The Army Systems Acquisition Review Council decided on April 22 to kill the Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS) at the urging of Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, even though the service had spent a billion dollars on the program and development was 90% complete. Although the final decision on the program’s future will be made by Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter, the move by the Army’s highest-level acquisition panel to shut the program down is tantamount to termination. NLOS-LS was begun as part of the service’s ill-fated Future Combat Systems program to build a family of networked next-generation combat vehicles and supporting systems, which policymakers began dismantling a year ago. It was nicknamed the “missiles in a box” program because of the modular, highly mobile design of the system.
The basic idea behind NLOS-LS was to develop easily transportable containers hosting 15 long-range tactical missiles that could be launched remotely. Each missile would be guided to its target — enemy bunkers, tanks, etc. — using a combination of infrared imaging, laser illumination and Global Positioning System /inertial guidance. The missile had a communications link for retargeting in flight and a digital library so that it could determine precisely what kind of vehicle or weapons system it was attacking. The plan had been to equip each Army brigade combat team with six of the 15-missile launch containers, buying a total of nearly 10,000 missiles. In addition, the Navy was planning to test the system for its Littoral Combat Ship in 2012, as a way of augmenting the firepower provided by the agile warship’s guns (the ship does not have vertical launch systems like Navy destroyers and cruisers).
Both parts of that plan now appear to be in jeopardy. Insiders say that three things doomed the program: cost, poor test results and doubts about relevance. The Army projected that each production round of the NLOS-LS missile would cost about $300,000, making it a very pricey proposition to equip the entire force. However, according to Kate Brannen of Defense News, missile-maker Raytheon told the Army in March the unit cost could be cut by a third to $198,000, and other sources say that by removing a few costly items from the munition the price could have been slashed even further to around $125,000. Unfortunately, by the time the cost-cutting options were proposed, the program had already suffered a severe setback in user tests at the White Sands missile range that probably sealed its fate. NLOS-LS missiles missed four of six intended targets, indicating that improvements would be needed before they could be fielded. The prospect of spending even more money to raise the system’s reliability from 61% to the required 85% exacerbated concerns within the Army about whether NLOS-LS was the best solution to future brigade combat team firepower needs.
All of these factors converged at the April 22 meeting of three-star and four-star generals. Insiders say that Army vice chief Chiarelli was instrumental in shaping the outcome, and that he is determined to eliminate programs from the service modernization portfolio that are not cost-effective or have been overtaken by developments in overseas contingencies. This is just the latest in a series of Army program cancellations including the Future Combat System, the Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter and the Aerial Common Sensor that collectively have cost billions of dollars to develop. The attitude of Army leaders seems to be that there’s no point in spending more money on systems that aren’t likely to give warfighters what they need at an affordable price. But with the outlook for weapons spending dimming fast, it isn’t so clear where the service will find money to develop alternatives capable of meeting future warfighting requirements.
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