A Different Future

The Army focuses on discrete, networked combat systems.

When the Defense Department made the decision in mid-2009 to cancel the Army's ambitious multibillion-dollar Future Combat Systems program, the service took with it a key lesson: Making incremental decisions on programs often is necessary to stay ahead of the demands of the current security environment and the evolving needs of warfighters.

That's the approach the service is taking to spin out its Brigade Combat Team Modernization effort. The plan preserves former FCS technologies such as sensors and robotics, but cancels the FCS Manned Ground Vehicle program and calls for development of a new combat vehicle that can be fielded within seven years. "We learned from FCS that it makes sense to package material and nonmaterial solutions together and push those out every couple of years instead of embarking on a robust development effort that doesn't field anything for a decade or more," says Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army's Program Executive Office of Integration.

The new program centers on individual capability packages, the first of which includes developing ground robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, ground sensors and vehicle network integration kits to support up to nine infantry brigade combat teams beginning in 2011. In February, the Army awarded Boeing and the Science Applications International Corp. a $138 million contract to equip one brigade combat team with these networked capabilities, along with associated system engineering and program management support.

To ensure the equipment can deliver in combat as promised, the Army has been testing it at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico for nearly two years and is gearing up for force development and limited user tests with soldiers from the Army Evaluation Task Force, a brigade-size unit based at Fort Bliss, Texas. Those tests will influence decisions in the coming months on whether to move forward with two additional brigade combat teams, Mehney says. The results also will determine any adjustments to initial production and inform tactics, techniques and procedures for the 1st Armored Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The unit will be the first to receive the equipment, as it prepares for a deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.

The question is whether officials can fully address maturity and reliability problems found in the 2009 testing cycle of Increment 1 systems. The Government Accountability Office advised the Army in a March report not to field additional lots of Increment 1 until the issues were resolved.

The Amy has addressed nearly all of them, and because of newer, more robust evaluation procedures, officials are optimistic about the 2010 tests, Mehney says. This year, for example, the service will position more soldiers over a larger test range, using mock villages in the mountains of White Sands to replicate the Afghanistan terrain. The Army will incorporate additional equipment, such as the Shadow and Raven UAVs and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, to stress network connectivity, according to Col. Randall Lane, an Iraq combat veteran and commander of the program office.

"The bottom line is, the Army will not field anything that doesn't work properly," Mehney says. "The 2010 test cycle and 2011 testing are vital to prove the maturity, reliability, durability and usability of these systems. The program won't field systems that aren't soldier-proven at this point."

Troops from the evaluation task force are providing valuable insights on what works and what doesn't, according to Lane, who says his experience as a combat veteran gives him perspective not only on the Army's high-tech needs in combat but also the training required to handle the new systems. The Class 1 unmanned aerial system, which provides reconnaissance and surveillance, and the robot-like small unmanned ground vehicle, which allows troops to check for explosive devices or other dangers, have undergone several rounds of tests and improvements. While the task force sees room for more fine-tuning and some on Capitol Hill have voiced concern, the systems are showing promise, according to Lane. "If I was deploying a brigade today, I would want [these systems] in combat with me," he says.

Soldier input also has led to improvements in the network integration kit, which automatically pulls and populates situational data from the systems, Lane says. But the urban unattended ground sensor, a leave-behind network-enabled system that reports activity in cleared areas, does not yet have the task force's endorsement, he says, in part because it's too large to be used covertly.

In April, the Army moved to cancel the nonline-of-sight precision strike weapon due to budgetary concerns and poor performance during testing. "This is one that our soldiers believe in, but we're not ready to give our stamp of approval on it, because we know the system has to be almost perfect to get it out in the field," Lane says.

The Army has preliminary plans for the Increment 2 capability package, which will field additional capabilities, including a possible Armed Robotic Vehicle Assault, an unmanned ground vehicle configured for security and assault support missions, and the Common Controller, a handheld device that transfers data from unmanned vehicles and ground sensors.

The modernization effort includes plans to develop a highly survivable ground combat vehicle for a nine-person infantry squad. The Army released a request for proposals for a technology development phase of the infantry fighting vehicle on Feb. 25, and plans to award up to three contracts in the fall. The vehicle's technology development phase will continue through 2012, Mehney says. Then the Army will award contracts for the engineering and manufacturing development phases, with the goal of completing a prototype in 2015.

"We have a very compressed and aggressive acquisition cycle, but by industry bringing in mature technical solutions and using the knowledge piece that was gained from maturing 44 technologies out of the manned ground vehicle program of FCS, we believe we have an achievable acquisition strategy to get the first production vehicle by fiscal 2017," he says.

Brittany Ballenstedt, a former staff writer for Government Executive, covers the IT workforce for Nextgov, the magazine's online technology publication.

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