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FCS Watch

Army Mod Program Formerly Known as FCS Takes Big Hit From Lawmakers (Updated)

Thursday, May 13th, 2010

Eight years ago the Army launched its most ambitious modernization program ever, the Future Combat Systems, a collection of 18 vehicles, aerial drones, robots, missiles and sensors all tied together by a robust communications network. The multi-billion dollar program was beset by shifting requirements, cost overruns, delays and what Army leaders now admit was a shining example of technological overreach.

Various restructurings over the years trimmed the bits of gear from the program, yet costs continued to climb; by 2010, the Army had spent nearly $23 billion on FCS. Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally stepped in and cancelled FCS, directing the Army to salvage what it could, at an affordable cost.

The Army changed the program’s name to Brigade Combat Team Modernization and sought to speed modest technological upgrades to troops in the field, including unattended munitions, the Non-Line-Of-Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS), sensors, a small hovering drone, a small robot, new radios and software.

Later today, lawmakers will express their continued displeasure with the program’s performance and will chop $891 million from the Army’s 2011 budget request for modernization, Defense News’ Kate Brannen reports. The Army had requested $1.6 billion for research and development and $682.7 million to buy two brigades sets of gear.

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The Army’s FCS Hangover

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

One of these days, a story is going to come out on where all the money went in the Army’s Future Combat Systems program. According to the Congressional Budget Office (.pdf), by 2008 the Army had spent some $16 billion on FCS development. Add to that the $3.6 billion in 2009 and the $3 billion requested in 2010 and now we’re at $22.6 billion in FCS research and development.

When the Army restructured its modernization, after Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled FCS, it planned to get those component parts closest to prime time, the “spin outs,” to the troops in the field as quickly as possible.

So what has that $22.6 billion in FCS development money bought? Here’s where it gets real ugly. GAO just came out with its annual assessment of major weapons systems (.pdf) and they looked at the first increment of those spin outs which includes unattended munitions, including the Non-Line-Of-Sight Launch System (NLOS-LS), sensors, a small hovering drone, a small robot, new radios and software.

The small iRobot-type robot, hundreds of which have been in use in Iraq and Afghanistan, “could not provide infrared imagery necessary to recognize a person at required distances,” GAO said. The hovering “beer keg” is far too noisy, and could only operate for 4 hours before failure, instead of the required 23. The unattended ground sensor was supposed to operate for 127 hours, it only works for 5 hours. Army officials say the images it produces are terrible.

The NLOS-LS, as we’ve written about here, failed in recent tests to hit its intended target in four out of six tries. Army Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, the service’s Future Force Integration Directorate Commander, told us last month he suspects the missiles issues are serious. Remember, most of this stuff has been in development since 2003.

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Son of FCS Passes Major Test

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Just got word from the folks over at the Program Executive Office for Integration overseeing the remnants of the Army’s Future Combat Systems program that the suite of technologies now riding under the “Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team” banner passed a Defense Acquisition Board review, giving the Army the green light to produce a brigade-sized package of the wiz bang gadgets.

As you might remember, I traveled to White Sands last summer to check out the gear, including the unattended ground and urban sensors, the “flying half-keg” drone, SUG-V small unmanned ground vehicle and a mock up of the Non-Line of Sight Launch System.

I’m overall encouraged that the program is moving forward. Some of the systems, particularly the unattended ground sensors, need some more time in development, but show some initial promise. I can see how the Class 1 UAV might become a Soldier’s best friend, but more needs to be worked out on range and fuel payload. The ground bot was a bit less impressive to me — counter IED technology and the spiral of those offshoots mimic or surpass what the SUG-V can offer.

The NLOS-S is an intriguing system, offering portable, precision fires with multiple warhead options and high yield effects. Plopping those things down at FOBs and even COPs will keep forces a lot safer with more responsive fires when they need them in a pinch.

The review formally paved the way for production of one Brigade Combat Team set of equipment, which will be used in Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) in FY2011. Additionally, the Army plans continued testing of all Increment 1 assets over the next two years. The Army is also executing a plan to incrementally grow and demonstrate network maturity and system reliability in order to support continued production and fielding of future Brigades based upon successful testing and evaluation this year and next.

 

So kudos to the program team leading the EIBCT. I must say, the program folks I traveled with last summer could not have been more accomodating and helpful and the Soldiers testing the gear more honest in their candid assessments. If a huge program such as FCS is forced to disintigrate, let’s hope they’re all run with at least some of the same deftness as this one is so far.

– Christian

The Flying Bug — Army Style

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Here’s another one for you, this time an exclusive video of the T-Hawk Class 1 UAV in flight and an interview with an Army UAV operator flying it.

Pay attention to his pros and cons on the system. Neat idea — and it’s come a long way since its inception as part of the FCS system — but there are still some tweaks to be made.

(Video: CLowe)

– Christian

“Who is that guy?” Ask the T-UGS

Friday, September 4th, 2009

Installment #2 here folks, this time it’s the Tactical Unattended Ground Sensor. Basically it’s a more robust version of the U-UGS we posted earlier that is designed to be placed in the field.

One commander I spoke with said he likes the idea and sees some use for it at a vehicle checkpoint, for example. With the camera trained on the driver or passengers, the image can be transmitted via the network to a commander’s vehicle or the TOC and compared to an HVT database or a BOLO vehicle description. Rather than relying on the trooper at the checkpoint to do the forensics, the sensor can provide that link back to the head shed where more information lives.

The commander did say that, as with the U-UGS, this system still has a way to go in its ability to capture images quick enough and in a resolution high enough to really do the IMINT. Again, he said “it’s giving me yesterday’s news.”

It’s all part of the development, of course, and this is precisely what the limited user test is intended to do — find those practical flaws and find ways to fix them.

(Video: CLowe)

– Christian

“Who’s behind me?” Ask the U-UGS

Thursday, September 3rd, 2009

As I mentioned on my earlier post about the Army Infantry Brigade Combat team modernization shindig I attended this week the Soldiers I talked to said they’d leave both the Urban and Tactical unattended ground sensors behind should they deploy with any of the techs we saw during the visit.

That’s not to say the Soldiers didn’t like the concept of the leave-behind surveillance modules…it’s just that they didn’t think the systems were ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, here’s a brief from the program manager explaining what the objective is for these militarized versions of trail cams.

(Video: CLowe)

– Christian

Spinning Out with the E-IBCT

Tuesday, September 1st, 2009

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A long and very interesting day today on the Dona Ana Range out at historic White Sands Army Missile Test Range in New Mexico. I had the opportunity to speak with a dozen Soldiers, from the battalion commander level to the team leader about the Army’s most high profile modernization program for the brigade combat team — what most in the biz call “son of FCS.”

We saw in action the Block 1 Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, urban and tactical unattended ground sensors, the Class 1 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Block 0 and a static display of the Non-Line of Sight Launch System — all tied into the Humvee packable network integration kit.

I’ll roll out some info about each of these over the next couple days, including some video clips I shot during briefings in the tactical operations center and during a cordon and search mission underway as part of an ongoing test of the systems at the range’s Adobe Village.

But some preliminary takeaways are noteworthy. By far the two most popular systems were the Class 1 UAV and the SUG-V. From both the Soldier on the ground and the battalion commander in the TOC, all were unanimous about the two drone system’s value in the current fight. One said “you can never have too many robots on the battlefield.”

One new development for the Class 1 UAV is the ability to control and process imagery from the drone on a toughbook computer right in the field. During the operation at Adobe village, the Soldier controller (who was really spooled up on the system) was able to walk through the operation controlling the UAV buzzing overhead on the computer attached to his body armor. He could radio what he saw to squad leaders and other commanders right there on the objective. He said the range was somewhere in the 10 klik range as long as you have an uninterrupted line of sight.
class-1-uav-controller.jpg

Likewise the SUG-V is popular, though Joes and their commanders admit, it can be easily defeated with a rock, a blanked or a trip wire placed just out of the ground drone’s site. Nevertheless, as battalion commander Lt. Col. Kevin Hendricks said, “if I’d had that on the battlefield in Iraq I would have saved lives.”

For reasons of their own (either because it’s too complicated to use in the heat of battle at the platoon level, or doesn’t deliver the resolution and timeliness for the TOC needs) no one I spoke with was a big fan of the tactical and urban ground sensors. As Hendricks admitted, “a lot of these sensors are giving me yesterday’s news” while reitering that with better resolution and the bandwidth to transmit it quickly, these sensors could be increasingly useful on the battlefield.

“You have 3G iPhones right now. … It’s like we’re working with a 120K iPhone at this point.”

I’ll have much more — and I’ll let the Soldiers speak for themselves — after I’ve had a chance to edit my hour and a half of video.

– Christian

On Again, Off Again FCS

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

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It’s ramping up to a thundering fusilade…

The FCS lobby is loading up the bombs, feeding the ammo belts and launching the salvos.

While the Pentagon’s official position is that the FCS program will be radically restructured and the ground vehicle programs killed, Army and industry officials are acting as if “there’s nothing to see here.”

On Tuesday, FCS co-prime Boeing released a statement saying it had completed a “System of Systems Preliminary Design Review” and, guess what, it totally validated the FCS program and showed how much better the Army would be with the entire web of sensors, robots, ground vehicles and networks.

The SoS PDR is the most comprehensive review of the program to date. It validated that the designs for all FCS systems and subsystems, including the network, sensors, weapons and manned and unmanned vehicles, meet current requirements and will function as an integrated system of systems. The review proved that a family of networked systems will provide greater combat capabilities, including enhanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, across the full spectrum of conflict.

No way!? So all this talk about vulnerable vehicles, network bandwidth problems and schedule slips is baloney?

And our boy Greg Grant from DoD Buzz reports that Gen. George Casey, the Army’s chief of staff, had a momentary bout of honesty when he told the SASC this week that he didn’t ask for or want the FCS rejiggering but he’d been forced to back it.

Asked by SASC chair Senator Carl Levin whether he agreed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates decision to cancel the FCS vehicles, Casey said: I supported it; I did not agree with it. The fundamental point of disagreement, he said, was whether the vehicle design included sufficient protection against IEDs.

Oh, the boxes we get put in…

And yesterday the Pentagon announced a hastily-called together press conference for today where Army officials would help reporters understand the service’s modernization program for Brigade Combat Teams. One wonders what they would have said had not the presser been cancelled this morning without prejudice.

I have always believed that the FCS program was far too complex to execute both technologically and fiscally as a total package but was tailor made as a sort of service “Skunk Works” that could develop the associated technologies for futuristic solutions to aging platforms and incrementally populate them within the force. It’s as if you’re working toward that Buck Rogers goal every day knowing full well you won’t get there but that at least part of the fruits of your labors will be incorporated into forces who need them today.

The Army’s going to need a replacement for the Bradley and M1 soon and as the development of the JLTV shows, there’s lots of cutting edge solutions or just beyond the edge ones that could make the next set of ground vehicles more deadly to bad guys and safer for Joes. Or are we at a tipping piont here — kind of like the one the Air Force is struggling with — where it’s all just a waste of money spent on manned systems. Is it close enough for us to envision robot ground vehicles pummeling enemy redoubts instead of manned ones in the next “generation?”

Maybe so…

– Christian Lowe

Is NLOS Worth It?

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

NLOS-proto.jpg

I always sort of roll my eyes when I look at the defense authorization bill each year and see Sen. James Inhofe’s successful attempt to cordon off the Non-Line of Sight cannon developed by the Army’s FCS program from any budget cuts — kind of reminds me of the JSF alternative engine.

Instead of parochialism, it all really boils down to whether the Army needs a replacement for the Paladin mobile Howitzer gun. And I reluctantly come out on the side of “yes.“

I’m going to excerpt Greg Grant’s excellent story from DoD Buzz today and draw your attention to a comment made on the story — really a comment about a comment:

As we reported the other day, the Armys $200 billion Future Combat Systems modernization program looks likely to suffer some big hits when the defense budget is finally wrapped some time later this month. Rumors of FCS doom have its champions in Congress, chief among them being Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., vowing to fight for the perennially troubled program.

Dear to Inhofes heart, and his constituents, is the Non-Line Of Sight Cannon, originally part of FCS. It was given its own budget line by Inhofe in an effort to fence it off from possible cuts to the larger program. Why? Well, Oklahoma is home to Ft. Sill, the Armys artillery center for one thing and NLOS-C builder BAE Systems kindly said it would produce the cannon in Elgin, Okla. Inhofe has included language in past defense bills telling the Army to build a number of prototypes and rapidly move NLOS-C into full-scale production.

The NLOS-C is a continuation of the Armys Crusader mobile howitzer program that was unceremoniously cancelled by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; many of the parts used in the NLOS-C were originally designed for Crusader. It is intended to replace the Paladin 155mm self-propelled howitzer, and is optimized for long range counter-battery fire on a conventional battlefield. In a statement released by his office this week, Inhofe said: To say that FCS and the NLOS-C are designed for a conventional war is narrow-minded and overlooks the reality that the systems that FCS will replace are being used on the battlefields today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Over the past eight years, battles in Afghanistans road-less and mountainous terrain have certainly demonstrated the need for organic fire support to light infantry, but of the mortar variety, or perhaps a lightweight mountain cannon, not a large, tracked mobile howitzer. In Iraq, the Armys Paladins spend their tours of duty parked in the motor pool as the red legs go off to patrol as motorized infantry.

The Paladin is more than adequate to give the Armys maneuver formations mobile fire support if they square off against an enemy mechanized army any time in the near future. To counter insurgent mortar and rocket fire in Iraq, air strikes from fixed wing or attack helicopters have proven more responsive and accurate than artillery fire, if for no other reason than the air space must be cleared before artillery can fire, an often lengthy process.

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FCS Faces Bleak Future

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

NLOS-C1-web.jpg

The Army and senior OSD leadership are debating whether to eliminate all but one of the eight FCS vehicles, a Hill source says. The sole surviving vehicle would be, not surprisingly, the Non Line of Sight Cannon.

But the plan being considered would save a relatively paltry $500 million in 2010. As the Hill source noted, the FCS network and software comprise “most” of the R and D money.

Also, an industry source pointed out that as the number of vehicles in the program shrinks, so does the viability of the network. The development of the FCS network is linked to the development of FCS Manned Ground Vehicles. Each MGV acts as a node in the ground based aspect of the network. So cutting MGVs reduces the viability of the network, the industry source said.

But because so much of the FCS program depends on economies of scale from building vehicles on a common chassis, the Army would be hard pressed to save a great deal. The Hill source noted that half of the research and development costs are for the chassis and you would still be developing and building the chassis, no matter how many vehicles you killed.

The Army wanted had a very different plan to restructure the Future Combat System in the out years, but the OSD said no to it because it saved almost nothing in the short term. Now the Army is wrestling with those notorious meanies at PA and E over the programs very future.

Of course, building NLOS would help remove one very prominent irritant, from the Pentagons point of view. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has prodded and pushed the Army for years to build NLOS and to build as many of them as possible. He wants to protect jobs at Fort Sill, the Armys artillery center.

[Editor’s note: Inhofe has each year pushed language in the fiscal year defense authorization bill that specifically protects the NLOS cannon and launch system from cancellation if FCS as a program faces cuts…Read the rest of Colin’s story, and keep up with the steady trickle of ’10 DoD Budget leaks at DoD Buzz.]

– Colin Clark