Armor: FCS Died For Our Sins

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June 26, 2009: On June 23rd, the U.S. Army announced the official cancellation of its FCS (Future Combat Systems). This was a program of next generation weapons, vehicles and other equipment that was going to cost over $160 billion. The cancellation was no surprise. A year ago, the army dropped any pretence of trying to roll out its new FCS stuff as a complete package. That's mainly because the Department of Defense had ordered that FCS items be readied for combat use as soon as possible. The future will arrive piecemeal, as had been actually happening ever since September 11, 2001, and especially since early 2003.

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the army took stock and decided that its future combat vehicles would be smaller and lighter, relying more on missiles, better communications and lots of electronic gadgets. All this was called FCS, and it would change everything. Then came 2003, and three American divisions invaded Iraq and, within three weeks, had seized Baghdad and conquered the country. When the dust had settled, and the battles were carefully examined, it was discovered that the key to rapid victory were the "obsolete" M-1 tanks and M-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, doing what they were designed to do.

This didn't faze the FCS developers, for the 20-30 ton FCS vehicles could have done the same thing. The key was being resistant to the RPG rockets, which the M-1 and M-2 were. But that got people thinking. We got all these M-1s and M-2s, and money is tight, and the FCS crowd are asking for over $100 billion to buy new armored vehicles that might not be as effective. Why not just keep upgrading the armor we got, and we know works? This bold idea, reeking of practicality and thrift, received a cool reception. The FCS proponents had spent years of effort to get enough political support for the money to start flowing. And now these retards, with their experience in Iraq, want to face the future with refurbs? The "retards", in the end, had the stronger argument.

The FCS was seen as a breakthrough system. Actually, it's over fifty systems (depending on how you count them), and a lot of technologies that haven't been invented yet. Many in the army were unsure about how FCS would do in combat. This "tried and true" crew responded with an offer to try out each of the new technologies as they become available. Whenever that might be. Eventually, the brass at the Pentagon agreed with this. Meanwhile, FCS faced a more formidable problem than reality checks after 2003; lack of money. Not only was Iraq reminding everyone how well existing armor works, but it sucked up the billions that FCS was hoping to feast on.

FCS was nothing if not ambitious, with its plan to militarize many new technologies before anyone else did, and give the army powerful armored vehicles that could be airlifted anywhere in the world in a few days, and then be easier to maintain because the FCS vehicles guzzled a lot less fuel. But that depends on the air force coming up with more transports (C-17s), something the air force has been reluctant to do. The air force has its own FCS (the F-22 and F-35), and that's where all their money is going.

What a lot of officers, and troops, began to see was a need for evolution, not revolution. There's no longer any big land army out there that needs to be shut down. The Red Army is gone, the Chinese army is largely obsolete and shrinking, the North Korean army is falling apart, and the Iranians are more concerned about another civil war. The few nations that are still building new tanks are trying to keep up with the M-1, not leap-frog it using unproven technologies. Continued efforts to keep FCS alive ended up becoming evolutionary as well, because the money just wasn't there for anything radically new. Thus the M-1, M-2, and Stryker rapidly evolved, and proved that, as weapons, they were far from dead. NLOS-C, a new self-propelled artillery system, was built from the wreckage of the cancelled Crusader system. While technically FCS, it was more of an evolved system, and it was the only FCS vehicle to survive.

But there was another factor at work in undermining FCS, and it was called RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). One of the little noticed after-effects of the Afghanistan campaign was the establishment, in early 2002, of the Rapid Fielding Initiative. This was an army program that recognized that American army troops did not always have the best weapons and equipment. RFI was intended to do something about that, and do it quickly.

You could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other stuff came from hunting suppliers (new gun sights). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear.

The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet, and like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet came along, each soldiers discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army wide within hours.

Finally, there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed its own RFI powers, and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (night vision gear and satellite phones). SOCOM personnel were on the Internet as well. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating on the Internet how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOMs freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.

When American troops went into Afghanistan in early October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money. Especially if the new equipment, from a civilian supplier, was obviously superior to the stuff the government was giving the troops. With this kind of incentive, the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success. 

The Iraq campaign gave the RFI another workout. A typical incident involved all the raids troops had to make and the problems with getting through sturdy locked doors. Some troops knew of special equipment police departments used, others knew of special equipment fire fighters used to break into burning buildings. The proper equipment was soon in the troops hands, and many lives, both American and Iraqi, were saved. Stories came back from Afghanistan and Iraq about how great the RFI gear was and all was well with the troops and the brass in the Pentagon.

So eventually FCS became, in effect, a part of RFI. It's another example of what happens when carefully constructed plans encounter reality. Reality always wins. In this case, FSC as a program was killed by RFI, while FSC as a collection of good, or at least promising, ideas, lived on.

 


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