Future Combat Vehicle Jam

Budget cuts and Stryker's success could further delay new equipment.

When lawmakers cut $325 million from the Future Combat Systems program in the 2007 defense budget and demanded the Pentagon supply a mountain of reports and independent cost assessments to justify continuing it, they signaled that the Army's premier modernization effort faces being broken up into more manageable bits or canceled altogether, analysts say. What's more, the new generation of lightweight vehicles envisioned by FCS might be overrun by the success of the Stryker combat vehicle, which was designed to fill the gap until the future system's equipment is fielded.

While the Army struggles to put a positive spin on FCS' prospects, Army officials reportedly have admitted that the most recent program cuts, coupled with the loss of $240 million in the 2006 budget, will force restructuring of FCS for the second time in three years. Most of the $500 million cut from the two budgets came from the armored vehicles part of the program, according to industry sources.

When the Army last restructured FCS in 2004, the production schedule and fielding date of new armored vehicles fell back more than six years, from 2008 to the end of 2014, and the estimated price swelled to $165 billion. The Army planned to buy 500 new FCS vehicles a year by 2018. The latest cuts and pending restructuring mean soldiers are unlikely to see any until the mid-2020s, says Darren Corbiere, a retired Army officer and weapons systems analyst at Frost & Sullivan, a defense market forecast and research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. Corbiere predicts FCS will be broken into smaller programs in the 2008 budget cycle, and that the Army will shift its emphasis from armored vehicles to further developing a sophisticated battle command network, precision weapons and various robotic sensors and aerial drones to bolster its Abrams tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Strykers.

"The Army keeps pushing the manned ground vehicle portion of the program down the road so far that it almost becomes meaningless," says armored vehicle guru Steven Zaloga of the Teal Group Corp., a defense consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. He says some aspects, such as the battle command and communications network, are worthwhile, but the Army's vision of how FCS-equipped units will fight remains "fundamentally flawed."

That vision includes eight new armored vehicles and a host of unmanned robotic vehicles and aerial drones tied together by an extensive high-tech network that will form a rapid entry force that can be flown to global hot spots. The Army admits it won't know exactly how the whole system will work until it begins fielding the new equipment to soldiers who can test it.

"We are done with PowerPoint charts," declared FCS program manager Maj. Gen Charles A. Cartwright at a press briefing last summer. He pledged then that the program would begin to actually build something. But doubters contend that much of the technology remains unproven and performance predictions are largely theoretical.

Some lawmakers are among the skeptics. Language in the 2007 defense authorization requires the Pentagon to report "whether actual demonstrations, rather than simulations," have shown that FCS will perform as advertised and is technologically feasible. The measure also prevents the Army from developing FCS ground vehicles until it proves it can afford the enormous cost of the program on top of the expense of keeping and recruiting personnel, war operations and a huge bill to repair and replace war-worn equipment.

Upon Pentagon delivery of the various reviews, cost estimates and reports, one of three options will be chosen: The program will continue as currently structured, be restructured, or be terminated. Analysts say the first option is the least likely.

Corbiere says the Army's requirements for FCS have fluctuated so wildly that industry has been reluctant to churn out any prototypes. Among those requirements are vehicle weight-which has grown from less than 20 tons to closer to 30 tons-and the number of hours needed to ready vehicles for action after they're flown to a distant battlefield. A frustrated industry source whose company is involved in ground vehicle development says millions of dollars were wasted trying to come up with workable prototypes, only to have the Army later change the basic requirements.

Army officers, who requested they not be identified, say FCS could be further imperiled by the success of the Army's Stryker wheeled vehicles in Iraq. They say it's a tough sale for the Army to claim it needs an entirely new family of lightweight, computer-networked vehicles when the Stryker appears to fit that need.

Strykers were the brainchild of former Army Chief Gen. Eric Shinseki, who called the vehicles an "interim" solution, intended to meet the need for lightweight, air-transportable combat vehicles until FCS products began to roll off production lines. When Shinseki first described the new generation of FCS vehicles in 1999, his focus was rapid deployment to stem the potential loss of strategic relevance if the Army was incapable of getting to world trouble spots in a hurry. He wanted nimble armored units and new vehicles that required much less logistical support than the gas-guzzling Abrams tank.

Stryker, which weighs in at 20 tons, has received rave reviews from troops in Iraq because of its high mobility, reliability and the advanced computer network linking vehicles together. It comes in 10 variants with more than 70 percent of parts in common. Interchangeable parts have been a key promotional point for FCS. Critics say Strykers lack firepower and armor protection. But a new variant armed with a 105mm cannon is being rushed to the field, and add-on armor protects against rocket-propelled grenades. Strykers in Iraq have proved surprisingly resilient when hit by large roadside bombs.

"Stryker is the closest thing we're thinking about when we think FCS," Army Lt. Gen. John M. Curran, from the service's Training and Doctrine Command, told attendees at the Army Association's annual conference in October. An officer familiar with the internal debate on FCS says Army leaders are less interested in fielding new combat vehicles than in maintaining FCS as a large pot of money to draw on to modernize current vehicles and equipment.

FCS "is really not just a program of record, it's a strategy," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoo-maker told Government Executive on Aug. 23. "We must do this to bring the current force up to the demands we're going to have."

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