It turns out, that when Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled the Army’s FCS program last year, the service’s flagship modernization effort didn’t really stop. It just got a name change and a bit of reorganization. Instead of trying to outfit brigades with a vast “system-of-systems” -- vehicles, drones and the network -- the Army is now building smaller “capability packages” of weapons and communications gear that can prove useful to small units fighting today’s wars.
The Army is also developing a new infantry fighting vehicle known as the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) to replace the Bradleys in its heavy brigades. The service plans to spend roughly $24 billion over the next five years on these various modernization projects.
Last December, the Army got approval from DOD to begin low rate production of the first capability package of FCS remnants, which it calls “Increment 1,” for a single test brigade. These include small robots, a small hovering aerial drone, motion sensors that affix to walls for troops to leave in cleared rooms, a ground sensor, the surface-to-ground missiles known as the non-line of sight launch system (NLOS-LS) and a network kit to tie all together sensors and radios.
“Buying less more often,” is the Army’s new modernization mantra, said Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, who directs modernization efforts, on a conference call with reporters last month. The new approach is supposed to better account for rapid technology changes as well as the highly adaptable irregular fighters the Army has been battling over the past decade.
The first capability package will equip the 3rd BCT of the 1st Armored Division, which has been designated as an Evaluation I-BCT, and is expected to deploy to Afghanistan sometime in 2012. Testing over the next year will see if the communications network and radios work with the IED jammers that equip all vehicles, Walker said.
Yet, the Army’s new decentralized approach has not solved some serious performance and reliability problems with the new technologies that may result in big changes to the Army’s planned buy.
At a hearing this week before the House Armed Services Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, GAO’s Michael Sullivan said DOD acted prematurely in giving the Army the go-ahead to begin Increment one low-rate production: “Although the Army will argue that it needs to field these capabilities as soon as possible, none of these systems have been designated as urgent and it is not helpful to provide early capability to the warfighter if those capabilities are not technically mature and reliable.”
The Army says it’s following a “test-fix-test” development strategy. Soldier feedback from testing the new gear is resulting in modifications to almost all of it, said Walker. The “Class I UAS,” fondly known to some as the flying beer keg, is too noisy, soldiers told Walker. If it was quieter it would be much more useful, they said; plus it’s a “real pain” to fuel.
A new, upgraded drone will be fielded in a few years, Walker said. Soldiers also complained about the poor picture resolution from the wall sensors, “you could get a better picture from your cell phone.” An improved sensor is on the way, he said.
Walker was plenty displeased with recent tests of the NLOS-LS, where the missiles missed four out of six shots against a mix of targets; the Army is evaluating what caused the targeting failures.
Army spokesperson Paul Mehney said GAO’s criticism wasn’t really fair because the test equipment is “pre-production.” The whole idea was to run the new stuff through field tests and see what works and what doesn’t. Most of the reliability issues noted by GAO are already being fixed as the Army “expected issues,” specifically on reliability.
New reliability tests are scheduled for September. OSD told the Army to report back on the reliability of the Increment 1 equipment, along with the network, in an interim progress report April 2nd. Another report is due in December, providing data from the September tests.
As for GAO’s claim that none of the new technologies are urgent, Mehney said combatant commanders have identified the need for better network connectivity between soldiers, sensors, drones and command posts. The Increment 1 network will provide that connectivity between small units and higher echelon command posts. “The Army is not going to field Increment 1 systems until systems performance is sufficient to satisfy the capability requirements of the soldier,” he said.
Chief weapons buyer Ashton Carter directed the Army to conduct an operational test of an infantry battalion equipped with today’s gear in a simulated fight some time in fall 2011. Then, compare that battalion’s performance with a battalion equipped with the Increment 1 gear, running through the same scenarios.
The equipment will be tested in an “Afghan-like fight,” yet not just against a simulated Taliban opponent, in other words ragtag guerrilla fighters. The tests will feature more advanced “hybrid threats” in irregular wars, “a more Hezbollah type capability, something beyond what you find in Afghanistan,” Walker said. The outcome of that test will decide which bits of gear go to full rate production and which are chopped.
Army modernization prime contractor Boeing provided an emailed statement via spokesperson Matt Billingsley:
"Boeing and its partners continue to work closely with our Army customer on the development of Brigade Combat Team Modernization program. The Limited User Test conducted late last summer identified areas to further improve the reliability, availability, and maintainability of Increment 1 platforms. Working together with the Army and utilizing a "test, fix, test" approach that involves soldiers earlier in the development cycle, we are confident that Increment 1 capabilities will be ready for Initial Operational Test and Evaluation by the Army in FY11. Indeed, more than 95 percent of the hardware and software recommendations from the Limited User Test have been implemented as we prepare for the FY10 testing cycle and low-rate initial production as approved by the Defense Department."