Getting Tanked

With a price tag of $160 billion, the Army's Future Combat Systems might be one tank too many.

When the Defense secretary calls a weapons program unaffordable, it could spell trouble for its future. "If you look at the total cost of the Future Combat Systems, frankly, it is hard for me to see how that program can be completed in its entirety," said Robert Gates before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 6.

Army leaders shrugged off Gates' comments, determined to build their flagship $160 billion FCS modernization program, which includes a new class of armored vehicles, robots, aerial drones and sensors connected by a sophisticated battle command network.

Army Secretary Pete Geren called the seven-year-old program the Army's No. 1 modernization priority and defended its cost. "At its peak, [FCS] amounts to a third of our investment accounts, which . . . represent about a quarter of our overall budget," he told the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 28. The new FCS armored vehicles, scheduled for deployment in 2015, will equip 15 of the Army's 48 planned active brigades.

After the F-35 fighter, FCS is the Pentagon's costliest weapons program. The Army says FCS will cost $120 billion, while the Defense secretary's office estimates a price tag of $160 billion. A 2006 study from the Congressional Budget Office said, factoring in historic weapons program cost growth, FCS could run $16 billion per year, significantly higher than the Army's estimate of $10 billion per year.

Recently, the Army tried to shift the debate over FCS from the planned eight armored vehicles to the benefits of the battle command network, including what the Army calls "spinouts"-upgraded sensors, defensive systems and digitized communications that can be retrofitted to its existing battle fleet.

In congressional hearings on the Army budget, Army chief Gen. George W. Casey talked about the FCS network and new sensors, but barely mentioned tanks-by far the most expensive hardware in the program. The Army faces a challenge of convincing lawmakers that pricey new FCS armored vehicles are necessary for future conflicts when it's already building thousands of new tanks.

The Army refers to that program, in which it repairs battle-worn tanks returning from Iraq, as reset. The service says the fighting in Iraq is wearing down its armored fighting vehicles at a furious pace. The operational tempo of Abrams tanks, Bradleys and Strykers means a yearlong deployment in Iraq equals about five years of normal wear and tear.

According to CBO, the Army's 70-ton M1 Abrams tank was built for high-intensity combat against Warsaw Pact tanks on Europe's central front, so driving around Iraq's streets should be a breeze. Moreover, many of those tanks sit idle on bases in Iraq. According to CBO, in 2006 the average Abrams tank was about 15 years old and had 5,000 miles on it. Those tanks should be able to accumulate 50,000 miles before being retired, congressional auditors said.

The Abrams tank fleet is actually getting younger, because when the Army sends a tank over to Iraq, it essentially receives a new one in return. This is how it works: When a tank returns from Iraq, it is shipped off to one of the Army's massive repair depots-Red River in Texas, or Anniston, Ala. Then the 70-ton beast is stripped, cleaned and reassembled with mostly new parts, including engines, tracks, drive train and computer network.

Tanks are returned to what the Army calls a "zero hour, zero mile" condition, essentially showroom floor quality. They are outfitted with the most modern targeting computers, infrared and other sensors, and digitized communications. They require a two-year stay at the Army depots at a cost of $5.4 million per vehicle, roughly equivalent to the cost of building a new Abrams tank from scratch.

With the Army building-or rebuilding-a fleet of Abrams tanks designed to last decades, it becomes more difficult to argue the service needs new tanks. The Army says the new vehicles are a key part of the entire FCS network, but officials also acknowledge that the network can be retrofitted to existing tanks.

Another challenge is determining the tank's role in war. Traditionally, tanks fought each other on the open battlefield, but few countries outside the United States amass large tank fleets now. Also, wars fought predominantly in cities are replacing high-intensity open-field battles. In Baghdad, for example, the Abrams often is used as a heavily armored mobile pillbox, guarding key intersections and entrances to bases.

The Israeli army, experienced in urban occupation duty, has tanks with bathrooms so crews can sit inside for days in the Palestinian territories without leaving the safety of the machine. A tank manufactured for urban occupation duty needs thicker armor and less mobility than one designed for open-field battle. The FCS vehicles are lighter with much thinner armor than the Abrams.

The other important role for armored vehicles in urban terrain is to move troops from point A to point B. In a city's narrow streets, wheeled armored vehicles are better than tanks because they move faster, are quieter, carry more troops and do less damage to streets. European armies are busy exchanging their heavy battle tanks for wheeled armored vehicles because they're more useful in places where future wars will be fought.

The Army is buying the Stryker wheeled vehicle, which has proved valuable in Iraq's urban combat. Strykers and Abrams make for a powerful and flexible combination. The Army has yet to make a compelling argument for what the FCS family of armored vehicles adds to the mix.

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