Image Makeover

The Army tries to put its troubled FCS program in a better light.

The Army feels it needs to rebrand its Future Combat Systems armored vehicle modernization program. Marketing experts are trying to settle on a new name for the troubled $200 billion program. They intend to drop the "future" and come up with something that reflects the value that front-line soldiers get today from the most ambitious, and costly, weapons program in Army history.

FCS is in trouble, assailed by lawmakers because of its soaring price tag, and because of its unproven technologies. Many also question the contractual arrangement between the Army and Boeing Co., the program's lead contractor. The Army and Boeing say FCS, intended to equip a third of the Army's troops with new vehicles, has remained on budget and on time. That is not the case.

Since the program was first announced, the Army and Boeing have slipped the development timeline by five years and have pushed the eventual fielding date out seven years. Initially, the program's cost was projected at $92 billion, but recent estimates by GAO and the Office of the Secretary of Defense's in-house auditor say it's more likely to run somewhere between $203 billion and $234 billion.

Retired Army Col. Ricky Smith, who's with the service's Training and Doctrine Command in Arlington, Va., says, "The initial cost estimate of $92 billion was for only 14 of the 18 systems. In 2004, the Army restructured the program by adding back funding for the four deferred systems, extending the production time frame and developing the strategy for spinning out FCS technologies to the current force while continuing to develop the FCS Brigade Combat Team."

In the last year, two aerial drones and a number of small robots have been dropped from the program; other elements are likely to follow. Neither the Army nor Boeing has explained why program costs are not lower in light of reductions to the original FCS battlefield suite of 18 manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles. An April GAO report said the high cost of today's weapons programs forces Pentagon buyers to cut back on their original orders. That appears to be what's happening within FCS.

This spring, the House slashed the Army's 2008 FCS funding request by 23 percent, eliminating $870 million from the program, far and away the largest cut in the program's four-year history. Most of that money came from the armored vehicle part of the systems that make up FCS. The Senate supported the Army's request, and a compromise will be hashed out in conference committees this fall. It's unlikely the Army will get all the money it wants.

In response to the House cuts, the Army upped the rhetoric to hyperbolic levels with Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army's director of force development, telling reporters last spring that cuts in FCS would cost soldiers' lives. As TRADOC's Smith notes, "precursor FCS technologies, such as unmanned ground vehicles, already are saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Those unmanned ground vehicles are small robots, about the size of a lawn mower, dispatched in the hundreds beginning in 2002 to Afghanistan and then Iraq, primarily to help bomb disposal crews find and defuse deadly roadside bombs. The FCS robot is an upgraded version of the nearly 1,000 small robots already dispatched to the battlefield. Why the FCS program is developing its own robot when the Army has an ongoing robot production program was not made clear by the service.

In a June report titled "Role of Lead Systems Integrator on Future Combat Systems Program Poses Oversight Challenges," (GAO-07-380), the agency noted that the FCS contract is written so Boeing can earn more than 80 percent of its fees before the various systems are shown to work. A critical design review is scheduled for some time in 2011, not with actual production-ready prototypes, but with "less mature prototypes and simulations," according to the report. The actual demonstration of the various FCS vehicles, battlefield network and robots happens after the design review, which GAO noted, is when most cost growth occurs.

GAO says the FCS contract fails to guarantee that soldiers will get the equipment originally proposed. Rather, all Boeing has to do is demonstrate that it has made its "best efforts" to build a command-and-control network, armored vehicle or aerial drone.

If any of the many moving parts don't work as advertised, "the [lead system integrator] is not responsible as long as it has put forth best effort," GAO found.

The Army decided on an LSI arrangement because FCS would cut across a number of program areas and involve a large portfolio of very different weapons systems, such as armored vehicles, precision missiles, aerial drones, command-and-control networks, and robotics. The Army's traditionally compartmentalized workforce, in which managers focus on development and production of a single weapon, lacked the skills and the people to manage a program as expansive and ambitious as FCS. The Army hoped that Boeing would help meet the ramped up delivery schedule and high-level technology requirements.

Boeing runs the test and evaluation process, a job typically performed by Army evaluators whose independent role is vital to providing an objective assessment of how a weapons program is progressing. The deal struck between the Army and Boeing, however, "raises the question of whether the LSI [Boeing] is too involved with testing its own solution," GAO noted.

The payment structure rewards Boeing with incentive fees worth $1.14 billion for meeting certain criteria, according to GAO. The agency added that the criteria for determining whether Boeing gets the money "do not provide indications of success relative to the desired end result of the program." Lawmakers have tired of the cost overruns, schedule delays and shoddy work that have dogged LSI contracts. The House Armed Services Committee introduced a ban on LSIs as an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act. Beginning in October 2011, the provision would prevent private companies from managing new defense contracts, restoring that function to acquisition personnel within the department. Between now and when the ban takes effect, language in the bill instructs the Pentagon to rebuild the acquisition workforce it allowed to deteriorate over the past decade.

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