of 17 ground and air vehicles—has not changed.

Out of those ambitious technology goals, the development of a command-and-control network has a realistic chance of reaching fruition by the 2014 deadline now set for the program, according to sources.

Industry experts consider it doubtful, however, that the FCS will bring, in the near term, major breakthroughs in power generation, weapon lethality or survivability.

“In 1999, there was an expectation that we could address those four areas,” said an FCS program official speaking privately to a group of Army officers and industry executives. “Now, the reality is more complex.”

Fuel-efficient technologies, such as hybrid engines, have improved, but they only will reduce fuel consumption by moderate amounts, experts said. FCS units, like today’s brigades, will require a substantial logistics re-supply tail of fuel and ammunition. In the color-coded charts that track the maturity of FCS technologies, many logistics areas are “amber” and “red,” the official said. Military programs often use a green-amber-red color code to measure the readiness of various technologies, with red indicating the highest risk.

All the while, the Army is grappling with how to upgrade its fleet of medium and heavy trucks to make them more mobile and survivable so they can keep pace with the FCS maneuver force. When FCS first was conceived, the thinking was that forces would take periodic pauses to refuel and restock supplies.

In light of the Iraq experience, the Army now wants a logistics force that can sustain combat units around the clock and stay close to the frontlines, which means that trucks will need to be better protected. The Army is working through these issues as part of a “truck modernization plan” that will get under way in fiscal year 2006, said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Griffin, Army director of force development.

On the weaponry side, the mainstay of FCS will be cannons and missiles. These weapons will be more sophisticated than current systems, but not a major departure. Non-kinetic technologies, such as lasers and high-powered microwaves, are progressing, but are not expected to be ready for operational use for many years.

FCS will have unprecedented amounts of reconnaissance and surveillance systems. The technology is intended to enable soldiers to “see and understand” before they move and act. But it is unlikely that even hundreds of sensors will easily clear the much-feared fog of war that can create so much confusion on the battlefield.

“Seeing is difficult,” said the FCS official. “We can see objects reasonably well. But how do we identify humans? That’s a challenge in FCS.”

For survivability, it remains unclear what technologies FCS will employ. Conventional passive armor is out of the question if the Army wants to keep the weight of the vehicles at less than 20 tons. “We haven’t found magic armor,” the program official said. The most promising technologies so far are electromagnetic armor and active protection systems, which sense and defeat incoming rockets or missiles by deflecting or intercepting them.

Brig. Gen. Charles A. Cartwright, the Army’s program manager for FCS, said active protection is a relatively mature technology, even though the U.S. Army has yet to develop tactics to allow soldiers to operate safely around vehicles that launch munitions autonomously in self defense. According to several sources, there is a strong cultural bias in the U.S. Army against installing active defenses on vehicles, because they are perceived as unsafe.

“You are going to have fragments out there as the munitions explode,” Cartwright said. It will be up to commanders to develop the right tactics to ensure soldiers are not injured by shrapnel.

More money was added to the FCS program in recent months to include active protection on all eight manned vehicles. Previously, only two of the vehicles had the technology, Cartwright said.

If the Army wants Abrams tank-like survivability in FCS vehicles, this goal may not be met without passive armor. The weight of the armor would complicate the transportability of 18.2-ton FCS vehicles aboard C-130 cargo aircraft. The 20-ton Stryker medium-armor vehicle technically fits on a C-130, but limits the range of the aircraft to 500 miles; and the vehicle cannot travel with its mission equipment ammunition and extra armor on the same load, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.

The report predicts the Army may run into similar problems with the FCS, which also must be transportable by C-130, although, unlike Stryker, it must be able to carry all its mission equipment and ammunition so it can roll off the airplane ramp and engage in operations immediately.

The FCS program office has signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Air Force on the transportability of future vehicles aboard C-130s. “We are doing it now, as opposed to ‘after the fact,’ as with Stryker,” said an Army official.

The Army’s top acquisition official, Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Yakovac, acknowledged that much uncertainty remains as to whether FCS can deliver what it promises.

“I’m not clairvoyant,” he told reporters. “As we look at the technology, it may or may not mature at the rate we need.”

The current program is only a reflection of “the best guess today.”

Under a new strategy unveiled in July, the FCS will follow a “spiral approach,” intended to move the program forward only as long as technologies mature.

Nevertheless, the Army has made a major financial commitment to FCS, increasing its overall estimated cost from $90 billion to about $115 billion, which will cover the entire 17 systems and a command-and-control network, to be fielded to possibly 43 brigades by 2025. The Army recently added $6.4 billion to the $15 billion contract awarded more than two years ago to a team of Boeing and Science Applications International Corp., which serves as the FCS systems integrator.

The initial spiral is scheduled for 2008. The first vehicle to emerge from the FCS will be a non-line-of-sight cannon. Other systems expected to be ready by 2008 are rocket- and missile-launchers that will fire smart munitions. Also in the spiral will be a family of robotic ground sensors.

The second spiral, planned for 2010, will bring new communications systems and unmanned surveillance aircraft. A third spiral in 2012 is expected to include autonomous ground robots, and the final spiral in 2014 will see an FCS battle-command network fully integrated into the Defense Department’s global information grid.

Notably, the Army is pushing to at least 2014 the introduction of a manned combat vehicle that would replace the Abrams tank. Critics view this decision as confirmation that the FCS may be unable to deliver a vehicle that can compare in performance and survivability to the Abrams.

The Abrams, Bradley and Stryker, meanwhile, will serve as test platforms for the FCS network, known in Army parlance as a “system of systems common operating environment.” The Army will create an experimental unit assigned exclusively to test FCS technologies.

“The experimental unit will grow,” Yakovac said. The Army has not yet made a decision on where to base that unit, he said. “We are assessing several options.”


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