Army overhauls modernization program

Initial components of Future Combat Systems will go to lighter infantry brigades, not heavy armored units.

Under pressure from Congress and civilian leaders at the Pentagon, the Army announced on Thursday that it will make key changes to its $160 billion Future Combat Systems program.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The Army has decided to shift initial fielding of components in the program from heavy armored units to lighter infantry brigades, and does not anticipate any overall cost growth, top service officials said at a Pentagon press briefing.

Lt. Gen Michael A. Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center, said the decision to field FCS gear to infantry units reflected combat experience in Iraq and a revised plan to make the infantry soldier "the centerpiece of our activity today and the program we are building tomorrow."

Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the Army's deputy chief of staff, G-8, told the briefing that the FCS decision represented an "important shift" for the program, and added the service intends to stick to the program's budget.

Gen. N. Ross Thompson, military deputy to the acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said the shift in priorities meant that infantry units will be equipped more quickly with ground sensors and small unmanned aerial vehicles. "Soldiers in outposts are a critical part of today's fight," he said.

But AeroVironment Inc., a supplier of the 4.2-pound UAV widely used by Army units in Afghanistan and Iraq and slated for use by FCS units, disclosed in an investor conference call Wednesday that it will halt shipments to change radio frequencies used to send and receive video imagery.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee was briefed on the proposed changes in FCS by Army Chief of Staff Gen George Casey on Thursday morning. "I'm convinced that the Army is making changes that will ultimately make the FCS program more viable," Murtha said. "The committee will evaluate the details of these proposed changes to ensure that these technologies are both mature and integrated with the Army's reset and rehabilitation plans."

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, said in a joint statement that "fielding of selected FCS equipment to light infantry units is a positive step toward improving the FCS program. We have supported FCS spin-out efforts because they are the best way to quickly get FCS equipment to the Army. However, we are concerned that this new plan may not allow for adequate testing of the equipment due to its very tight schedule."

Skelton and Abercrombie added, "The overall FCS program remains far over budget, far behind schedule and unaffordable in the long term given the many other pressing needs facing the United States Army."

Vane said both active and National Guard infantry brigades will be equipped with FCS gear on an equal basis, with units scheduled for deployment equipped first. Army officials said the service intended to equip one infantry brigade in 2011, two brigades in 2012 and seven in 2013, but did not detail further plans.

FCS, as originally envisioned by the Army, was to consist of 14 systems, including eight new armored vehicles to replace tanks, infantry carriers and self-propelled artillery; two classes of aerial drones; several robotic ground vehicles; and an attack missile, all connected by a sophisticated battle command network.

In March, the Government Accountability Office suggested the Army break up the program and field only a subset of the originally planned suite of systems. But the top Army officials at the press briefinginsisted the service needs to field FCS as a system of systems to maximize its impact.

In April, GAO reported (GAO-08-638) that only two of 44 FCS critical technologies have reached maturity, an issue not addressed by senior leaders at the press briefing.