Army makes progress on plan for next combat vehicle

By Megan Scully

October 20, 2009

Six months after the demise of the $160 billion Future Combat Systems, the Army's latest effort to modernize its fighting forces is well under way, hitting two milestones last week that ultimately will define what the service's next combat vehicle will be and how the Army will buy it.

More than 650 representatives from about 60 companies gathered in Dearborn, Mich., Friday to hear and provide feedback on the service's preliminary plans for the ground combat vehicles that will replace the vehicles that formed the hardware core of FCS.

The meeting marked the first outreach to industry officials, who signed nondisclosure forms barring them from discussing any of the Army's preliminary specifications and requirements for the vehicles. They now have until the end of the month to submit "white papers" to the Army in advance of another meeting next month.

The goal, according to Army officials, is to get feedback from the industry on what is technologically feasible and affordable before the service rolls out a formal request for proposals early next year, which would mark the official start of the competition.

"We want to bring industry early into this process so we're not just providing them a fait accompli" when the request for proposals is released, Col. Brian McVeigh, product manager for manned systems integration, said during a teleconference Monday.

Rickey Smith, director of the Washington, D.C.-area office of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, added that setting a requirement for the vehicles "without resourcing or the ability to achieve it is a fantasy."

As industry representatives gathered in Michigan, senior Army officials met Friday at the Pentagon with Defense Department acquisition chief Ashton Carter, who evaluated the service's post-FCS modernization strategy.

Topics at the high-level Pentagon meeting included the Army's plans to develop and field the ground combat vehicle, which service officials hope will be ready in five to seven years, an Army source said.

Officials also discussed the Army's strategy for integrating the electronic network designed for FCS into its force. They also reviewed plans to develop and field many of the other technologies that had been developed under the FCS program.

Sometime in the next several days, Carter is expected to sign off on a memo endorsing the Army's plans or providing recommendations on how officials should proceed, the source said.

Smith, whose office participated in a task force created this summer to draft the Army's path forward, signaled he was optimistic that Carter wants the Army to "continue to march in the approach that we're taking."

The Army has been scrambling to devise modernization plans since Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in April his decision to kill the FCS ground vehicles - whose price tag was expected to total $87 billion -- because of concerns the Army had not adequately incorporated lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan in their design.

In June, the Pentagon formally ended the FCS program and directed the Army to devise a modernization strategy made up of separate programs. The service still is pursuing many of the other technologies developed under FCS, but those efforts will now be called Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization.

The first batch of those technologies -- including small unmanned air and ground vehicles and unattended ground sensors -- underwent an intensive "critical design review" in St. Louis last week.

The Army source indicated that there are some lingering technical questions from the design review, but it was generally considered to be a success.

By Megan Scully

October 20, 2009