Mention the words "Future Combat Systems" around Army officials, lawmakers or think tank types and their gut reaction will inevitably be a groan. In fact, it's probably not a good idea to mention the program in the presence of senior service officials at all.
Eight years after its cancellation, some say the service's reputation has still not recovered from the $18 billion spent on a program that went nowhere. Shortly after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates pulled the plug on the program, the Army went into a procurement trough. Sequestration and the Budget Control Act necessitated tradeoffs and readiness was prioritized over modernization.
But did Future Combat Systems truly go nowhere? A look at current Army research-and-development priorities and what the Army is acquiring suggests that the service will end up with most of the core FCS elements and capabilities despite the program going down in flames, and the subsequent tight budgets.
The idea was to field a dozen new vehicles, along with a sophisticated communications backbone--both of them requiring lots of software and advanced--sometimes undeveloped technologies. For Gates, it was obvious after years of restructuring, delays and cost overruns that the service had bit off more than it could chew and it would be throwing good money after bad with an ultimate price tag of something close to $92 billion.
But another of the secretary's stated reasons for canceling the program was that the era of big armies facing off against each other was over. It was a world of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. That was the "future," not the Cold War's Fulda Gap scenario, where Russia faced off against U.S. tank forces on the plains of Europe.
The counterinsurgency fight continues in Afghanistan, but the "big armies" are back. A resurgent Russia forced the military to quickly supplement its budget with the European Reassurance Initiative, to gird against the threat from the East. And a war on the Korean Peninsula appears closer than ever.
The pendulum may someday swing back to "small wars," but for now Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley speaks of fighting near-peer competitors in anti-access/area-denied battle zones, where forces will have to be both mobile and survivable, which happened to be two hallmarks of the FCS program.
Eight years later, it is interesting to look at some of the FCS subsystems and where they are today, purely from a technology readiness level. The Army may get its...