Army seeks to shift funds to bolster Future Combat Systems effort

Move of $250 million aimed at keeping program on schedule despite congressional budget cuts.

In an attempt to keep its prized modernization program on track after years of congressional budget cuts, Army officials have asked lawmakers for permission to shift $252.5 million in fiscal 2008 accounts to pay for high-priority portions of the service's massive Future Combat Systems program.

Comment on this article in The Forum.If approved, the reprogramming request would help ameliorate the effects of the $228 million trimmed from FCS in the fiscal 2008 Defense spending bill, cuts that Army officials warned would slow down program development and ultimately drive up costs.

An Army official said the service could live with a $150 million cut to the program without causing serious delays. But anything more than that would prolong FCS development, the official said.

According to the six-page request signed by Pentagon comptroller Tina Jonas March 21, the transfers of money would net the program $78 million above its current-year funding and help keep FCS from veering off its ambitious schedule.

The reprogramming request would cut funding from two non-FCS accounts: $45 million from a military satellite communications effort that is facing a delayed contract award and $33 million from ground vehicle research and development funding the Army says it no longer needs.

But most of the requested reallocations -- $174.5 million -- would shift money from other areas of the FCS budget and require a reduction in the size of the small army of contract personnel working on the program.

These moves would allow the Army to make a significant increase in funding for FCS manned ground vehicles -- an additional $70.9 million this year. Among other changes, service officials would increase "sustaining and training" research and development efforts on the program by $113.6 million.

In a recent, unpublicized action, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and ranking member Duncan Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., denied an earlier Army request for permission to boost this year's FCS budget by $27 million to accelerate development of unmanned air and ground vehicle prototypes.

There are "already sufficient funds for Future Combat Systems in fiscal year 2008 to accomplish the goals of the reprogramming," Skelton and Hunter wrote in an April 1 memo to Jonas. The committee leaders suggested they would "look favorably" on a future reprogramming request for FCS if it was funded out of other areas of the program.

Congress has yet to rule on the latest reprogramming request. But given the House committee's earlier reluctance to increasing the FCS budget line, the Army may face an uphill battle getting its entire request approved despite the Army's proposal to shift money from other parts of the FCS budget.

The $160 billion modernization program, the most expensive and complex technological endeavor in the Army's history, has long been targeted for cuts on Capitol Hill, where many House lawmakers have questioned whether the effort is affordable during a time of war. The heavily deployed Army, opponents of the program argue, has more pressing budget priorities than FCS.

Last week, GAO investigators concluded in a report that the costs for FCS may continue to increase -- a scenario that would make it difficult for the Pentagon to fully fund the program as it struggles to pay for other priorities.

"FCS costs are likely to grow as the current level of knowledge does not support a confident estimate, and cost estimates made by two independent organizations are significantly higher," GAO said. "Competing demands from within the Army and DOD limit the ability to fund higher FCS costs."

But as costs concerns have mounted, Army leaders have warned repeatedly that FCS -- a system of manned and unmanned air and ground vehicles linked together by a complex network -- will provide crucial capabilities essential to bringing ground warfare into the 21st century.

"We need to continue to invest in that, because ... there are going to be fights in the next five years where that technology is going to be needed," Army Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody told Skelton's committee last week. "And we can't turn around and say, 'Let's tradeoff those monies there to fix your current problems.' We have to take a balanced approach."