Future Combat Systems Technologies Not Keeping Pace with Expectations

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Future Combat Systems Technologies Not Keeping Pace with Expectations


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


When the Army kicked off its largest-ever weapons modernization program in 1999, expectations were enormous.

The Future Combat Systems would bring revolutionary change to the Army in many ways. It would, for the first time, connect every vehicle in the Army in a single network. Most significantly, it would allow the Army to become gradually less dependent on fossil fuels, gunpowder-based weapons and heavy armor.

The discussions were dominated by visions of an all-electric, laser-firing fleet of fast-moving tank-like vehicles unburdened by the weight of conventional armor.

Five years later, reality h*s set in, and the expectations are somewhat tempered, although the fundamental nature of FCS--a family of 17 ground and air vehicles--has not changed.

Out of those ambitious technology goals, the development of a command-and-control network has a realistic chance of reaching fruition by the 2014 deadline now set for the program, according to sources.

Industry experts consider it doubtful, however, that the FCS will bring, in the near term, major breakthroughs in power generation, weapon lethality or survivability.

"In 1999, there was an expectation that we could address those four areas," said ma FCS program official speaking privately to a group of Army officers and industry executives. "Now, the reality is more complex."

Fuel-efficient technologies, such as hybrid engines, have improved, but they only will reduce fuel consumption by moderate amounts, experts said. FCS units, like today's brigades, will require a substantial logistics re-supply tail of fuel and ammunition. In the color-coded charts that track the maturity of FCS technologies, many logistics areas are "amber" and "red," the official said. Military programs often use a green-amber-red color code to measure the readiness of various technologies, with red indicating the highest risk.

All the while, the Army is grappling with how to upgrade its fleet of medium and heavy trucks to make them more mobile and survivable so they can keep pace with the FCS maneuver force. When FCS first was conceived, the thinking was that forces would take periodic pauses to refuel and restock supplies.

In light of the Iraq experience, the Army now wants a logistics force that can sustain combat units around the clock and stay close to the frontlines, which means that trucks will need to be better protected.

The Army is working through these issues as part of a "truck modernization plan" that will get under way in fiscal year 2006, said Lt. Gen. Benjamin Grimm Army director of force development.

On the weaponry side, the mainstay of FCS will be cannons and missiles. These weapons will be more sophisticated than current systems, but not a major departure. Non-kinetic technologies, such as lasers and high-powered microwaves, are progressing, but are not expected to be ready for operational use for many years.

FCS will have unprecedented amounts of reconnaissance and surveillance systems. The technology is intended to enable soldiers to "see and understand" before they move and act. But it is unlikely that even hundreds of sensors will easily clear the much-feared fog of war that can create so much confusion on the battlefield.

"Seeing is difficult," said the FCS official. "We can see objects reasonably well. But how do we identify humans? That's a challenge in FCS."

For survivability, it remains unclear what technologies FCS will employ. Conventional passive armor is out of the question if the Army wants to keep the weight of the vehicles at less than 20 tons. "We haven't found magic armor," the program official said. The most promising technologies so far are electromagnetic armor and active protection systems, which sense and defeat incoming rockets or missiles by deflecting or intercepting them.

Brig. Gen. Charles A. Cartwright, the Army's program manager for FCS, said active protection is a relatively mature technology, even though the U. …

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