Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have left the fate of the Future Combat System (FCS) hanging during his congressional testimony yesterday, but the acquisition system is grinding ahead and the program won a potentially significant decision last week.
After five days of meetings between military and industry officials, permission was granted to proceed with the next phase of all eight Manned Ground Vehicles in the program. "Based on what was presented at the MGV PDR formal permission will be granted to enter detailed design for all eight MGV variants in early February," Paul Mehney, head spokesman for FCS, wrote in an email this morning. I spent the last two days travelling with Paul and other Army officials, visiting Tank and Automotive Command and the plant in Lima, Ohio where the FCS chassis will be built.
Lima, Ohio doesn't figure large in most defense reporting. For much of the last 20 years the plant built and rebuilt Abrams tanks and then started building part of the Strykers.
But the politically uncertain march of FCS' Manned Ground Vehicles toward production means General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) workers, who run Lima for the government, are investing in new equipment, planning and testing how to build the most technologically advanced ground combat vehicles ever built and readying to hire at least 200 more workers over the next year.
Right now, Lima is building three prototypes Non-Line of Sight FCS models, P-2, P-7 and P-8. They are basically very shiny huge hunks of shaped and welded aluminum at this stage. Workers are finishing internal welds, clambering around inside the shell that will be enclosed in bolt-on armor. They are readying the shells to go to the GDLS Shelby, Mich. plant where they will be filled with engines, huge lengths of custom-designed flat wire clusters (designed by Army scientists to take up less space and still deliver the impressive amounts of power used by the hybrid engine, the computers and other subsystems) and fitted with the unique elastomer (sort of like rubber) treads that are still being perfected.
The plant is readying for the first efforts at production, planning to build 20 FCS chassis in 2009. To improve the quality of the all-important welds that bind together the inside aluminum shell they have built a unique welding machine -- the Friction Stir Weld -- that basically shoves a hardened screw into the aluminum and spins at high speed and moves along the weld line to soften the aluminum without distorting it too much. According to several Lima welders aluminum tends to mover quite a lot when welded and is very difficult to weld to some other metals, such as titanium. The new process, which was originally developed in Britain, "is almost like reforging the metals," according to Army Lt. Col. Ted Epple, the commander at Lima. They bond and there are far fewer defects caused by a tired or errant human hand.
The enormous blue horseshoe-shaped machine was largely paid for with a $6.8 million congressional earmark championed by former Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), who used to represent the Lima area. The money was spread over three years. There is other new technology and equipment being readied in Lima for this effort. I'll have more on that and some of the new FCS technology over the next few days.