Army develops new modernization strategy after scaling back FCS

New combat vehicles would incorporate existing network designs, officials tell lawmakers.

Battlefield communications networks will be a critical component of a modernization strategy the Army is developing after canceling the $160 billion ground vehicle portion of its Future Combat Systems program, an Army spokesman said.

The Brigade Combat Team Modernization Strategy aims to develop a new line of ground combat vehicles and deploy sensor systems and unmanned vehicles engineered under FCS.

Army spokesman Paul Mehney said the service has started analyzing the network capabilities the new ground vehicles would require and how to incorporate systems developed for FCS.

The proposed 2010 FCS budget line, which funds the new modernization strategy, will remain the Army's largest research-and-development project at just under $3 billion, David Ahern, the Pentagon's director of portfolio systems acquisition told the Senate Armed Services Airland Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The Army has requested $749 million for battlefield networks in 2010, the second largest FCS line item after systems engineering, which is budgeted at slightly more than $1 billion.

The Government Accountability Office, which has issued a series of critical reports about FCS during the past several years, had rare praise for the new network concept at the hearing.

The Army's decision to design an integrated combat network into FCS rather than cobble it together from discrete parts is "discerning," said Paul Francis, GAO's managing director for acquisition and sourcing management. But he called service's approach "too grand."

During FCS development, "the Army has achieved an understanding of what the information network needs to be, what may be technically feasible, how to build it, and how to demonstrate it," Francis said. But he expressed concern about how the service would transfer capabilities of a network designed for FCS to a new line of ground vehicles developed during the next five to seven years. He recommended an incremental fielding approach to incorporate network capabilities into the vehicles as they become available.

The Army also plans to include upgraded versions of the Abrams tank and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle into its new modernization strategy, but Francis said those vehicles have "space, weight and power constraints that may limit their ability to be integrated with an FCS-like network." These potential limitations are one of the issues the Army is considering in its analysis of how to adapt the FCS network to the strategy, Mehney said.

According to Francis, it is unclear whether the Army also plans to include specialized command and control and reconnaissance and surveillance vehicles that were key components of the FCS network. Mehney said the study will determine whether to incorporate them into the new modernization strategy.

The Army is testing the FCS network at Fort Bliss, Texas, using Joint Tactical Radio System, Ground Mobile Radios developed by Boeing Co. to transmit sensor and imagery data. Mehney said the radios "are not working perfectly, but they are working, and we are making good progress."