Super-reporter Greg Grant has a kickass piece in GovExec about the Army’s ambitious but fundamentally flawed Future Combat Systems, a $200-billion networked combination of sensors, robots and new lightly armored ground vehicles that Winslow Wheeler from the Center for Defense Information calls a “money-guzzling fantasy of the wizards of the so-called ‘revolution in military affairs.’” Grant argues that FCS grew not out of genuine need for new equipment, but out of “a political battle for taxpayer dollars with the Air Force and Navy in the late 1990s, when the military embraced a questionable vision of warfare fought from a distance with sensors and precision munitions” mounted on thin-skinned, more mobile vehicles. He continues:
The FCS weapons suite is intended to provide soldiers unprecedented knowledge of the location of friendly and enemy forces. This concept is embodied in the Army’s new catchphrase: “See first, understand first, decide first and finish decisively.” To achieve that level of situational awareness, hundreds of aerial drones would fill the sky above FCS-equipped units, scanning for enemies to be destroyed by long-range missile fire. The entire program is predicated on the belief that unprecedented levels of information will make FCS-equipped units more lethal and more likely to survive.
But [Army-funded think tank] RAND found that even with expected improvements and technological advances in remote surveillance and targeting systems out to the year 2020, “remote assets will not ensure ‘understanding’ on the future battlefield.” A 2002 RAND paper, titled “Exploring Advanced Technologies for the FCS Program,” stated, “We found that an enemy who relies on cover, concealment, deception, intermingling and dispersion will be difficult if not impossible to monitor from overhead assets.” The studies showed what historical experience has revealed: An enemy out in the open can be successfully struck from a distance. But in an urban area, forest or jungle, enemies can hide from overhead surveillance.
Wary of FCS’s ballooning cost and increasingly skeptical of its underlying assumptions concerning “information superiority,” Congress has progressively cut the program’s budget. Most recently, the House proposed to slice nearly $900 million from the 2008 request, perhaps signalling the beginning of the end of FCS. But even if the overall program and its vulnerable new ground vehicles go away, many of the smaller components – including robots, sensors and hybrid-electric technologies – will survive in other applications, as I reported a couple months back:
The heart of FCS is its software-based network radios, new sensors and software — and it’s these that would probably be salvaged from the program’s wreckage. These can, in theory, be ported to new versions of the Army’s existing (and still world-beating) tanks and other vehicles, transforming the service at persumably a fraction of the cost of present plans. The Army is already planning on testing out FCS radios and other “boxes” years before the FCS vehicles roll out of the factories. And the service intends to eventually retrofit elements of FCS to older platforms anyways. Expanding and accelerating that plan in place of developing brand-new vehicles could save precious dollars — and could address concerns that FCS vehicles are too thinly armored to survive on modern battlefields by keeping today’s tougher tanks and fighting vehicles longer.
In fact, recognizing that FCS is feeding lots of useful bits and pieces into the current force, some managers within the program are arguing for a new, more realistic name … without the word “future.”