The future is slow to arrive

The Army's Future Combat Systems project is changing to meet criticisms and shifting priorities, but critics doubt the changes are coming soon enough to matter

The Army is mobilizing to defend the future of its Future Combat Systems (FCS) project in the face of criticism of the cost, technology, progress and strategic usefulness of the huge project. Congressional opponents – backed by analyses from the Congressional Budget Office, Rand Corp., Government Accountability Office and Center for Defense Information (CDI), and others – have cut its funding twice and pushed the Defense Department into recasting the entire project.

First proposed in 1999 by then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, the effort was relaunched in 2003 as the Army’s FCS project. Designed as a force-modernization project, FCS is central to DOD’s strategy for transforming the Army. The program has expanded from 14 component systems to 18 and includes sophisticated detection and communication technologies the Army hopes will change the way war is conducted in much the way information technology changed the business world, according to the April 2008 Army publication “The Logic of Future Combat Systems.”

“The goal of FCS is to harness new technology in support of soldiers, so they can apply their skills and imagination unhampered by lack of information or chores best left to machines,” the Army report states.

According to the FCS plan, high-speed networks would connect ground, air and command units, giving all three a common operational picture (COP) of the battlefield. For example, unattended sensors air-dropped on a hillside could detect an explosives-laden truck rolling toward a U.S. base in Iraq, relay the information to commanders and confirm the location with observations from an unmanned desk-sized helicopter that’s remote-controlled from inside the base. Artillery controllers could then target the truck using an unattended missile system that they had air-dropped into the area days or weeks before.

The entire encounter would be managed from computer workstations at the base, at Central Command in a nearby country, or from bases in the continental United States.

Not all the pieces needed to perform that job are ready for field-testing, said Gregg Martin, vice president of the FCS Program at Boeing. But each piece will address some gap in communication, mobility or targeting that makes it more difficult for a commander to control a piece of hostile territory.

“Right now, the Army has 12 or so stovepiped systems that can’t talk to each other and can’t exchange information,” Martin said. “If there are two Bradleys on either side of a hill, both looking at a target, they can’t exchange information. Where we’re headed, any information can be shared – same software, same protocols. You get a different picture based on rank and responsibilities, but no matter where you are you have access to a common screen that has the same situational awareness.”

However, according to at least one analyst, Congress and DOD have not addressed the most basic drawback of FCS and the reasoning behind the system.

“The basic problem is that it’s a stupid idea,” says Winslow Wheeler, director the Strauss Military Reform Project at the nonpartisan CDI. “People have tried since the 1930s to remove the fog from the battlefield through technology. Not only has it failed time and time again, it usually shows up on the losing side of wars.”

The most obvious failure was the French Methodical Battle plan, under which French military planners routed all information to central decision-makers and assumed the country could take four days to reach full mobilization, he said.

The German attack, relying on fast-moving armor and independent decision-making of local commanders, took only three days.

Any plan that assumes perfect — or even just astonishingly good — centralized knowledge and control of the battlefield is doomed to failure because the enemy will always attack in ways or move at speeds a defender doesn’t expect, Wheeler said.

“Our technological advantage on the battlefield today is limitless,” Wheeler said, whether that battlefield is an Afghan outback or downtown Baghdad. “But where’s Bin Laden? We can’t find bad guy No. 1; we can’t find bad guy No. 9,000 without sending someone walking down the street.”

“These miraculous networks that pretend to give us an ability back in Tampa or Qatar to remove the fog from the battlefield is total baloney,” Wheeler said.

A 2002 report by Rand on the goals and likelihood of success of the project that would become FCS concluded that airborne observation by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other electronic means were unlikely to consistently find an enemy hiding in hills, under rocks or in caves. In urban environments, where enemy fighters can duck into buildings, impersonate noncombatants and hide under or behind countless objects, the problem was insurmountable by remote or airborne observation, the report concluded.

Even if all the systems work as projected, they won’t do it in a reasonable time, according to a March 2008 GAO report that concluded key technologies won’t be mature enough for the field until 2012. In addition, GAO found FCS could collapse under the weight of poor software design.

COST, COMPLEXITY

More than five years and $8 billion into FCS development, “it is unclear exactly what FCS capability can be realistically expected,” according to a GAO report published in March. Part of the problem is systemic; many of the decision points on the project come long before field tests that would demonstrate the viability of important parts of the project.

For example, in 2006 Congress required the Army to conduct a milestone review to assess if the requirements mapped out for the project are valid and if FCS technologies are the best approaches to achieving them. That review isn’t due until after a preliminary design review that is not scheduled to take place until 2009.

That is the kind of evaluation that should have been undertaken before FCS was approved, not six years after it was launched, said Ana Marte, an analyst at CDI.

So far, the Army has demonstrated only basic networking capability among the systems, according to GAO. However, the full system will rely on a wireless data network many orders of magnitude more complex than comparable civilian systems.

Rather than allowing each node to connect to the network directly, the FCS network in a brigade-sized unit requires each of about 5,000 nodes to act as both an individual network link and router to connect other radios to the main network. Keeping all those communications links live could consume all the available bandwidth, leaving no room for the actual data to be communicated, GAO concluded.

The network is a 2 megabits/sec node-to-node system based on the existing Joint Tactical Radio System, which will also support the Warfighter Information Network—Tactical (WIN-T) that DOD is developing. The network contains National Security Agencyapproved encryption and security, Martin said.

The complexity of the FCS battlefield network is so great, according to GAO, that “decision-makers allow for the possibility that full success will not be achieved,” and they should make contingency plans.

The system’s complexity and costs are also ballooning, according to the GAO report. Originally estimated at about 30 million lines of code, Boeing and the Army estimate the project will require more than 93 million lines.

The 2002 cost of estimate of $92 billion has also risen to $164 billion and could — according to an independent study by the Cost Analysis and Improvement Group in the Office of the Secretary of Defense — increase to between $202 billion and $234 billion.

BUDGET CUTS AND BOONDOGGLES

Congressional skeptics such as Rep. Neil Abercrombie (DHawaii), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Air and Land Forces Subcommittee cut the FCS budget by $228 million for 2008, despite warnings from Army and Boeing that the cuts would further slow the project.

The Army is trying to get around those cuts by asking for permission to shift $78 million from satellite and ground-vehicle research programs and $174 million from other FCS project line items back into manned vehicles and other systems.

Congress has not acted on that request, but a similar bid to increase the 2008 FCS budget by $27 million was denied by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Republican allies.

Meanwhile, the Army said in August it would find a new name for FCS, partly to reflect changes in the program itself. “It’s not ‘future’ anymore,” said FCS spokesman Paul Meheny told the Army Times in August. “It is here. We are bending metal now.”

Although it’s unlikely to carry any weight in the Pentagon, Wired magazine’s Danger Room audience voted three to one for naming it the Battle-Oriented Optical Networking Data Operations Ground- Geared Linkage Elements, or BOONDOGGLE.

TACTICAL RECONFIGURATION

In terms of technical progress, FCS is in good shape, Martin said. Its components are on schedule, and, except for the delay following budget cuts for 2008, FCS is on track, he said.

The program is changing to accommodate a new release schedule because individual components of the project were ready for testing in the field, and commanders were eager for the capability those components represent, Martin said.

For example, U.S. troops in Iraq have set off or defused thousands of improvised explosive devices by using ground-based remote-operated vehicles called PackBots from iRobot, based in Massachusetts. The company has shipped more than 1,400 PackBots to the military and is a prime contractor for the still-in-development Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, a 30-pound, man-portable, unarmed, remote-control robot for which it holds a $60 million FCS contract.

The Army’s Evaluation Brigade Combat Team is already testing a variety of FCS systems at its Fort Bliss headquarters in Texas, according to the public affairs office of the Army Acquisition Support Center. This includes remote sensors and two unmanned aerial vehicles — the flying trash can-shaped, fan-driven Class 1 Unmanned Aerial System and the Class IV UAS FireScout that looks like a miniature helicopter.

The Army held one round of tests in April, plans another in June, and plans to deploy at least one fully FCS-equipped brigade by 2010, according to details released in a publication from the Army Acquisition Support Center. In that publication, the Army offers accounts of FCS progress that are relentlessly upbeat, but they are more complete than those in other Army publications.

In it, Lt. Gen. Michael Vane said the Army has been taking feedback from combat commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, who submit requests for specific capabilities or resources in the field.

“Interestingly,” Vane wrote, “each of these capability areas coincides with one of the seven original FCS Key Performance Parameters. The lessons learned from current operations are also driving changes in FCS materiel and the FCS Brigade Combat Team (BCT) design. While the bulk of the unit design remains intact, we have changed the FCS BCT to address capability gaps from current operations and new projections of the future operational environment.”

The result is that rather than treating FCS like one integrated system of systems that will be born whole at the end of its full development cycle, Boeing and the Army have changed their release schedule so that individual pieces can be sent to the field as their tests are completed.

The man-portable Class 1 UAS, for example, is often described as a favorite of soldiers – easy to carry and use, and providing roundthe- corner, over-the-hill visibility for soldiers on the ground who might have no other to scout a potentially dangerous position, Martin said.

That approach makes a lot of sense, according to analyses by Rand and the CDI’s Wheeler.

“Let the guy at the sharp end use and operate these technologies as he sees fit, rather than this gigantic network that puts him under the thumb of somebody sitting behind a desk in Tampa,” Wheeler said.

One problem is that there is no systemic approach or formal process that would enable that migration to happen quickly or efficiently. The Army has produced no data demonstrating which elements of FCS work effectively and which don’t, and Congress has not demanded such an accounting.

The most recent project plan — from August 2007 — does create three spinout periods in which FCS systems will go into limited, three-year test phases. Those cover some unattended sensors, a smart- unattended-missile system and a mobile artillery system in 2008, two UAS units in 2010, and more sensors and two vehicles in 2012.

However, it’s not clear when any of them will be in the hands of field commanders, let alone the budget and planning process that still treats FCS as a large-scale development project rather than series of discrete weapon development projects.

“History demonstrates that letting the tactical user pick and choose the technologies that he finds help him does work,” Wheeler said. “There may be elements of FCS that can help, but I haven’t seen a process for sorting out which of those technologies and which of those mental frameworks help and which hurt. We need empirical data to show us that and I haven't seen any effort to produce it.”

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