February 12, 2008 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Future Combat Systems: Dispelling Widespread Myths of the US Army's Primary Modernization Program

A year into the invasion of Iraq, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Iraq-bound soldiers in a remote desert camp somewhere in Kuwait. With the holiday season in full swing, the Secretary may have expected a quick meet-and-greet to reiterate that the well being of the troops remained a priority. The soldiers, however, had other plans in mind.

In the ensuing weeks and months since coalition troops had, with unprecedented success, smashed the Iraqi Army and toppled Saddam Hussein, the sense of inexorable supremacy was slowly slipping away. Troops were under daily attack from insurgents employing a variety of weapons from small arms and rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombs. The lack of armored vehicles had left many American troops exceptionally vulnerable. As the attacks mounted, the number of casualties quickly surpassed those suffered during the initial invasion.

In what was later described by a reporter as an "extraordinary exchange," the troops told Secretary , they were being sent into combat with insufficient and aging equipment. One soldier described how his National Guard unit had to scrounge through local landfills for pieces for rusty scrap metal and bullet-proof glass to bolt on their Humvees for protection--known as "hillbilly armor."

Drawing cheers from many of the 2,300 troops in attendance, he asked, "Why don't we have the resources readily available to us?"

Clearly taken aback, Secretary Rumsfeld responded, "Hell, I'm an old man, it's early in the morning and I'm gathering my thoughts here."

Finally, he said, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

Despite criticism Secretary Rumsfeld would later receive for his handling of the war, in this instance he was right. As a consequence of decisions made by the Administration, Congress, and the Army's leadership during the 1990s, the Army essentially skipped a generation of modernization and entered Iraq under-funded and equipped with technologies decades old. This operational shortfall will only continue to grow if Congress terminates the Army's current primary modernization program, the Future Combat Systems (FCS).

Over the past few years, FCS has unfairly garnered the reputation as one of the poster children of military programs run amok. Critics have portrayed FCS as "always a pipe dream," describing the program as based upon unproven technologies with ballooning costs. Upon closer examination, however, these "myths" simply don't hold up.

Myth #1 - The Army Does Not Need a Major Modernization Program

Skeptics argue that the US Army is already stretched to its limit fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than invest in a massive modernization program, they believe the Army should simply buy more of what it knows already works. This equipment, however, is a legacy of the Cold War. While the platforms have unmatched ability to conduct direct conventional operations, they are not designed to perform across the full spectrum of operations. In short, the streets of Baghdad, Najaf, and Fallujah pose entirely different challenges than the plains of the Fulda Gap.

Unfortunately, the Army was essentially forced to "eat its own young" as a result of the defense drawdown of the 1990s. Faced with massive budget cuts and subsequent contraction from 18 active-duty divisions to ten, the Army chose to maintain its heavy equipment at the expense of modernization.

The Army phased out the SHERIDAN, the service's only light tank, and cancelled its replacement, the Armored Gun System (AGS). In addition, budget constraints halted research on the development of other advanced armored vehicles, including the Future Scout and Cavalry System, replacements for the Humvee and BRADLEY Infantry Fighting Vehicle.

Meanwhile, major combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are wearing down the Army's fleet of heavy vehicles. The Army estimates that the operational tempo of ABRAMs and BRADLEYs in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased fivefold and sixfold, respectively. Coupled with harsh environmental conditions, each year of deployment equals about five years of normal wear and tear.[1] In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the advanced age and high use of equipment in current operations has reduced readiness and ballooned maintenance costs. As such, the Army urgently needs to modernize more than at any other point in decades.

Myth #2 - Future Combat Systems is All There Is To Army Modernization

FCS is only one component of the Army's sweeping modernization program to transform itself into a "more agile, adaptive, responsive, deployable force."[2] The Army is in the midst of reorganizing its force structure from World War II-era 10,000-20,000-man divisions into more flexible brigades of 3,500-4,500 soldiers. These brigades are designed to be capable of faster deployment and greater self-sufficiency on the battlefield.

Future Combat Systems is the material backbone of this larger modular organization effort. FCS is a significant undertaking, composed of over 300 different technologies, 600 different contracts, and 14 systems and platforms. Although the Army describes the program as a "systems of systems," it is aptly defined as creating "updated modular brigade[s] built around a light-to-medium weight armored vehicle, known as the manned ground vehicle, and supported by computer networks, sensors, and robots."[3]

The Army plans on only equipping 15 FCS Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) out of a total of 77 active duty brigades. The Army will, however, insert FCS capabilities throughout the force beyond FCS brigades. Active protection systems, robots, unmanned aerial systems, and sensors will raise the baseline for Army units that do not receive FCS manned vehicles. Some Army leaders describe this approach as "some get all and all get some." Additional and ongoing modernization programs include improving intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities; increasing precision effects; and replacing or recapitalizing staple vehicles (e.g., trucks).

Myth #3 - FCS Capabilities Are a Luxury, Not a Necessity

Through Future Combat Systems, the Army aims to dominate the ground by the same means the Navy and Air Force have achieved maritime and air superiority. FCS seeks to harness information and precision technologies with the service's already unrivalled firepower to kill the enemy faster than it can react. While this will not always be operationally or tactically feasible, improved situational awareness and rapid communication will often allow soldiers to operate from a distance and maintain better vehicle protection. Lt.Gen. Stephen Speakes describes the FCS concept as the "ability to reach out, identify with much greater clarity where the enemy is, what the enemy is doing and attempt to intercept him or destroy him far before it becomes a steel-on-steel engagement."[4]

Currently, Army combat vehicles have little point-to-point or shared targeting capability. Today's sensors have relatively slow response times and lack "persistent stare," survivability, and networking capabilities. FCS is designed to close these operational gaps. FCS sensors and robots will bolster battlefield intelligence-gathering capabilities through surveillance and reconnaissance, while the integrated network will provide a unified picture not only to every individual within a unit, but across the entire force whether soldier, ground vehicle, helicopter, or unmanned aerial vehicle.[5]

Moreover, FCS brigades will have "more teeth and less tail." Robots that enhance capabilities, vehicles that require fewer soldiers to operate, and less downtime for maintenance and re-supply mean that each brigade will need significantly fewer support personnel. As a result, each FCS brigade will have up to 500 fewer soldiers but the same number of infantry as a current infantry brigade and twice the number of infantry as a heavy brigade.

Integrating these technologies will enable each FCS brigade to operate on the battlefield with unprecedented communications and coordination, more firepower, and more speed for up to three times longer than current combat units. Army doctrine has established the objective that an FCS brigade combat team will be capable of 72 hours of sustained combat.

Additionally, the Army will insert FCS capabilities throughout the force beyond FCS brigades. Soldiers throughout the force will be able to pass digital images back and forth, access information directly from the UAVs and helicopters overhead, and identify the enemy as "red" targets visible to all soldiers on the network. In short, FCS is critical to equipping all Army forces to prepare for a complex future of multiple, simultaneous threats.

Myth #4 - The Army Should Upgrade Existing Vehicles Rather Than Invest In MGVs

While all this new software sounds great, critics argue that recapitalizing and resetting old vehicles with FCS technology would be more timely and cost-effective than developing an entirely new class of vehicles. This option, however, has two principal obstacles: power and armor.

Power. While current vehicles will still be able to use some FCS sensors and communications equipment, their diesel engines produce only a fraction of the electrical power needed to run the full FCS network software. The Army intends to equip ABRAMs and BRADLEYs with auxiliary power units to operate new computers, sensors, and radios, but size and space prevent the aging vehicles from operating all FCS technologies.

FCS manned ground vehicles (MGVs), in contrast, will have hybrid electric engines that generate enough power to operate FCS technologies and export power as needed, effectively turning them into mobile battlefield generators. As a result, more than two-thirds of the network sensors in an FCS brigade will be deployed on MGVs.[6] In addition, command and control MGVs will establish a full battle command on the move. This will make units more mobile and survivable and reduce the number of soldiers needed for command and control--a significant change from the current "tent farms" of brigade headquarters.

Armor. Reports from Iraq suggest that armor is still critical on the battlefield, especially in combined arms operations. Heavy armor led the charge toward Baghdad in 2003, and heavy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles have been vital to combating the insurgency. In asymmetric conflict and counterinsurgency operations, "armor denies the insurgent what he most desires: a vulnerable target that can be easily attacked at low risk."[7]

Yet Iraq has also demonstrated the limits of conventional armor. Insurgents have used increasingly sophisticated IEDs and RPGs to destroy armored vehicles. With a large bomb, enough time to plan, and plenty of luck, insurgents can destroy any modern combat vehicle, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, amphibious assault vehicles, and even the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) and BUFFALO Mine Protected Clearance vehicles.

The Army has responded by equipping many vehicles with "B-kits" to increase their armor. However, the unified hulls used by the ABRAMs and BRADLEYs have already been retrofitted with additional armor. At 70 tons and 34 tons, respectively, they are reaching their weight limits, and adding even more armor would begin to sacrifice mobility, transportability, and reliability.

The Army believes that technological advances over the past 30 years will enable the FCS family of manned ground vehicles to weigh 27 tons but have the same survivability as the older, heavier vehicles. Specifically, MGV armor and protection systems will ideally provide "all-around protection against mines, rocket-propelled grenades favored by guerrillas, and quick-firing cannon shells as large as 30mm, the standard caliber of guns on Russian-made infantry carriers."[8] In fact, with the exception of the front of the ABRAMs, the MGVs are equal to or more survivable than anything in the Army inventory. Moreover, MGVs are designed to shed their "skins just like a snake,"[9] allowing their armor to be upgraded as new technology is fielded.

Myth #5 - FCS BCTs Will Replace Heavy BCTs

Future Combat Systems is not a silver bullet to combat all future threats. The FCS Brigade Combat Team is not intended or designed solely to replace Heavy Brigade Combat Teams. Although the Army will mothball some heavy tanks, "FCS brigades will serve alongside heavy-armored units."[10] In fact, the Army plans to maintain some heavy units until at least 2030 to ensure that the nation has a heavy alternative that is more suited to direct-fire fights with heavily armored opponents.

The 15 FCS brigades will conduct combined arms operations and employ dual-use equipment for various types of conflict. In this sense, they are better equipped for the "fluid wars of the future that will have no clear front line."[11] In addition, non-FCS combat brigades will use many FCS technologies. The program budget currently provides enough funds for four equipment "spin-outs" to the current force over several years.

Myth #6 - FCS Has Incurred Significant Cost Overruns

There is no denying that Future Combat Systems is expensive. This does not mean the program costs have spiraled upward with no rhyme or reason, either. In constant 2003 dollars, the program's cost has remained relatively steady. In 2004, the price increased from $96 billion to $160 billion because the Army expanded the program's size, scope, and timeline based on recommendations from the GAO and others. The changes included fielding FCS technologies as they are developed rather than waiting a decade or more for the complete set of technologies.

While these significant changes increased program costs by adding more systems to field across the force, the goal remains to reduce FCS development-to-field time by up to 30%. To achieve this within resource constraints, Army leaders have "cancelled more than 100 programs to free resources for FCS."[12] Currently, FCS accounts for only 3.7% of the Army's budget and is the only Army program in the Pentagon's top 15 weapons acquisition programs.[13] It is nonetheless a significant share of the Army's discretionary funding.

Finally, FCS could save billions of dollars in maintenance, fuel, and personnel costs over the lifetime of units while reducing the number of troops in harm's way.

Common Chassis. Manned Ground Vehicles share a common chassis, saving the Army money in development and maintenance. Developing and procuring the eight MGV types cost an estimated $6 billion, roughly the total cost of developing and procuring three current-force vehicles: the ABRAM, BRADLEY, and Multiple Launch Rocket System. Developing the eight types individually would increase costs by as much as $12 billion and take one-third longer.[14]

In addition, the maintenance for MGVs is intended to save time and money while allowing for improvements after vehicles are built. For example, MGVs will share roughly 70% of the same parts and require only about 20 tools to maintain--a concept initially inspired by designers working in NASCAR. The MGV design will enable crews to perform substantially more maintenance (up to 80%) than is performed by crews of current combat vehicles and will require less than half as many mechanics to maintain.

Less Fuel. The hybrid electric engine in FCS vehicles will consume up to 30% less fuel than current vehicles consume. This is a cost reduction multiplier across the battlefield. According to Captain Ray Bolar, an Army tank officer and veteran of two tours in Iraq, "Every eight hours, you're going to burn 300 gallons, whether [the ABRAMs is] moving or not." During the invasion of Iraq, unarmored fuel trucks made "30,000 supply runs, averaging 800 miles apiece."[15] Fewer supply convoys would not only cut costs and reduce overall manpower, but also reduce casualties in what are widely acknowledged as some of the most vulnerable US forces in Iraq.

Less Manpower. Manpower costs are by far the Army's largest expense, accounting for 36% of the Service's 2008 budget. In addition to needing fewer mechanics and truck drivers, FCS brigades will require 500 fewer soldiers than today's heavy brigades because of other FCS efficiencies.[16] FCS Brigade Combat Teams will include three combined arms battalions; the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon battalion; the reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition squadron; the forward support battalion; the brigade intelligence communications company; and the headquarters company.

Revised Doctrine, Training, and Organization. FCS Program Manager Major General Charles Cartwright observes that the days of vehicle crew drills are over. In the past, operational units practiced so that they would operate smoothly in battle. Soldiers would drill as a team loading, firing, and resupplying. With FCS, these tasks will be completed by the system. Machines will do manual labor tasks while the soldiers focus on cognitive activities. Soldiers will need this time on the battlefield because more information on friendly locations, enemy situations, and threat evolutions will be available. Unmanned systems (robots and UAVs) will do some of the dangerous and dirty jobs that soldiers do today. Army training standards and doctrine are being updated to educate soldiers to leverage unmanned systems, absorb more information more quickly, apply that knowledge usefully, operate the system, and respond accordingly.

Myth #7 - The "Future" of FCS Is Too Far Away and Unlikely To Be Realized

Although the Army will not equip the first FCS Brigade Combat Team until 2015, FCS forerunners are already playing important roles on the battlefield. The Army has already installed a stripped-down FCS-like network in some combat vehicles, which improves on the Army's Blue Force Tracker (BFT). In 2003, the Army equipped units heading into Iraq with BFT, enabling soldiers to track friendly "blue" units on screen. According to Captain Sam Donnelly, a battalion command staff officer during the invasion, before BTF, the "primary means of command-and-control was an FM radio, a map, and thumbtacks." By the end of the campaign, "the only real contact we had with [other units] was through [network] text messaging."[17]

In addition, small unmanned ground vehicles (SUGV) such as the PACBOT have discovered over 1,000 IEDs in Iraq since 2003. The Army has recently outfitted the 25th Infantry Division with micro air vehicles--precursors to the FCS Class I UAV--to perform reconnaissance at the platoon level.[18] Finally, the latest armor upgrade kits for light vehicles, such as the Humvee, are based on FCS armor technology.

Yet, despite their utility, these technologies were developed without the overall network integration that FCS will provide. Over the next decade, FCS technologies will spin out as the Army procures and equips the systems for soldiers in the field. The first spin-out is scheduled to begin in FY 2008 and will include an early part of the network operating system; joint tactical radio system; ground sensors; and the computer-integrated-system B-kits for ABRAMs, BRADLEYs, and Humvees. In FY 2008, the B-kits will enable soldiers in these vehicles to obtain data directly from UAVs. FCS will also provide the first MGV prototype, the non-line-of-sight launch system. Two additional spin-outs are scheduled to begin in FY 2010 (active protection system, vehicle sensors, SUGV, and Class 1 UAV) and FY 2012 (FCS Battle Command, MULE, and Class IV UAV) before the first FCS combat brigade arrives in 2015.

To ensure that these technologies are ready to deploy, the Army has established the Evaluation Task Force at Fort Bliss, Texas, to test and evaluate systems and to refine the doctrine, training, and organization of FCS brigades. The soldiers are experimenting with the technologies scheduled for the first spin-out and are scheduled to test the ABRAM and BRADLEY B-kits early next year. After several exercises, one non-commissioned officer said, "I became a big believer. All they need to do is get it out to the soldier and start training on it."[19]

The Future Is Now

As evident by the frustration vented by the troops to Donald Rumsfeld, neglecting to invest in and modernize the Army throughout the 1990s resulted in a force that entered Iraq with a significant operational shortfall that relied on technologies nearly 30 years old. Future Combat Systems represents the investment necessary to bring the Army back up to speed and ensure it remains a dominant, cutting-edge force well into the 21st century.

Mackenzie Eaglen is the Senior Policy Analyst for defense and homeland security issues at The Heritage Foundation . Oliver Horn is Research Assistant in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.



[1]Association of the United States Army, "Resetting the Force: An Equipment Challenge," Torchbearer National Security Report, October 2005, at www.ausa.org/pdfdocs/TB_Resetting.pdf (November 20, 2007).

[2] Association of the United States Army, "A Transformed and Modernized Army: A National Imperative," Torchbearer National Security Report, April 2007, at www.ausa.org/PDFdocs/TBSecRpt/TB_FCS_3Apr07.pdf (October 10, 2007).

[3] Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., "Future Tanks Could Surprise Critics," The National Journal, September 16, 2006, at www.govexec.com/dailyfed/092006nj1.htm(November 20, 2007).

[4] "Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes; U.S. Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs (G8)," Defense News, September 3, 2007, p. 38.

[5] Lieutenant General Michael Vane, "Future Combat Systems," presentation at Future Combat Systems One Team Breakfast, October 8, 2007.

[6]Association of the United States Army, "A Transformed and Modernized Army."

[7] Daniel Gouré, "Rolling Thunder," Armed Forces Journal, May 1, 2005, p. 24.

[8] Freedberg, "Future Tanks Could Surprise Critics."

[9] "Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes."

[10] Freedberg, "Future Tanks Could Surprise Critics" (emphasis added).

[11]Ibid.

[12] Association of the United States Army, "A Transformed and Modernized Army."

[13] Lieutenant General David F. Melcher, "The Heritage Foundation: U.S. Army Budget Overview," Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., October 9, 2007, p. 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Freedberg, "Future Tanks Could Surprise Critics."

[16] Association of the United States Army, "A Transformed and Modernized Army."

[17] Freedberg, "Future Tanks Could Surprise Critics."

[18] Rob Coppinger, "Improved Micro-UAV Faces September Tests," Flight International, July 3, 2006, at www.flightglobal.com/articles/2006/03/07/205323/improved-micro-uav-faces-september-tests.html (November 29, 2007).

[19] Association of the United States Army, "A Transformed and Modernized Army."

About the Author

Mackenzie Eaglen Research Fellow for National Security Studies, Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Oliver Horn Research Assistant
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in Military Technology Magazine.