Eyes on the Army

The service's ambitious agenda has huge implications for modernizing the U.S. military.

Pentagon officials view the Army as the litmus test for fundamentally transforming the U.S. military. It's not just that the Army is engaged in unconventional counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is it the fact that the service is simultaneously transforming itself into a more modular, rapidly deployable force organized around smaller brigade combat teams rather than venerable divisions. It's not even because the Army is rebalancing its mix of active and reserve forces to create units that can more easily and quickly deploy to hot spots around the globe.

The Army is the barometer for transformation because in the midst of all these fundamental changes, it also has embarked upon the most complex, technologically ambitious and expensive acquisition program in its history-Future Combat Systems.

FCS is a family of 18 highly networked air- and ground-based systems that will include a lighter, though equally lethal and survivable, replacement for today's heavy tanks, plus an array of unmanned aerial vehicles, ground sensors, and artillery and missile launch systems that fire intelligent munitions.

Experts and lawmakers have raised serious warning flags about FCS, noting that the Army has spent billions of dollars on other high-tech programs such as the Crusader artillery system and Comanche helicopter, only to see them canceled because of runaway cost growth, chronic schedule delays and technological glitches. Neither of those programs came close to the technological complexity of FCS.

"I don't think it's an overstatement to say FCS, in combination with other investments, will mean fielding a new Army," Paul L. Francis, director of acquisitions and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, recently told a House Armed Services subcommittee. Despite the Army's restructuring of FCS in 2004, which added four years to the schedule, "FCS is still at significant risk for delivering planned capability within estimated resources. At this point it's not yet known whether FCS is doable, much less doable within a predictable frame of time and money," Francis said.

In its fiscal 2006 request, the Army asked for $3.4 billion in research and development funds for FCS. According to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, however, the Army would need $145 billion to equip just a third of its force with Future Combat Systems. That puts FCS on par with some of the most expensive and technologically challenging programs in American history, including the effort to field a viable national missile defense shield and the Apollo mission to land a man on the moon.

In the interim, the Army requested $878 million in fiscal 2006 to buy 240 relatively light Stryker combat vehicles. With funds freed up from last year's cancellation of the $38 billion Comanche helicopter program, the Army also has proposed spending $618 million for 41 Black Hawk UH-60 utility helicopters. In addition, the request includes $794 million to upgrade the fleet of Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, $696 million for two new and 21 remanufactured CH-47F Chinook transport helicopters, and $455 million to upgrade older M1 Abrams tanks.

At a hearing in March, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., summarized the Army's myriad challenges: "The Army is obviously very busy, engaging in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; resetting the force as units rotate out of the combat zones and prepare for redeployment in as little as a year's time; reorganizing ground forces into modular brigade combat teams; and pursuing the Future Combat Systems program. That's a lot happening at once."

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