What's next? Future Combat Systems accelerated, one more time.

Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Position:ANALYSIS
 
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Watchers of the Army's largest ever high-tech weapons project, the Future Combat Systems, may have experienced a classic case of deja vu last month--when the service announced its latest plan to rush FCS technologies to the front lines.

"We're listening to our soldiers and commanders in the field, and we are giving them the capabilities they need--as fast as we can so that they can win in the current fight," Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said June 26.

Slightly more than a year ago, a similar pitch was heard at an Association of the U.S. Army conference, where officials unveiled with much fanfare a video of recent experiments that showed that some of the FCS hardware--specifically sensors, robots and drones--was going to be ready for real-world combat sooner than expected.

Even as far back as July 2004, Army officials trumpeted plans to "accelerate the delivery of selected FCS capabilities [called spin-outs] to the current force."

Conceived as a family of sophisticated combat vehicles, cannons, missile launchers, robots and aerial drones--all connected into a common network, FCS was once viewed as the realization of the Army's dream of becoming a truly high-tech force. But the project has faltered in recent years for several reasons, including skepticism from lawmakers who don't see the benefits of FCS and question its $160 billion price tag.

Other hurdles for the program have been its inability to live up to the hype and the realization that the Army may have put too many eggs in the FCS basket, at the expense of more pressing needs, such as armored trucks, communications systems and other essential combat equipment. It has also been difficult for the Army to promote FCS because of its piecemeal delivery.

A resounding wake-up call carne earlier this year when Defense Secretary Robert Gates lumped FCS into the category of programs that suffer from "next war-itis"--a term he coined to describe the military services' obsession with planning for a future war and not focusing on winning the current one.

The timing of the latest announcement that the Army will be expediting the deployment of FCS sensors and robots, however, is not a reaction to Gates' comments, said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Vane, director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center. The notion that the Army wants to speed up the FCS program is not new, Vane said at a Pentagon news conference. "Gates' comments reinforced the direction we're going,"...

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