Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came out last month with his proposed cuts in various acquisition programs throughout the DoD. The biggest impact this had on the Army was cutting the vehicle procurement portion of the Army’s Future Combat System (FCS) and moving to put most of the networking portion of it on the back burner.
The FCS program was originally designed with two major goals in mind:
First, to both bring all of the army’s combat brigades into network-centric warfare, where using networks to link all combat elements would speed the flow of information, enhance the mental agility of units, reduce the fog of war, and allow our units to out think and outfight enemies large and small.
The second goal was to replace the Army’s legacy fleet of heavy armored vehicles, such as the M1 Abrams, the M2 Bradley and the M109 howitzer, with fleets of much lighter vehicles that would be easier to transport to the theater of operations, and more agile on the battlefield. An overriding goal of this part of the program was to use a single common set of components for all the vehicles in the fleet.
There are a couple problems with this holistic approach to re-equipping the Army. One, it is technologically very ambitious. Any part of the program that lags behind the anticipated timeline causes almost the whole program to be delayed. And in a program like this, time isn’t just money. It’s a LOT of money. Second, when the FCS program was started, the Army had one vision of what future missions would likely look like. The primary outlook was one of short duration operations against nation/state actors such as Iraq. To say Desert Storm was the model they were working from would be an oversimplification, but it certainly had a large influence. But events since then have shown some of the limitations of that outlook. The vulnerability of lighter armored vehicles to IED attack took the Army somewhat by surprise. Not totally, mind you, but somewhat. In a war of maneuver against a state level enemy, you might expect to lose some forces to mines and other demolitions, but maneuver would mostly allow you to avoid mines, and your agility on the battlefield would prevent the enemy from having enough advance notice of your movements to emplace very many ambushes. That obviously isn’t the case in a counter-insurgency such as Iraq, and to a lesser degree, Afghanistan. When you have to drive through the same neighborhoods on a regular basis, even a fairly dim enemy can figure out where to put mines and IEDs. And given that the FCS goal was for no vehicle heavier than 27 tons, there was no way to provide enough protection against any but the smallest mines and IEDs.
As a means of testing this concept of a happy middle ground between the heavy Abrams/Bradley force, and light infantry/artillery team, the Army conceived the Interim Brigade Combat Teams. These are better known as Stryker Brigade Combat Teams, since they are mounted on Stryker vehicles. The Stryker is a modified version of a Canadian designed Light Armored Vehicle, but a key part of the vehicle and brigade design is the integration of its networking capabilities. And it has been quite successful in Iraq. It isn’t invulnerable to IEDs or mines, but the crew survivability is pretty good, and combination of speed, armor and firepower is pretty close to what the Army had hoped for. But even supported by the Mobile Gun System, the Stryker Brigade is a little too light to go on the offense against an armored enemy.
But the attempt to force several different types of vehicles, from tanks to artillery, to infantry carriers to share a common basis has not been successful. The challenges, from keeping weight down, to providing enough armor, to finding a powerful, but lightweight engine, are just too much to form a successful program.
With the demise of the common family of vehicles from the FCS program, the Army will have to stretch the life of its core fleet of Abrams and Bradley vehicles. They are already somewhat old, most of them having been bought in the 1980s, but with proper funding to reset/upgrade their mechanical components and continued improvement of their sensors and networking capabilities, there’s probably enough life left in them to stave off mass obsolescence. And several parts of the FCS program will be integrated into the Army in the future, such as its great emphasis on UAVs, unmanned ground sensors, and perhaps even unmanned ground vehicles. Certainly, the demand for much greater bandwidth at the tactical level isn’t going to go away, in spite of mounting challenges there (there is only so much of the radio spectrum available). Some technologies, such as the Non-Line of Sight- Launch System are well on their way to being fielded with the Army (and the Navy’s LCS ships will use it as well).