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Conflicting Priorities Endanger High-Tech Army Program

Future Combat Systems
Source: army.mil
Future Combat Systems

The Army hatched a plan a decade ago for a new approach to fighting ground wars. Called Future Combat Systems, it was an ambitious project to develop networks of high-tech vehicles, drones and robotic sensors to act as frontline spies on enemy targets.

“We wanted to go deep and really stretch and see if we could come up with a new conceptual basis for the Army,” said Joe G. Taylor Jr., a retired Army major general who was involved in the early stages of the program.

But that future is unlikely to arrive.

The Obama administration began scaling back the program late last month and breaking it into pieces, as part of a broader effort to overhaul expensive weapons contracts and focus more on fighting insurgencies.

Like many systems, the Army effort came to be seen by top Pentagon officials as too geared for conventional war at a time when the military needs to rely more on troops on the ground, and to provide them with simpler equipment designed to withstand roadside bombs and other more rudimentary attacks.

The Obama administration’s ability to make such a broad shift in military priorities is being tested in Congress in the fight over whether to keep building the advanced F-22 fighter. President Obama has threatened to veto a bill nearing a vote in the Senate if it includes any money for the jet.

And the changes in the Future Combat program, which was expected to cost $160 billion, illustrate how the administration is already proceeding to reshape military spending.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently canceled the most expensive part of the program, the new combat vehicles that were to cost $87 billion, out of concern that they would not provide enough protection against simple roadside bombs that have killed soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Gates also ordered the Army to renegotiate an unusually lucrative deal for the Future Combat Systems’ prime contractor, Boeing , which was guaranteed a much higher base fee than most Pentagon contractors. Boeing and its partner, SAIC Inc., stood to earn $2 billion before they proved the system’s components worked together.

The rethinking of the Future Combat program, one of the Pentagon’s most expensive, reflects the increasing pressure on the Army to redirect resources from plans for conventional wars to the possibility of other long-running conflicts with insurgencies in the future.

More than any other service, the Army faces enormous budget strains. It recently hired 65,000 more soldiers and also needs to give battle-weary troops more time at home. That means it has far less money than the Navy or the Air Force to modernize its weapon systems.

“Gates is clearly preparing the Navy and the Air Force to take the lead in major wars, and he wants the Army to focus more on having the troops it needs to sustain these long campaigns against insurgents,” said James McAleese, a military consultant in McLean, Va.

The idea for the new combat systems arose after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 exposed a hole in the Army’s capabilities.

The United States flew in an infantry division to defend Saudi Arabia, but it had to send tanks by sea. So the Army wanted to create a middle option — special brigades with combat vehicles light enough to airlift. It also figured that the ability to detect enemies from greater distances would reduce the need for armor.

But to receive the intelligence from the drones, small robots and other sensors that could be used like scouts, the Army needed to create a streaming video and data network unlike any other, something akin to a cellphone system without the fixed transmission towers. And the eight different vehicles would require innovative hybrid-electric drives to power new radios that could transmit such vast amounts of data.

The vehicles would be built with lightweight composite armors and have the ability to fire projectiles to defuse incoming missiles.

But most of the technologies were still at an experimental stage. And skeptics inside the Army asked how a vehicle weighing just 19 tons could match the firepower of a 70-ton tank and keep the crew safe.

As insurgents began destroying equipment with rocket-propelled grenades in the current Iraq conflict, the military recognized that the new vehicles would need more armor. Their projected weight increased to 30 tons, making them less easy to transport and weakening the rationale for the project.

"All messed up."

Costs also ballooned. Estimates for supplying one-third of the Army’s brigades with the systems soared to $160 billion, from $92 billion, and the delivery of the first vehicles was pushed back to 2015 from 2010.

Mr. Gates complained in 2007 that the Army had not done enough in general to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, and he bought thousands of armored Humvees and simple troop-transport trucks with V-shape hulls that could disperse the force of the blasts.

He leveled the same type of criticism this spring at the design for the Future Combat vehicle. He said the plans called for a flat bottom just 18 inches off the ground, “clearly not taking into account anything” learned in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than being re-engineered, he said, “this thing has been filled with Band-Aids.”

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army’s chief of staff, responded that the Army had designed a V-shape hull kit that could be bolted onto the vehicles and added other safety measures. But, he told Congress, “I could not convince the secretary that we had done enough.”

Mr. Gates also criticized Boeing’s contract to run the project as “all messed up.”

Besides covering all expenses, the Army promised Boeing and SAIC a base fee of 7.5 percent of their costs, including on the billions paid to subcontractors working on the systems. The companies could also receive incentive fees of an another 7.5 percent, for a total possible fee on the project of $2.7 billion.

Shay Assad, a top Pentagon official, said base fees on military contracts were often limited to zero to 3 percent.

Another issue is that Boeing and SAIC were also going to be paid 80 to 90 percent of the total fees by the time they had finished the design. Mr. Gates said that would have left them with “very little incentive” for a crucial testing phase.

Army officials said they had front-loaded the fees to encourage the companies to use their best engineers, and they said most of the cost increases and delays were because of changes in Army requirements.

Boeing and SAIC, which have received $1.3 billion so far, said they had met all of the Army’s standards and would stick with the project. But with their fees being cut, they also said last week that they were laying off several hundred workers.

Under orders from Mr. Gates, the Army plans to eventually seek competitive bids for fixed-price contracts on several parts of the project, which is being renamed.

A brigade of soldiers has been testing a tiny drone, the robotic sensors and a small ground-launched missile that will be linked through a rudimentary version of the network. Mr. Gates has endorsed Army plans to start delivering them to the first few brigades in 2011 and to “spin out” such innovations to the rest of the Army by 2025.

But while the Army believes that it can redesign the vehicles to satisfy his safety concerns, military analysts doubt it will have enough money to buy more than one or two types. So the new one could mainly be a replacement for the aging Bradley infantry fighting vehicle.

Given the cutbacks, Army officials are now considering upgrading their Abrams tanks. General Casey is also circulating a white paper saying the Army needs to become more versatile. That is likely to mean buying hundreds of additional Strykers, lighter-weight vehicles that could be used instead of the new types.

And fewer of the new vehicles will mean that the network — which the Army still sees as the heart of its future operations — will be much smaller and developed more gradually.

Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, a deputy Army chief of staff, said the Army would make the adjustments that Mr. Gates wanted even as it kept pushing to incorporate the new technologies.

But some former top officers fear that the Army may regret not sticking to the more ambitious modernization plans if it should end up fighting a more conventional war.

“If we miss a whole generation of this stuff, I’ll be very concerned about how it will turn out,” said Maj. Gen. David A. Fastabend, who retired in April as one of the Army’s top strategists.

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