After September 11, the Iraq invasion, Katrina and the BP oil spill the government conducted major investigations to fix responsibility and identify lessons to learn in order to avoid a repeat. It has almost become a ritual in Washington. Yet, when a major defense program collapses and is cancelled the Department of Defense moves as swiftly as possible to bury the story and avoid learning useful lessons. A new acquisition strategy and revised regulations are rapidly formulated but the pattern of hype and regret continues.
An example of a major defense program that went terribly wrong is the Future Combat System (FCS). This was intended to be a “system-of-systems” involving manned and unmanned ground and aerial platforms connected by a super advanced communications and computer network. The FCS manned ground vehicles were supposed to be so light that they could be carried by C-130 aircraft and therefore deployed to smaller airfields around the world. Providing survivability and combat effectiveness for FCS-equipped units would be these lightweight platforms’ inherent mobility plus the transparency of the battlefield achieved by advanced C4ISR capabilities. The FCS program planned to make extensive use of unmanned and unattended systems for surveillance and even strike. The first FCS-equipped brigade was supposed to be deployed in FY2015 with the planned force of 15 brigades deployed by 2025.
Yet, after nearly a decade of effort and $20 billion in April 2009 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cancelled the manned vehicle portion of the program and restructured the remainder, primarily unmanned systems and the communications network. The security environment had changed and the FCS program had failed to deliver on its promise. As the Secretary stated in his announcement, “I have concluded that there are significant unanswered questions concerning the FCS vehicle design strategy. I am also concerned that, despite some adjustments, the FCS vehicles — where lower weight, higher fuel efficiency, and greater informational awareness are expected to compensate for less armor — do not adequately reflect the lessons of counterinsurgency and close quarters combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The Secretary sought to salvage the Army’s investment in FCS in a couple of ways. He protected the money which the Army planned to spend on FCS manned vehicles and directed the service to develop a strategy for acquiring a new armored fighting vehicle. He also directed that the restructured program delivery capability packages consisting of key FCS technologies in two-year increments with the first iteration being provided in the FY2011-2012 period. By 2025 these capability packages were to be deployed with all Army combat brigades.
Despite a new acquisition strategy, the fallout from the failure of the FCS program continues. Last week the Army formally cancelled two of the three technologies intended for the first increment, the unattended ground sensors and the Class 1 unmanned air system. The network integration kit, an early, bare bones version of the FCS communications systems was sent back to the laboratory for further development. As a result, the Army will have nothing to deploy in that first increment.
The sole surviving element of the FCS program is the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). Given the short time to produce a GCV, just seven years, the new program will have to rely on technologies developed under the FCS program. Given that the track record for FCS-based technologies is one unblemished by success, the Army has some cause for worry.
The FCS program was not the only one canceled by Secretary Gates in 2009. For the Army, the collapse of FCS was but the biggest in a series of program failures. In none of these cases was an independent study performed. The one lesson that the defense department and the Army appear to have learned from this string of debacles is to accept the 80 percent solution rather than push the envelope to get the additional 20 percent. This is important. But the Pentagon’s problems with fielding new capabilities on time and on budget are so extensive that an independent study is warranted.
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