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FCS: A Closer Look at Gates' Cuts

UPDATED: With Gates' Saying FCS Was "Hardest Decision" And Details on Discussions With Army Leaders During a recent breakfast with Sen. Carl Levin, the powerful chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I asked him whether, as the senior senator from a state with extremely high unemployment, he could support killing the Manned Ground Vehicle portion of FCS.

Levin was frank, saying he hoped he could support such a whack to his state if it was necessary, but acknowledging that he had to help his constituents as well. If MGV -- the industrial centerpiece of FCS -- is cancelled it would be a substantial hit for the state with arguably the highest employment rate in the country. The entire FCS program will contribute an estimated $590 million to Michigan and give rise to roughly 10,000 jobs (direct and indirect) in 2009.

But the impact of Gates' decision to cancel the MGV really is difficult to ascertain at this point. Part of that springs from the fact that the Army leadership opposed Gates' decision to the end, as he made clear in answer to a question at the Army War College on Thursday.

"FCS was the hardest decision I had to make, and partly it was because the leadership of the Army was so committed to it. I had a number of meetings. In addition to the group meetings that I just talked about, I had a number of meetings with Secretary Geren and with General Casey. And we talked about it many, many times. And I made a decision that I think it's fair to say they disagree with," Gates said. The Army's opposition has led to its being caught flat-footed in how to respond to the MGV cancellation.

But there may be an upside to Gates' decision. He said he was accelerating the so-called spin out of FCS technologies "to all combat brigades." An industry source argued this might well mean reserve and active forces, for a total of more than 72 brigades, which would mark a substantial increase to the buy. But an Army source expressed skepticism about this interpretation, saying it almost certainly applied only to the 45 active Army brigade combat teams Gates said he will approve (down from 48).

The gap to watch lies in what Gates said about vehicles and how they relate to FCS. He seemed to indicate that MRAPs might well become part of the program. The Pentagon "should relaunch the Army's vehicle modernization program, including a competitive bidding process," Gates said. The industry and Army source both said this appeared to raise the possibility of JLTV, MRAPs and other ground vehicles being included in FCS. It also seems to raise the possibility of the Army doing a complete rethink of all its tactical vehicles.

Given how much unhappiness there is in the Army and Marines with the maintainability of the MRAPs it seems unlikely they would buy too many of the existing MRAPs, but if they are made part of FCS it would be very difficult for the Army to buy new tactical vehicles. As Gates noted in his speech, the country has spent $25 billion on MRAPs already. The goal, Gates said, is "an Army vehicle modernization program designed to meet the needs of the full spectrum of conflict."

A mix of light, medium and heavy armored vehicles -- Stryker, MRAP, JLTV and some sort of NLOS-C -- might be the way ahead.

Figuring out what's real and what's not at this stage is extremely challenging. The Army, surprised by Gates' decision to kill MGV, is deep in the throes of beginning to figure out just what it all means and how much it will cost. And lawmakers have not seen the 2010 budget numbers yet, so don't necessarily take their relative silence for acquiescence. The budget release date stll isn't set but May 11 keeps surfacing as a target. Watch for fireworks soon after.

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