Relevancy and Risk: The U.S. Army and Future Combat Systems

Article excerpt

Overview

In the post-Cold War geostrategic environment, the U.S. Army has been challenged to balance its ability to conduct a major theater war with its requirement to deploy to numerous small-scale conflicts. To realize the capabilities it needs, the Army has proposed a visionary transformation of light infantry and heavy armored forces into medium-weight forces capable of fighting the full spectrum of military conflicts. Key to this transformation is the development of the Future Combat Systems (FCS), which depends on substantial improvements in six critical technology areas: sensors, networks, robotics, survivability, lethality, and power sources.

In assessing these critical technologies, we found a wide range of estimates concerning the technologies' maturity and applicability to FCS. Using open literature sources, we found that technology demonstrations in the six areas needed to support a milestone B decision (scheduled for 2003) could not occur until 2004 at the earliest or as late as 2010. Estimates for when the technologies could be ready for FCS low rate production varied from 2006 to 2015.

The uncertain maturity of these technologies does not mean that transformation is not technically feasible. Rather, innovative management of technical risk is required. We recommend developing initial versions of FCS for low-intensity conflicts and, as technologies mature, new versions for higher-intensity combat.

In the decade since Operation Desert Storm, the Army has pursued sequentially three distinct visions: digitization, preservation, and transformation. Each represents what the Chief of Staff of the Army (CSA) believed to be the best solution to the Army's most important problems. The first vision, developed under General Gordon Sullivan (1991-1995), was to digitize forces for "third-wave warfare." (1) As a consequence, the Army now has significant heavy (armored) forces that are digitized. Light forces recently started their own digitization efforts, and the first operational digital infantry battalion is expected in 4 years. The second vision, captured in the phrase "soldiers are our credentials," was a pragmatic attempt by General Dennis Reimer (1995-1999) to retain as much force structure as possible in an era of declining budgets. During this time, significant numbers of expensive forward-based units were either retired or repositioned back to the United States.

These two visions, formulated in response to the national defense posture of fighting and responding simultaneously to two major theater wars (MTWs), yielded an Army that is both a continental-based force of heavy lethal forces of limited deployability but capable of winning against conventional, mechanized armies and a light, readily deployable force with limited staying power. However, the probability of another MTW, such as Desert Storm, actually decreased during the 1990s, while the changing geostrategic environment and growing unreliability of conventional deterrence in the Third World has increased the occurrence of small-scale contingencies. Organized violence has become the norm around the globe in such diverse places as Chechnya, Colombia, Kosovo, and Palestine.

Outbreaks of organized violence have dramatically increased the number of American military deployments to small-scale conflicts, frequently in regions where the infrastructure for heavy mechanized vehicles is extremely restricted or practically nonexistent. The Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force are inherently capable of responding rapidly to small-scale overseas crises. The Army shaped by the Sullivan and Reimer visions, however, is not, and its relevance in the new environment has been questioned.

To address the Army response to future threats, Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki in fall 1999 presented his vision to transform the Army by stages over a 30-year period into a force that would be strategically responsive and dominant across the full spectrum of operations. …