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Exclusive: Army Talks FCS Folo

Ferment. Turmoil. Debate. Angst.

Together they describe the state of the Army as it approaches one of the most important decisions in its post-Vietnam history -- how to organize and what to build for future combat. Recommendations from the senior Army leadership are due to the senior Pentagon leadership at the end of summer. As a clear signal of just how sensitive the service is about all this, they offered DoD Buzz an exclusive interview with Rickey Smith, head of the Army's Task Force 120, after they read some of recent coverage, especially "Real Army Hails FCS Cut" which has on-the-record comments from serving majors and captains.

I was most interested in what the service is leaning toward when it comes to the decision about just what the Ground Combat Vehicle will look like. Smith was his usual talkative but cautious self, offering only a few hints of what might happen.

First the Army has made no decision yet about whether to go with a family of vehicles or to pursue a mix, Smith said. His task force is considering the whole gamut: "What needs to be upgraded. What needs to be left as it is," he said. They've looked at Abrams, Bradleys, the Marines' Expeditionary fighting Vehicle, MRAPs and Strykers, among others.

The ability to move a vehicle from point A to point B -- deployability -- is not going to be the straitjacket that it has been with some Army programs, Smith said. Although he wouldn't get very detailed, Smith made it clear that the ability to fly the GCV on a certain plane would not be used to eliminate any contenders.

And as they look at new vehicles, the acquisition side of the service is keeping close tabs on the Technology Readiness Level of the systems, said Paul Mehney, who handles public affairs for GCV and the other Army modernization efforts for the acquisition community. The service does not want to get caught building something that is so technologically advanced it encounters big cost and schedule delays. "The question becomes, on the acquisition side, can we produce a vehicle in five to seven years," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants the service to take a close look at using the MRAP as at least part of the GCV mix. Several Army acquisition source have told me that the MRAPs can't be modified effectively to be networked, a key consideration.

Smith offered a cagey response to my question about this: "If an MRAP today could achieve the operational requirement that would be fine." I don't think it can, but the service is putting some MRAPs through the wringer down at Fort Bliss to see how well it might fit the bill.

The key threat driving these decisions is hybrid war. "You better be versatile enough to do full spectrum operations," Smith said. And in a possible hint about things to come, Smith noted that the Israelis have recently decided to scrape the turret off of old tanks and rebuilt them as infantry carriers. This gets to the key paramater of force protection versus mobility. MRAPs and other heavily armored wheeled vehicles don't function very well off road, but tanks are so heavy and consume so much fuel that they have their own limitations.

Two other key points about the Army's decision-making process need making. Smith's group is looking at rolling technology out in two-year increments and is also deciding what training and what forces would be needed to handle the technology as it does its analysis. The three Army experts I ran this by all said this is the first time the service appears to be doing this in a systematic way.

And the Marines are a key part of the new picture. There aren't many of them yet -- about a dozen -- but the Marines have sent NCOs and officers to Fort Bliss to work with the Army Evaluation Task Force to ensure that son of FCS works for both components of our and forces. "We are working the Marine Corps a lot because the network affects them also," Smith said.

Once the Army makes its recommendations at the end of summer to the Office of Secretary of Defense it will get reviewed and there will be some back and forth as the two sides hammer out the details on the GCV and the network and capability packages they will roll out. The contract for whatever GCV should be will probably be issued in the first three months of calendar 2010.

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