GAO: Military should consider breaking up FCS

Army should shift to incremental development based on proven technologies to salvage program, report says.

Military leaders should consider breaking up the Army's troubled Future Combat Systems modernization program and field only a subset of the originally planned battle suite of armored vehicles, robots, aerial drones and sensors, if any of the components can be shown to actually work, congressional investigators said. A Government Accountability Office report released this week stated, "DoD concurred with our recommendations."

FCS faces significant delays and soaring costs and is unlikely to deliver the capabilities originally promised by the Army and lead manufacturer Boeing Co., according to the report. "The knowledge demonstrated thus far is well short of a program halfway through both its development schedule and its budget," GAO said. The $160 billion program faces a congressionally mandated milestone review early next year that is likely to be the "definitive decision" on its future.

Prior to the review, GAO recommended that the secretary of Defense establish "objective and quantitative criteria" that the program must meet to "justify its continuation." Along with demonstrating various key technologies, the Army must reconcile its cost estimate with higher independent estimates and show it can afford the program over the long term, given competing budget demands. FCS consists of 14 systems, including eight new armored vehicles to replace tanks, infantry carriers and self-propelled artillery; two classes of aerial drones; several robotic ground vehicles; and an attack missile, all connected by a sophisticated battle command network.

More than five years into the program, "it is unclear exactly what FCS capability can be realistically expected" because tests of vehicle and other prototypes won't begin until 2011, GAO said. Army claims that FCS will "provide capabilities that will be as good as or better than current forces" are based on computer simulations rather than live tests with real equipment. "The [Army's] optimism about FCS capabilities may be premature," GAO said, as live tests often showed computer simulations to be unrealistic.

The program began with ill-defined requirements and major assumptions that entirely new technologies would somehow materialize during development, the report said. Only two of FCS' 44 critical technologies have reached the level of maturity they should have had when the program began.

Those technologies, a casualty assessment tool and a precision artillery round, were in development long before the FCS program began. "Other technologies are now rated less mature, projected maturity dates have slipped and others have shown little advancement over the years," the report said. Eight of the critical technologies either have not progressed at all or were deemed less mature than when the program began five years ago, according to GAO.

The new armored vehicles continue to gain weight with each modification, calling into question the goal to build vehicles light enough to be rapidly flown to distant hot spots. Originally designed to be carried on the Air Force's C-130 transport, the vehicle's weight increased over the years, leading to a new Army requirement: Three vehicles must be flown inside the larger C-17 airlifter.

Combat experience in Iraq showed that a vehicle at the FCS target weight of 24 tons would not survive large mine blasts. The Army then increased the target weight to 28 tons. GAO said the vehicles are not likely to meet even the heavier weight limit as vehicle hull redesigns continue. If weight exceeds 30 tons, three would no longer fit inside a C-17.

Congressional investigators questioned the FCS vehicle's ability to survive on the modern battlefield. "The FCS concept for survivability breaks from tradition" because it relies on technology instead of heavy armor for protection. The Army and Boeing said new technologies would prove to be better than heavy armor because the FCS sensor network would detect an enemy early and soldiers could avoid being targeted. If spotted, an active protection system affixed to the vehicles would shoot down incoming weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles.

GAO identified problems with both the layered defense network and the active protection system: "These layers rely on critical technologies that are largely unproven and that have not yet demonstrated that they can provide adequate information superiority as a substitute for heavy armor to protect Army soldiers."