The leadership of the U.S. Army claims to have learned important lessons from the failure of its multi-billion dollar effort to design and build the so-called Future Combat System (FCS). The FCS was supposed to be a “system of systems” with specially designed manned and unmanned ground and air vehicles, new fire support systems and advanced sensors all tied together by a unique network. As problems mounted and costs sky-rocketed the Army siphoned money from other programs in order to keep FCS on life support. Finally, in 2009, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates mercifully pronounced FCS dead and pulled the plug. In the end the Army got neither its futuristic FCS nor enough of a host of more prosaic capabilities.
Is the Army about to make the same mistake, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale? Like all the services, the Army is feeling the pressure from defense budget cuts. At the same time, it has a couple of new weapons programs, specifically the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) and Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), which it is desperate to see through to production. As a consequence, the Army is slashing near-term acquisitions and platform upgrades in order to preserve resources for their new acquisitions.
Unfortunately, the Army appears to be on the verge of making the same error it did with FCS: betting all its chips on future capabilities that may or may not ever be realized while simultaneously making potentially serious mistakes with respect to current needs. Here is one example, the Army has invested a lot of money in its Stryker armored vehicle system, nearly 7,000 vehicles overall in eight brigades with one more being formed. The Stryker has undergone near continuous upgrades in response to the evolution of the threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, the Army approved a double V hull (DVH) improvement designed to defeat improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The DVH has proven incredibly successful. In 40 IED incidents involving the improved Stryker, only two led to any casualties and these were minor. The DVH saves lives without compromising performance.
So why on earth would the Army decide to only field two brigade sets with the DVH? At a bare minimum, it would make sense for the Army to acquire one more brigade set of upgraded Strykers to match the service’s force generation model. Since there is no reason to think that insurgents anywhere will eschew IEDs, it might make sense to upgrade all nine brigades to the DVH standard over time. This is not even a very expensive proposition since the DVH can be retrofitted to existing Strykers. The Army seems to be pinching pennies in order to preserve resources for the JLTV and GCV.
It appears as if the Army is doing it again: betting its future on the next shiny new toy while cutting back on funding for capabilities which work and are fieldable now. The Army’s leadership claims that it has reformed its approach to acquisition and renounced its former profligate ways. The decision on the Stryker DVH suggests that the Army may have learned nothing from the FCS debacle.
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