Army pushes ahead with Future Combat Systems

'I'm never satisfied with the progress. JTRS has had problems. We have restructured. It is difficult,' said Army secretary Francis J. Harvey

Robert D. Ward

Despite setbacks, brass supports development of new technologies

It's been a trying year for the Army's Future Combat Systems program.

Congress proposed cuts of $400 million from the program's $3.4 billion request in the fiscal 2006 budget. The Government Accountability Office issued a report this summer saying the communications pillars of FCS were behind schedule because of immature technologies. The Defense Department instructed the Army to cease working on the Joint Tactical Radio System Cluster 1 radios until it could perform an assessment to determine the way ahead for the software-programmable systems.

Even Army secretary Francis J. Harvey conceded FCS has been difficult to conceptualize and deliver. But Harvey stressed that the military needs FCS to counter 21st century threats and to bring mobile networking capabilities to soldiers at the last tactical mile.

'I'm never satisfied with the progress,' he said. 'JTRS has had problems. We have restructured. It is difficult.'

On a recent morning, FCS program leaders were determined to press on as they demonstrated some of FCS' potential at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. They, along with FCS contractors, invited congressional staff, members of the press and top Army brass to watch prototypes of unmanned ground vehicles negotiate dirt tracks. They also demonstrated the future capabilities of autonomous air vehicles, which are remote-controlled and have cameras and sensors that can relay and feed pictures and video imagery to troops positioned miles away.

FCS is designed to link man-ned and un-manned air and ground vehicles, unattended ground sensors, and a non-line-of-sight cannon-and-launch system via a common computer network known as the System of Systems Common Operating Environment and the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program. The lead systems integrator for the program is a partnership between Boeing Co. and Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego.

The weapons systems that make up FCS are expected to cost $125 billion over 20 years to build and maintain. Army officials say the program is a joint military effort, with the Marine Corps heavily involved, as well as forces from Great Britain and Australia.

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, said the Stryker, Bradley and Abram tanks and Apache helicopters have proven successful on the battlefield, but it's time to now move the Army into next-generation technologies.

'We cannot go the next 20 to 25 years without significantly improving those capabilities,' Schoomaker said.

And the network is vital to tying together the sophisticated vehicles being developed, added Brig. Gen. Charles A. Cartwright, program manager for the FCS Unit of Action.

'The network is built into every one of those systems,' Cartwright said, explaining that two Joint Tactical Radio Systems clusters, 1 and 5, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical program and the System of Systems Common Operating Environment make up the communications layers.

In essence, FCS will give troops a mobile networking capability that is sorely missing on the battlefield today, officials said.

'The systems we're developing are all about taking technology and bringing it to the soldier in ways we couldn't do before,' said Dan Zanini, deputy program manager of FCS for SAIC.

Yet, this year, the network has come under tight scrutiny from senior Defense officials, legislators and GAO. In a July report, GAO found that the communications systems'JTRS, WIN-T and SOSCOE'would likely fail to meet technical challenges and the accelerated rollout schedule.

The Army has announced it would move the ground and air vehicles to troops in the field as soon as they are developed; some of them are expected in several years.

But GAO said the first program's initial phase, which DOD refers to as spirals, might not demonstrate key networking capabilities. Defense officials counter that even if key IT programs are not developed by 2008, they will not delay FCS spirals.

And members of the House Armed Services Committee called for a major restructuring of the program.

'The committee has numerous concerns with the Future Combat Systems program. Reasons include technology immaturity, lack of firm requirements, unknown program costs and duplicative programs,' said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), House Armed Services Committee chairman, during markup of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Bill.

'Therefore, the committee believes the FCS program should be restructured until mature technology is demonstrated in relevant environments, requirements are determined and program costs are known,' Hunter said.

To the field

In April, Harvey announced that the service would restructure the contractual and managerial aspects of the program. As part of the restructuring, he is establishing an Army Modular Force Integration Office to ensure technologies are moved into troop systems as soon as they are available.

It was the second program restructuring since last year. In 2004, the service announced it would roll out FCS in phases, with the first spiral scheduled for fiscal 2008 or earlier, and possibly including new radio waveforms as part of JTRS and voice over IP capabilities.

At the recent Aberdeen FCS technology demonstration, Harvey said the Army communicates well at the battalion level, but that the network in FCS would give a better battlefield picture to soldiers on the ground.

In early August, FCS underwent a system of systems functional review, where certain components were approved for further testing and development.

Today, several technologies are in the demonstration phase, including the non-line-of-sight cannon and the second generation of small, underground vehicle robots known as the iRobot Packbot.

The Packbot is currently being used in Afghanistan and Iraq to canvass caves and to identify improvised explosive devices.

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