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Army Shifts FCS Modernization Focus to Light Infantry

The latest restructuring of the Army’s flagship Future Combat Systems modernization program has shifted the program’s focus from producing a new family of armored vehicles to replace the M-1 Abrams and Bradley fighting vehicles to instead providing wireless communications networks, robots and sensors to light infantry units that are most heavily engaged in today’s irregular wars.

Getting what the Army calls “spin-outs,” mobile, wireless communications hardware, software and robotic sensors, into the hands of soldiers in the infantry brigades is the hallmark of the service’s restructuring of the FCS program, said Lt. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes, the service’s deputy chief of staff for programs and resources, speaking last week at an Army aviation forum. The Army has already restructured the troubled $200 billion FCS program several times. This latest evolution stems from Defense Secretary Robert Gate’s admonition to all the military service’s to stop building costly weapons designed for large scale conventional wars and start providing troops what they need to win the wars America is currently fighting. The program’s new focus on light infantry is a significant change for a program that falls under the Army’s “Armored Systems Modernization” budget line.

Driving home the point that the Army does not suffer from a case of what Gates has called “next war-itis,” Speakes said the Army leadership agrees with the SecDef’s belief that future wars will resemble ongoing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The current fight is not an aberration, the need for ground forces in the ugly environments where we’re fighting today is what we see for the foreseeable future,” he said. The weapons buying guidance Gates gave the Army is “all about feeding the current fight.”

Further, lessons learned from ongoing irregular wars will drive future weapons needs and requirements, Speakes said, indicating that the Army has embraced the reality that “an era of persistent irregular warfare” is an infinitely more likely future for ground forces than squaring off against some massed tank army, a scenario that guided Army planners for the past fifty years. Speakes said forecasts about the nature of future conflict made by planners as recently as five years ago are no longer relevant. Now, planners and buyers must prepare soldiers to battle what has proven to be a collection of highly adaptable foes in Iraq and Afghanistan that rapidly shift organization and tactics to counter new weapons fielded by American troops. The evolution of the FCS program is “how you do acquisition in the modern world,” Speakes said, “you can’t take ten or twenty years to bring capabilities online.”

As described by Speakes, FCS has largely evolved into a technology development and testing laboratory to speed equipment upgrades, “spin-outs,” to soldiers in the field. The Army is “relentlessly evaluating” FCS technologies to determine which of the program’s many developmental technologies actually work and move those selected “through the paces as fast as we can.” Before the FCS program, the Army lacked the “very robust research and development capabilities” to test and evaluate high-tech weaponry and equipment and speed it to the battlefield, he said. The Army’s infantry brigades will begin to receive the new spin-outs in 2011.

Over the last year, the Army has slowed development of the FCS manned ground vehicles. On a reporter conference call last summer, Speakes said he sent designs for the vehicles back to the drawing board to incorporate lessons learned from Iraq. Builders are adding more armor to prototypes to beef up protection against IEDs and other anti-armor threats. “If we did something for a good reason five years ago that is not right today, we’ll go ahead and move forward and change that design plan in order to make it relevant for today and tomorrow,” he said.

The Army was more or less forced to speed development of the FCS self propelled howitzer five years ago by Republican Senator James Inhofe who was angered by former SecDef Rumsfeld’s cancellation of the Crusader cannon program. Why soldiers fighting today's wars need a new armored, self-propelled howitzer designed for counter-battery fire has never been adequately explained. Nevertheless, the Army is congressionally mandated to build 8 prototypes of the howitzer, the chassis of which was supposed to be shared by the rest of the common manned ground vehicles.

According to the new Army acquisition model, as described by Speakes, the design of that vehicle is likely to continually evolve to account for emerging threats and battlefield realities, as the Army doesn’t appear to be in any real rush to replace its heavily armored Abrams and Bradley legacy platforms.

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