Holding the Government Accountable

Future Combat Systems: A "Technological" Bridge Too Far

A “train wreck” is what Congressman Curt Weldon (R-PA) is calling it. The New York Times today leads with a story on how staunch congressional supporters of the military are blasting the Army's mammoth Future Combat Systems program.

FCS is supposed to be the Army's “technological bridge to the future”—a transformation into a networked, robot-laden, highly mobile, and lightweight force. But it is plagued by cost problems and crippling programmatic issues. There are also questions regarding the type of contract FCS is using with lead systems integrator Boeing.

Although FCS's blueprint for transformation calls for a light tanks that can be transported by C-130 transport aircraft, the Army “said this month that they did not know if they could build a tank light enough to fly.” If they do, it's because tanks—as well as personnel carriers and other vehicles—will “be stripped of heavy armor. In place of armor, American soldiers in combat would be protected by information systems.” One only needs to look at Iraq to see why trucks, not to mention tanks, need to be armored.

Another logjam is the now-$25 billion information network which, if it works, will digitally stitch the Army together. Known as Joint Tactical Radio Systems (JTRS, pronounced “jitters”), the Army halted the first shipment of radios in January. According to the NYT article, the Army's vague rationale was that the radios “were not progressing as planned.” To be more precise, the Government Accountability Office says the Army has not been able to mature the technologies needed to provide radios that both generate sufficient power and yet meet size and weight requirements. Remember FCS demands that weight be minimized at all costs.

If JTRS doesn't work? Future Combat will fail, General Charles A. Cartwright told the NYT. Since the new force will have less armor, the Army is betting and will depend on JTRS to keep troops out of harms way. The failure of JTRS means our troops will simply have less armor.

Also, the NYT embeds a nice little nugget: "of 53 crucial technologies...52 are unproven."

But it's the prohibitive cost of FCS that has Congress most up in arms. The first phase of FCS is estimated to cost up to $145 billion, not including the $25 billion JTRS component, to only upgrade one-third of the Army. David M. Walker, comptroller general of the United States, said, “We are not going to be able to afford all of this.”

Ironically, the Army's chief acquisition official, Claude Bolton Jr., told a Senate subcommittee on March 16 that he has long had concerns about the system. “When I arrived here and was briefed on this program, it was clear to me this was one of the most complex, ambitious programs I'd ever seen,” he told the subcommittee. “In fact, my initial reaction was, let's not do this, because I know for a fact you're not going to be able to do it on the timeline, which, Mr. Chairman, you may recall, was 2010.”

Questions of price and quality aren't the only ones nagging FCS. The multi-billion-dollar “other transactions” agreement with Boeing does not afford taxpayers and the federal government the usual transparency and oversight. In fact, POGO disclosed earlier this month that Bolton reversed himself on testimony at the heart of whether taxpayers' interests were being adequately protected in the FCS contract.