Army modernization project faces uncertain future

With a new administration and a worsening economy, there is unprecedented pressure to trim the complex and expensive Future Combat Systems.

If the Army must be ready for both high-intensity combat and low-intensity counterinsurgency, what is to become of the service's main modernization program, the awkwardly named and hugely expensive Future Combat Systems?

With a new administration and a worsening economy, there is unprecedented pressure to trim the complex program -- originally envisioned as an integrated set of armored vehicles and aerial and ground robots, plus a mobile computer network with 95 million lines of code to coordinate their operations.

The idea was first outlined by then-Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki in 1999. The problem then to be solved was how the Army could deploy heavy forces in time to stop, say, Iraqi aggression in Kuwait in 1990 or Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, both situations in which hostile nation-states with Soviet-built tanks were able to move faster than the Pentagon could.

Gen. Shinseki sold the FCS as a rapidly deployable replacement for the Army's main battle tank, the M1 Abrams, which was too heavy to be flown in large numbers to a crisis spot.

The FCS would use advanced technology to cram all of the firepower and protection of 70-ton heavy tanks into 20-ton vehicles light enough to be airlifted en masse to trouble spots worldwide.

Slow, grinding wars against elusive guerrillas were not on the FCS agenda. But the original vision got one critical part of the future right: Watching urban sprawl envelop the planet, Army planners predicted that the FCS would have to fight its battles in cities. So they outlined an FCS brigade structure that incorporated not only long-range precision weapons to kill enemy tanks but also additional foot soldiers to fight house-to-house, armored personnel carriers to get them to the target under fire, and abundant unmanned systems -- flying drones, crawling robots, and static sensors -- to scope out hidden enemies, with a computerized communications network to coordinate it all.

Those same four components -- armor, infantry, drones, and networks -- have proved vital in city fighting in Iraq. So it might seem that the FCS would be perfect for hybrid warriors.

The problem, however, is that for years the Army has played chicken with Congress over the $160 billion -- some say $200 billion -- FCS program. Capitol Hill chafed at the Army's insistence on treating the array as a single program: a single line item in its budget with a single contract. Lawmakers were also unhappy that the FCS was aimed not at modernizing existing Army units but at creating "FCS brigades" equipped for the most part with Future Combat Systems hardware.

The Army argued that the program's 17 components were too interdependent for legislators to pick and choose and that because the FCS made up so much of the Army's modernization budget, the service had no alternative plan. To put the Army's argument bluntly: Future Combat Systems is too big to fail and too tightly integrated to pick apart, so let us do what we want.

"If FCS were canceled, the Army does not really have a plan for the future, and it was so thoroughly integrated you couldn't kill any one piece of it because the whole thing would collapse," said Loren Thompson, a Lexington Institute analyst and a consultant for major defense firms. "That approach has turned from a form of protection to a liability. It simply isn't executable. I suspect the service will have to disentangle those elements."

Congress has proved increasingly willing to call the Army's bluff. In 2007, legislators forced the service to list one of the eight planned variants of the FCS's armored vehicles as a separate line item in its budget. Last year, the Army on its own announced it would accelerate some of the less ambitious robotics and buy them for existing light infantry units. In recent months, under pressure from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to control costs, the Army has hinted that it will cherry-pick the most promising of the eight FCS manned vehicles and use them to modernize existing heavy armored units. Instead of a "pure" FCS brigade, one congressional staffer said, "it sounds like they're headed for a future heavy brigade with a mix of FCS vehicles, current vehicles, and Strykers," an armored vehicle with huge tires that has been effective in Iraq.

As for the sprawling FCS program, it should be divided into three parts, like Gaul, the staffer said, voicing a sentiment not uncommon around Washington. "You could pursue the vehicle variants under one R&D program because you have a common chassis," he argued. "The [computer] network, I think, just needs to be a separate program. [And] the robots and such, those could be separate programs. If they end up being useful, great, buy them for the entire Army. I think they could stand or fail on their own."

As for the FCS's brigade design, applying it to current armored units would give them almost 20 percent more foot soldiers -- the truly decisive weapon in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"The Army's program makes sense in both the organization and the equipment," Frank Hoffman, a retired marine with no dog in the Army's fight, said of the Future Combat Systems. "I think the Army's right for the wrong reasons. They may have thought this thing was designed for high-end warfare, but it turns out to be the best posture for the medium."