Features

June 1, 2009  

An armor opportunity

When Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the vehicle portion of the Army’s flagship Future Combat Systems (FCS) program, there was dismay among Army supporters on Capitol Hill and around the country — and quiet satisfaction among some in the Army. While champagne corks aren’t exactly popping in the Army Staff, there are several reasons why the cancellation of the vehicle programs made sense, and why it might be a blessing in disguise. Here are a few.

First, the program had become a monster, with the overall cost jumping in just a few years from an estimated $92 billion a decade ago to more than $200 billion, with no assurance that it would stop there. (The Army’s estimate in 2006 was $230 billion.)

In retrospect, the Army leadership gambled when the program was initiated that by trying to build an all-inclusive leap-ahead package, it would be “too big to stop” and that the Army wouldn’t be nibbled to death program by program. FCS as finally envisioned was the complete thing: multilayered communications systems, eight variants of the same combat vehicle, guided rockets and a suite of ground sensors. Fielding of the first fully equipped FCS brigade was set for 2015.

In another time, and with a different defense secretary, the whole package, even as costly as it had become, might have gone forward. But instead a number of factors, probably not foreseeable when the program was conceived, made the big-package approach untenable.

First was the idea that a service could “transform” its capabilities as abruptly as FCS initially promised . While transformation was a popular bumper sticker in the early years of the Bush administration, history suggested that change in armies comes only incrementally, as the force absorbs not only new equipment and doctrine but then must undergo a lengthy period of experimentation, training and education on the new gear. The prospect of wholesale business-style transformation raised doubts in the Army itself.

Further, the focus on a particular kind of unit — the FCS brigade —at the apparent expense of the rest of the Army undercut the whole transformation rationale, as it appeared there would be a few top-notch brigades and a remaining poor-cousin Army.

Some of those in the Army with experience in bringing on new concepts understood that technologies in FCS should be applied incrementally to the whole force. One of the first actions of a previous chief of staff, Gen. Pete Schoomaker, was to stress that FCS was not a single system but a family of technologies that could be spun off as they matured across the total force. Schoomaker’s decision was the right one and is being applied, but it did not change the perception that the Army was headed for a split force of “transformed” units and “legacy” forces. Additionally, the truly transformative prospects offered to the Army by the FCS network and sensors and other less-visible parts of the program were overshadowed in the public eye by a conundrum familiar to technology experts everywhere: The signature of the program became highly publicized hardware — the combat vehicles themselves, not the invisible software that was (and remains) the truly revolutionary heart of the total FCS program.

And then the world changed

Finally, and in another ironic twist of fate, the Army’s “transformative” program couldn’t keep up with real-world political and strategic transformations. In the decade since the FCS concept was developed, the world changed. The program was conceived during a period when “expeditionary operations” were the reigning military fad, and getting Army units rapidly overseas to conduct short, decisive wars was a key theoretical concept that drove the initial design. In fact, though, “getting there” has proven to be far less important than “staying there” and prevailing. Overturning a ’90s misconception, tanks, specifically the Abrams, performed well above expectations in urban warfare, where heavy armor was a lifesaving asset and a valuable combat weapon. With regard to rapid deployment, Army planners’ mistaken attempts to squeeze the FCS vehicle fleet into a C-130 tactical airlifter resulted in a vehicle design widely regarded as too vulnerable to “real” war, a perception reinforced by early publicity fluff that claimed that “knowledge and speed” could substitute for armor protection in combat. While the Army has labored to overcome these two self-inflicted hits — Army armored forces typically deploy by sea, not by air, and the current vehicle prototype is better protected than earlier designs — the perception lingered that the vehicles were too light to fight and too reliant on unrealistic assumptions about perfect intelligence.

Our perceptions of warfare also have changed — or actually gotten more realistic since the “strategic pause” days when the FCS concept was developed. In addition to downplaying — but not losing entirely — the notion of “expeditionary-ness” being the design criteria for the nation’s primary ground-fighting force, the idea that a war can be short and decisive has taken a back seat to current experience. Because the actual practice of war has turned out once again to be more messy than our theories, the whole idea of whether a large, single program will work for a service as complex as the Army had become questionable, particularly when the program was far over budget and already required restructuring. With Gates’ recent memories of the scramble to produce Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles and to procure more unmanned aircraft, the claim that a single chassis of expensive vehicles was the best way to meet future challenges simply wasn’t persuasive.

SILVER LINING

Now for the silver lining. First, development of the crown jewel of the FCS program — the network — has been preserved, though with the setback to the vehicle program, some critical reworking will be required, as the vehicles provided both the platform and the power for the eventual network. Second, the secretary admits that this was a close call — that the Army has a real need for fighting vehicles to replace the current Abrams tank and Bradley Fighting Vehicle, worn out after years of war in Iraq. The Army has a lot of credit today, and deservedly so, with the Congress and the administration, so reworked vehicle designs should get a friendly hearing. Provided the Army can move quickly to redesign the program — and the lights are certainly burning later than usual in the Army Staff — some of the development funding may be recaptured.

Most importantly, the door is now open to look again at fighting vehicle design and the overall approach to upgrading the capabilities of the total Army. An enormous amount of research has already been accomplished, with vehicle prototypes in the field and new technologies coming on line. Some of FCS’ more recent research is obviously valid for any future force. Active defensive systems, for example, are going to be necessary regardless of the thickness of armor on fighting vehicles. By discarding the ill-conceived C-130 “box” requirement, the research and development community can focus on something like a 35-40 ton vehicle with better protection, lots of electrical generating power, good networking and better fuel consumption, versus a lighter version with less of each. The newer version of the fighting vehicles may look a lot like the current FCS model, only slightly heavier and more capable. Given the current usage rates of the Abrams and Bradley fleets, the Army doesn’t need to waste any time getting a fighting vehicle program restarted.

The final lesson is the method by which services — ground-fighting services, at any rate — approach change. There has always been a debate in the Army about whether new systems should be incrementally absorbed across the total force, or whether a few, high-value units should be formed. The argument in favor of the first view is that, though slower, an across-the-board fielding plan preserves the interdependence of Army forces and increases the value of the whole team. The argument in favor of the latter is that a number of highly capable, ultra-modern units provide a “spearhead” for the rest of the force. (Indeed, FCS planning was key in the decision to adopt the Army’s current brigade organization.)

Even as the crash starts to redesign the Army’s future armored vehicles, Gates’ decision should lead planners and senior Army leaders to look again at some of the basic assumptions involved in “transforming” the Army.

COL. Robert Killebrew (ret.) served more than 30 years in the Army and is a former Army War College instructor.

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