The Future Combat System has come to be regarded by some experts as the biggest mis-step made by the Army’s acquisition community in modern times. InsideDefense.com reported on June 15 that once termination fees on the canceled family of networked vehicles are paid to prime-contractor Boeing, the total program cost will have risen to $19.9 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on a program that never fielded a single usable weapon. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates terminated the former centerpiece of Army modernization in 2009, stating that it wasn’t capable of coping with emerging threats such as improvised explosive devices.
I can certainly understand why he came to that conclusion. I well remember a glowing pitch for the lightweight vehicles made to me and a gaggle of other pundits by a senior Army officer a decade ago, in which he paused and then observed, “Of course, the problem with this approach is that if you’re hit, you die.” The uncomfortable silence that followed spoke volumes about the conceptual underpinnings of the program. Counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq soon demonstrated that current networking technology isn’t always capable of delivering the kind of situational awareness needed to avoid being hit. The Gates decision to kill the program simply ratified what operational experience already reflected.
However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Future Combat System was a complete waste of money. Army leaders learned a great deal from the multiyear effort to develop and integrate all the relevant technologies. Here are a few examples of insights gleaned from FCS:
1. The modular Brigade Combat Team evolved from the FCS “unit of action.” Small-unit operations and dismounted communications are among the ideas that received detailed treatment in the FCS concept of operations.
2. The Army’s current progress toward Mission Command similarly traces its origins to the FCS concept of operations. The use of mobile, ad hoc networks and porting into software-defined radios was first systematically explored in FCS development.
3. The use of robots to ease warfighter workloads and enhance soldier safety was a central feature of FCS. Army research on robotics has continued in the years since FCS was canceled, leveraging off the insights generated by the program to yield novel capabilities.
4. The security of tactical communications was likewise an important focus of FCS, given its reliance on a wireless battlefield network. FCS produced useful insights into how to provide multi-level secure communications across multiple domains under trying circumstances.
5. The complexity of the FCS architecture required the Army to greatly enhance its understanding of system-of-systems engineering. The program thus provided a foundation for developing follow-on technologies far more advanced than anything the service had previously pursued.
6. Use of hybrid-drive technology to lighten vehicle weights, reduce logistical requirements, and hasten deployments was a core concern of the FCS program. The Army has continued to investigate the battlefield applications of hybrid drive, and may embrace that approach to powering the planned Ground Combat Vehicle.
Were these and other lessons worth nearly $20 billion? Probably not. Most likely they could have been gleaned more efficiently through other methods. However, they did yield valuable information that could be applied to later programs, and sometimes insights are more readily acquired when the goal is integrating an operational architecture rather than merely conducting research without a practical purpose in mind. So although Secretary Gates was right to direct a rethink of the Future Combat System, it would be wrong to say all the money it consumed was simply wasted. A great deal was learned, and some of what was learned will show up in the ground forces of the future.
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