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How Future Combat Systems Will Work

How FCS Might Not Work
The U.S. Army's vision of how the FCS network will link different systems together.
The U.S. Army's vision of how the FCS network will link different systems together.
Image courtesy U.S. Army

The Army is using spiral development to develop the FCS. Instead of working on the entire project from start to finish, with no deployable elements until everything is completed, contractors are developing systems incrementally. Finished subsystems will be immediately deployed for testing. Problems discovered with those units can be overcome as the Army adds more systems are added, and it can improve upon and upgrade early systems.

The Army keeps moving up the launch date for FCS because they want to get the technology into the field as soon as possible. It plans to deploy a test unit in 2008, with more systems releasing every two years until 2014. By that time, there will be 32 FCS-equipped brigades. The Army hopes to have the ability to equip any brigade with a fully-functional FCS system in 2016. It will take years beyond that point to fully equip the entire Army.

Like any complex design project, FCS is not entirely without problems. Critics point to several factors:

  • Cost All military research and development programs face questions about cost. Initially, FCS was projected to cost under $100 billion. In 2003, that increased to $175 billion [ref]. The latest estimates suggest the project will cost about $300 billion, making it the most expensive military project in U.S. history. With Congress threatening to trim some of the FCS budget, contractors working on the project have aggressively demonstrated the need for FCS in a series of seminars. It seems to have worked, because in 2006 a paltry $236 million was cut from Boeing's FCS budget over four years [ref]. However, the possibility of future budget cuts remains.
  • Cost-plus pricing Government contracts typically use a cost-plus pricing method. With this method, the contractor bills the government for the price of any material, personnel and other direct costs associated with the project. Then the government pays the contractor a fee based on a percentage of those direct costs. This method can encourage contractors to purchase at inflated prices and let project costs escalate, since the higher their costs, the higher their profit.
  • Reliance on light armor Critics of the 20-ton replacement for the M1 Abrams tank contend that the modern light tanks will undoubtedly face heavy armor in close fighting, which will leave them extremely vulnerable. They fear that abandoning heavy tank designs will leave a major gap in the Army's capabilities. At the very least, the Army will need to retrofit older M1s to stay in action as a form of heavy armor.

FCS is so ambitious that in some cases, the technology does not yet exist to accomplish it. The revision – some would say failure – of the JTRS system is one example of a system that has exceeded our current ability to actually make it work. Advanced ballistic armor, robotic control systems, automated sensors and high-bandwidth networks are all potential problem areas. It is likely that some FCS systems will never be fully functional and that current units and technologies will be retrofitted and upgraded to fit into the plan.

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