Bandwidth shortage threatens Army’s FCS plans

Congress concerned about Future Combat Systems and other programs that could overwhelm network capacity.

The Army's biggest modernization program, which relies on transmitting graphics-heavy data on the battlefield, faces a potentially crippling shortage of spectrum and bandwidth, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service.

Comment on this article in The Forum.At issue is the $160 billion Future Combat Systems, a smart force of 14 manned and unmanned systems, and a sensor network linked by a battlefield communications system. Once built, the system will send the kind of data-rich files that soak up a network's capacity. "The possibility that an FCS-equipped force could overwhelm available bandwidth raises some potential issues for congressional consideration," the CRS report noted.

The organization added that the Joint Tactical Radio System the Army plans to use as the backbone of the FCS network, along with other technologies, "will use more of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum than is used by other Army communications systems."

While potential future technology developments, such as data compression, could help bridge this spectrum gap, CRS reported that "there is a near-term concern that spectrum limitations could have a significant operational impact on FCS, which is heavily dependent on continuous and near real-time data from a variety of sources for not only its effectiveness but its survivability on the battlefield."

Delays in development of the Air Force-managed Transformational Satellite Communications program, which would provide broadband service at speeds 100 times faster than current military satellites, could further reduce spectrum availability for FCS, CRS reported.

The Senate Armed Services Committee agreed with CRS in its report on the 2009 defense authorization bill. "The committee is concerned that there is a serious disconnect between the bandwidth requirements of major systems such as . . . [FCS] and the ground and space systems required to meet those requirements," the bill report stated.

According to the committee report, the high data-rate communications provided by the Transformational Satellite Communications program is needed to support requirements for the FCS network. But a current Defense Department review of the satellite program includes options that would so reduce its capability that "the committee questions why such a substantially degraded TSAT is worth the effort, time and expense," the report stated. In addition, the first Transformational Satellite Communications satellite will not be launched until 2018 or later, at least four years after the Army plans to stand-up the first of 15 planned FCS brigades.

The Senate directed Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to conduct a joint review of current and future bandwidth requirements for all systems during the next 10 years. The House Armed Services Committee also included similar language in its version of the 2009 defense authorization bill, and said Defense should detail its plans to meet the bandwidth need of FCS in a report due in six months.

The CRS report said the Army Science Board and the RAND Corp. have been tasked to investigate the service's future bandwidth needs while the FCS program office is investigating how the entire program will perform if the network is degraded by lack of radio spectrum availability and network failure.

An Army FCS spokesman did not return calls for comment.