A Future the Army Can't Afford
Should we spend billions on high-tech dreams?
Today's New York Times reports that the U.S. Army's "Future Combat Systems"—an elaborate medley of new hardware, fast software, and wild dreams that Pentagon planners regard as the "technological bridge" to tomorrow—may be about to collapse.
Its price tag is soaring out of sight (well over $150 billion, up from an already extravagant $92 billion). Its most integral elements are untested and probably impractical. The program—which is scheduled to field the first of 15 fully trained, equipped, and "mission-capable" brigades in a mere three years—currently lacks a blueprint, much less construction materials.
But there's another, more serious issue, which the Times' otherwise excellent story doesn't explore: Even if all the technical problems could be solved and the costs brought under control, the Army may be tumbling down the wrong road; Future Combat Systems may not address the true nature and needs of future combat.
Though FCS was conceived as a research-and-development project several years ago, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sees it—and has accelerated its development—as the pinnacle and core of "military transformation," his vision of putting faster, lither, and more lethal weapons on the battlefield. It may be a case of good timing, then, that FCS's grave difficulties are coming to light just as several Army officers are questioning the validity of Rumsfeld's vision.
FCS consists of 18 individual new weapons and other pieces of military hardware, linked together by a centralized communications network that's accessible to every computer-toting soldier on the battlefield. These 18 new pieces of hardware include a much lighter tank, a cannon and launch system that don't require the shooter to see the target, two new classes of unmanned drones, and an armed robotic vehicle.
The idea—consistent with Rumsfeld's transformation—is twofold: first, to mobilize weapons from the base to the battlefield very quickly (hence the lightweight tank, which can be transported by airplanes instead of by much-slower ships); second, to extend the fruits of the military revolution seen in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (the integration of air power, ground forces, and information technology, which resulted in more rapid and coordinated offensives on the battlefield). In Iraq and Afghanistan, this revolution allowed U.S. commanders a fuller, more accurate picture of the entire battlefield. FCS will extend this omniscience to each soldier.
Or so that's the theory. The Times cites a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, as well as the comments of some Army officers who concede the point, that this dream may never become reality. Nobody, it turns out, has yet figured out how to make a tank light enough to be flown by a C-130 transport plane without stripping it of so much armor that it's no longer really a tank. FCS envisions that soldiers, weapons, and robots will be linked by a network called Joint Tactical Radio Systems, yet JTRS (appropriately, if grimly, pronounced "jitters") is itself an unproven quantity. In an unusual step, the Army issued a stop-work order on a preliminary version of this system in January, citing a lack of progress. Yet, as the author of the GAO report told the Times, the system without JTRS is a travesty. The theory behind Future Combat Systems is to replace mass with information; without JTRS, we'd have neither.
The FCS is a "system of systems," as the Army puts it. The positive spin on this is that each individual system (the 18 components plus the network) reinforces and multiplies the potency of all the others. The negative spin is that if one of the systems breaks down, so does the whole complex. And yet Rumsfeld pushes the machinery along without the slightest idea of whether a vast array of these systems is feasible or at what cost. And, given the high price of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now, the cost of fighting hypothetical wars in the future is a pertinent matter.
One might argue that these concerns are Luddite distractions, that technical breakthroughs will happen; skeptics, after all, dismissed the feasibility of an unmanned drone that fires precision-guided missiles. However, each of the FCS's 18 components faces technical challenges that are far more complex. And there is a fundamental issue beyond that debate. The missile-firing drone has a clear-cut, and indisputably attractive, purpose—to enhance the ability to hit targets remotely from a distance. The point of FCS is to "transform" the tools of warfare. So what about this transformation? Does it improve the U.S. Army's ability to deal with the threats of future warfare?
If your guide to this future is the first 30 days of the war in Iraq, then the vision of transformation that underlies FCS might seem appropriate. However, if your guide is the subsequent two years of combat, then the vision seems out of whack.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.