Fighting Folly

The Army is developing the most expensive and complex weapons system in its history, but it's based on some very questionable concepts.

The Army bought what has become one of the Pentagon's most costly and problem-plagued weapons programs during a post-Cold War identity crisis. Locked in a political battle for taxpayer dollars with the Air Force and Navy in the late 1990s, when the military embraced a questionable vision of warfare fought from a distance with sensors and precision munitions, which obviated the need for ground troops that could result in politically costly deaths, the Army turned to industry to restore the service's relevance. Industry's answer: the hugely expensive and technologically complex Future Combat Systems, an ultramodern suite of armored vehicles, robots and aerial drones connected via a sophisticated battle command network. The program, for which cost estimates range from $164 billion to more than $230 billion, aims to transform the Army into a lighter, more agile force.

FCS manufacturer Boeing Co. promised the Army a family of high-tech, lightweight new armored vehicles connected through a digitized network to drones and robotic ground vehicles. The entire package is supposed to be light enough to be rapidly flown to global hot spots, yet with enough armor to survive once it gets there. The Army and Boeing do not talk much about the future armored battle fleet these days-many of the technologies envisioned do not yet exist. Instead, they emphasize the "spinouts," or new technologies that FCS will provide to soldiers today and in the near future. Those technologies are incremental improvements of existing systems, what GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, Paul Francis, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in late March, called "the harvesting of low-hanging fruit" and not the impressive new technologies Boeing has promised to deliver.

As troubling as the technological problems are, many experts are even more worried about the concepts that underpin how FCS will be used on future battlefields. Years before the Army embarked on FCS, independent analysis funded by the Army showed that those concepts were deeply flawed. What's more, the Army's own experience of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan further debunks concepts central to FCS.

The Army has so far spent $8 billion and is a third of the way through the development part of FCS, with full production scheduled for 2013. How is it progressing? That depends on whom you ask. According to the Army and Boeing, the program is "on cost and on schedule," as Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing's general manager for FCS, said in a conference with reporters last summer. But an assessment of cost growth and the findings of a yearlong Government Accountability Office audit suggest FCS is a costly mess.

The Army's original price tag back in 2003 was $92 billion. Since then, the Army has restructured the program twice and now estimates development and production will cost $163.7 billion, a 76 percent increase. An independent estimate by the Office of the Secretary of Defense puts FCS costs between $203 billion and $234 billion. That's for a suite of weapons intended to outfit only 15 of the Army's planned total of 48 brigades (each of which numbers around 4,000 soldiers). That suite also is getting smaller; the original 18 major FCS systems have been trimmed to 14. It will be another 10 years, at the earliest, before an FCS-equipped unit is ready for battle.

Four years into the program, the Army still has not fully defined what the program's vehicles, drones, robots and computer networks are required to do, GAO's Francis says. Software needed to control FCS has doubled from initial estimates to a staggering 63 million lines of code, three times the amount being written for the Joint Strike Fighter. Of FCS' 49 critical technologies, only one is fully mature. GAO noted that immature technologies are "markers for future cost growth." The Army says 75 percent of FCS critical technologies have reached prototype stage. GAO disputed those claims, backed by an independent review team's assessment that less than half the critical technologies were close to the prototype stage.

GAO pointed to the FCS vehicles' burgeoning weight as signs of a program that remains poorly defined and predicated on technological breakthroughs that so far have failed to materialize. The Army originally wanted FCS vehicles to weigh less than 20 tons, and Boeing promised to meet that goal. But so far, engineers have failed to develop the high-tech, lightweight electromagnetic and composite armors required. Last year, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, the Army acquisition deputy, said vehicles would weigh 24 tons. Army budget documents released this year said FCS vehicles would tip the scales at 27 tons. Weight growth of a vehicle meant to be rapidly deployable by air is not an immaterial concern.

GAO's Francis says the Army and Boeing have crafted a too-cozy business relationship that "poses risks for the Army's ability to provide oversight." The Army argues that it simply did not have the technical expertise to manage a program so big and complex. Instead of maintaining a traditional arms-length, government-contractor relationship, the Army entered into a partnership with Boeing. Both collaborate on major program decisions, and both have a vested interest in putting a positive spin on progress. Francis says the Army is no longer able to impartially oversee taxpayers' investment in FCS, so the Office of the Secretary of Defense must step in. "OSD needs to hold the FCS program accountable to high standards, which are not necessarily the standards the Army adheres to," Francis says.

Task Force Hawk

How did the Army find itself in such a jam? Three words: Task Force Hawk. During NATO's war to stop Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, the Army was to deploy its premier Apache attack helicopters to Albania to attack Serbian ground forces. But it took the Army 20 days to move the helicopters and the 5,000 troops and heavy equipment necessary to support the operation, known as Task Force Hawk, from Germany to Albania. It took even longer to declare the unit combat ready. In the end, U.S. military commanders decided not to use the Apaches because they feared losses to Serbian ground fire. Task Force Hawk became a metaphor for an Army stuck in the Cold War era-too cumbersome, bureaucratic and outdated for the high-tech wars of the 21st century. The service clung to an Air-Land Battle doctrine that had guided it during the Cold War and was designed specifically to counter a Soviet armored onslaught.

The debacle put pressure on the Army to reinvent itself or face irrelevance. Following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the military and political establishment embraced the concept of digital warfare by precision-guided munitions launched from afar. Only the Army's role was unclear. The Marines provided an expeditionary fighting force and the Navy and Air Force provided strike capability from aircraft carriers and distant airfields. But the Army was left grappling for a clear mission and battling the other services for a share of the shrinking Defense budget.

With new weapons programs on the chopping block and growing pressure to further reduce the size of the Army, Gen. Eric Shinseki, who became Army chief of staff in 1999, argued that the Army had to transform itself into a more agile force capable of rapidly deploying to global hot spots. Shinseki first proposed a short-term fix: medium-weight Stryker brigades, originally called "interim brigades." He pinned the future of the Army on plans for a highly mobile, futuristic armored fleet that would fill the gap between the Army's lightly armed but highly deployable light infantry and its lethal yet relatively immobile heavy tank units.

But a senior Army officer who served on Shinseki's staff at the time says the program he had in mind was very different from what FCS has become. Shinseki wanted to leverage existing technologies and off-the-shelf designs to realize an extremely ambitious fielding of FCS combat brigades beginning in 2008. The problem, says an Army official who requested anonymity, was that Army leadership lacked critical expertise and went to industry for help in defining FCS: "It's like me going to a mechanic and saying, 'These are funny noises, and I think the leak is from around this hose, but I'm not sure. Root around and fix this, will you?' " By essentially opening its wallet to Boeing, the Army wound up with a very ambitious, very expensive solution.

Flawed Concepts

The Army embarked on FCS after extensive studies by the RAND Arroyo Center in Santa Monica, Calif., a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Army, found that many of the key concepts underlying FCS were deeply flawed. The RAND studies were part of the Army's effort to craft a futuristic fighting force under a program known as the "Army After Next." The most significant conceptual flaws are in three areas: the notion that near-perfect battlefield knowledge, or situational awareness, is achievable; the vulnerability of what is known as the aero-mechanization concept; and questions about the survivability of lightly armored vehicles. Much of the critique, chronicled in a series of papers approved for release by the Army, has been borne out by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The FCS weapons suite is intended to provide soldiers unprecedented knowledge of the location of friendly and enemy forces. This concept is embodied in the Army's new catchphrase: "See first, understand first, decide first and finish decisively." To achieve that level of situational awareness, hundreds of aerial drones would fill the sky above FCS-equipped units, scanning for enemies to be destroyed by long-range missile fire. The entire program is predicated on the belief that unprecedented levels of information will make FCS-equipped units more lethal and more likely to survive.

But RAND found that even with expected improvements and technological advances in remote surveillance and targeting systems out to the year 2020, "remote assets will not ensure 'understanding' on the future battlefield." A 2002 RAND paper, titled "Exploring Advanced Technologies for the FCS Program," stated, "We found that an enemy who relies on cover, concealment, deception, intermingling and dispersion will be difficult if not impossible to monitor from overhead assets." The studies showed what historical experience has revealed: An enemy out in the open can be successfully struck from a distance. But in an urban area, forest or jungle, enemies can hide from overhead surveillance. RAND's simulations showed that in battles in and around urban areas, friendly force casualties rose dramatically.

Stephen Biddle, a professor at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., has conducted extensive studies of the use of remote sensors and precision strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and says there are limits to the information that electronic eyes can provide. Intelligent enemies will disperse, seek cover and hide to avoid being killed. Retired Army Brig. Gen. Huba Wass De Czege, one of the forefathers of FCS and the first director of the Army's elite School of Advanced Military Studies, wrote a 2002 article in Army magazine admitting that his initial, admittedly enthusiastic, hopes for the revolutionizing effects of digitization, information technology and precision targeting were tempered by the realization that precision alone wouldn't be enough to destroy an enemy that exploited complex terrain and what he called the "dark places" to evade surveillance and precision firepower. Infantry and firepower still would be needed to get in close and root out the enemy. "So many of these future concepts are predicated on very, very high levels of situational awareness in the future," says RAND policy analyst John Gordon, "but there's precious little evidence we're going to get there from here, particularly in a cluttered ground environment."

Radical New Aircraft

Vertical aero-mechanized maneuver, another central FCS concept, deserves closer scrutiny than it has received. This is the notion that a gigantic quad tilt-rotor aircraft, which can land like a helicopter and is larger than a C-130 cargo plane, will lift FCS vehicles and move them to key battlefield points. "It's like having a chess set where you can move your pieces anywhere you want," says Jon Grossman, a senior researcher in military technology at RAND, who examined the concept and the technologies that would be required. The Army wanted FCS vehicles to weigh less than 20 tons to promote rapid deployment overseas, but also so they could be carried about the battlefield by a yet-to-be-developed vertical-lift aircraft.

In an October 2005 article in Armed Forces Journal, Robert Scales wrote "FCS- equipped aero-mechanized brigades . . . will form the aerial blitzkrieg force of the future." Scales and others envisioned a radical new concept in which the Army's obsession with maneuver warfare could be taken to unprecedented levels by breaking the "bonds of the Earth." According to Scales, what slows an attacking armored force is not the vehicle's top speed; it's "the friction of the terrain that limits your ability to move," things such as bridges, enemy ambushes and urban areas.

The Army spelled out the need for new aircraft and its air mechanization doctrine in a 2005 Training and Doctrine Command publication titled "The Army's Future Force Capstone Concept 2015-2024." FCS is "intertwined and dependent" on a heavy lifter that would drop FCS-equipped units behind an enemy's front lines, "contributing to the more rapid disintegration of the enemy force," according to the doctrine. "Failure to develop them would inevitably constitute a severe brake on [FCS] operations." FCS units must be "capable of immediate employment upon arrival;" in other words, a ramp drops down and vehicles roll off ready for combat.

Based on the Marine Corps V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which cost $70 million per plane and can lift only 6 tons, Gordon calculated that a quad tilt-rotor aircraft capable of carrying FCS vehicles would cost $250 million per craft. To move just one FCS-equipped brigade, the Army would need 300.

RAND tested the air mechanization concept with numerous simulations and war games and concluded that almost the entire rotorcraft fleet would be shot down by enemy air defenses. "The only thing that limits the number of aircraft the enemy shoots down is his reload rate of his SAMs [surface-to-air missiles]," says Grossman, who participated in the RAND studies. Because the aircraft are slow moving and would have to fly close to the ground, the simulated enemy did not even need sophisticated air defenses. A force of 100 fighters armed with little more than machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades could shoot down up to one-third of the rotorcraft, Grossman says. RAND's tests have been backed up by recent battlefield experience. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi militia units armed with small arms and rapid firing auto-cannons mounted in pickup trucks savaged an entire regiment of the Army's Longbow Apache attack helicopter. Of the 29 aircraft in the operation, one was shot down and 28 were damaged. Insurgents in Iraq continue to shoot down helicopters with small arms and shoulder-fired missiles.

The vulnerability of the aircraft means they would have to land in safe areas, far out of enemy reach. As Grossman says, that defeats the whole point of aero- mechanized maneuvering because the ground force is so far away from the battlefield that it can do little to influence the outcome. "The reality is you will not have perfect situational awareness, so you won't be able to detect vast numbers of shoulder-fired missiles and air defense systems, so anything that flies low and slow, as we've seen repeatedly for many years, is going to be destroyed," says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor.

Vehicle Vulnerability

FCS vehicles also will rely on high levels of situational awareness for survival. Instead of heavy armor, they will be protected by a "layered defense" of information about the enemy's whereabouts. A protective ring of expendable unmanned robotic ground vehicles would absorb the enemy's attacks and preserve the more valuable manned vehicles. If an enemy managed to breach the robots, then stealthy features and advanced armor would protect FCS vehicles.

That concept, developed in the 1990s when the Army envisioned FCS fighting in wide open spaces, also has suffered a reality check in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Scales. Fighting in cities and other "complex terrain," such as mountains or jungles, where it's easier for an enemy to hide and close-range ambushes are the norm, means the protective information ring dramatically shrinks, and "the red zone goes from 1,000 meters to 50 meters." The information-as-protection argument begins to lose effectiveness, Scales says: "If you're not able to provide close-in self-protection, that's the nail that ultimately could threaten the whole concept."

RAND concluded from its series of simulations that even with advanced armor, building a survivable vehicle weighing less than 20 tons was impossible. RAND noted that avoidance of close combat was one of FCS' central concepts. The Army says FCS was never designed to slug it out with enemy tanks. But what about close-range ambushes? To counter rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles, the Army has based FCS survivability on active protection, which detects incoming projectiles and launches an interceptor round from the vehicle to destroy them. But the technology remains unproven, and GAO found that the particular solutions the Army was pursuing were not as advanced as the Army claimed.

The rocket-propelled grenade was designed for close combat and remains the biggest threat, apart from improvised explosive devices, for armored vehicles. While there are a number of active protection systems in production by various companies around the world, none has proved effective. Also, because active protection never has been used by American troops, it's not clear how soldiers or civilians would operate near a vehicle that could periodically blast the surrounding area with enormous shotgun shells. Additionally, as active protection systems become more common, foreign manufacturers undoubtedly will design new warheads specifically to defeat them.

There's also the threat from lightweight, direct-fire cannon. "You can't build an active protection system that can defeat a stream of 30mm slugs from an auto-cannon," Gordon says. RAND's analysis showed that to achieve survivability against 30mm auto-cannon fire, a vehicle would need to weigh upwards of 30 tons. The Army also has had to redesign FCS vehicles in light of the lethality of IEDs, an additional challenge that will add to FCS' growing weight and cost. The Iraq war demonstrates the value of heavily armored vehicles, Gordon says, and the Army will be forced to develop replacement vehicles that are much heavier and more robust than FCS.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec