Defense Media Network

The Army’s Future Combat System

Prior to 9/11, all four U.S. military services were looking at or beginning early implementation of “transformation” – a sea-change in equipment and structure from Cold War requirements to those seen as more appropriate to future conflicts. That effort moved forward even as the military was mobilized for combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who had become a critic of FCS under President George W. Bush, wasted no time as a hold-over in the new Obama Administration, making FCS one of the first and most heavily truncated in a wave of defense program cuts and cancellations.

Central to the Army transformation was a completely new equipment set, across-the-board, known as the Future Combat System (FCS). Incorporating 18 vehicles and systems, from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to lighter weight vehicles and armor, it kicked off in 2003 with an initial estimated price tag of about $92 billion to fully equip 15 brigades. Within six years, that estimate had grown to $160 billion – officially – with some skeptics putting it at closer to $300 billion by the time all the brigades would be in place in 2030.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who had become a critic of FCS under President George W. Bush, wasted no time as a hold-over in the new Obama Administration, making FCS one of the first and most heavily truncated in a wave of defense program cuts and cancellations. On April 6, 2009, he halved the official estimate by canceling the program’s $87 billion, eight-vehicle component, saying the current designs were inadequate to address lessons learned about roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and urban warfare in Southwest Asia.

“I have concluded that there are significant unanswered questions concerning the FCS vehicle design strategy,” he explained at the time. “I am also concerned that, despite some adjustments, the FCS vehicles – where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor – do not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close-quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I am troubled by the terms of the current contract, particularly its very unattractive fee structure that gives the government little leverage to promote cost efficiency. Because the vehicle part of the FCS program is currently estimated to cost over $87 billion, I believe we must have more confidence in the program strategy, requirements and maturity of the technologies before proceeding further.”

In what amounted to a complete dismantling of the largest single Army program in history, Gates not only sent the next-generation tank, cannon, infantry carrier, reconnaissance, medical command and combat vehicles back to the drawing board, he also ordered a reassessment of the computer network intended to tie all FCS components into a unified network-centric battlespace.

Which is not to say Gates has ordered the Army to continue with its aging – and, after nearly eight years of combat, significantly battle-worn – legacy systems. Rather, he wants FCS broken up into more traditional individual programs – still looking for synergies in parts, maintenance and communications, but without a single overarching contractor, as Boeing was for FCS, and with increased ability to alter individual pieces.

The Army vowed to come back by Labor Day (Sept. 7, 2009) with a redesigned family of manned ground vehicles and an improved computer network, which it also has pledged to put into production in the same timeframe as FCS – roughly 2014-16. The likelihood of that, however, has been seriously questioned by both industry and government, who note it could take up to 18 months after the September deadline just to compete the new programs.

That could be one reason the Army – which strongly disagreed with Gates’ decision on FCS – set such a tight schedule for itself. About the only way to accomplish that, according to some observers, is to base the new designs heavily on existing FCS vehicles and systems. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey has said that is part of the Army’s commitment not to waste the billions of dollars already invested in FCS development.

“We will work to include both lessons from the current fight and what we’ve learned from technology and build a better vehicle with the support of the secretary and the Department of Defense, which I think will significantly help us move this forward,” Casey told the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee in May 2009, referring specifically to a vehicle not part of FCS – the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, rushed into SW Asia as a replacement for Humvees that were too lightly armored to protect occupants from IEDs – but central to Gates’ argument against current FCS vehicle designs.

The rest of the FCS system, including unmanned ground and aerial vehicles and new sensor suites, also will be affected as the old program is broken apart.

“We will try to exploit the spinouts, the technological developments, already accomplished in that program, things like the warrior information network, by putting them immediately on existing Army assets,” Under Secretary of Defense Bob Hale, the department’s comptroller and chief financial officer, told a DoD budget news briefing in May.

In future online articles, Defense Media Network will take a closer look at individual FCS components – where they stood at the time of Gates’ announcement, what is likely to happen next and how all of this change affects the needs and capabilities of the warfighter.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...