Murphy's Law: Looting The Dead

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May 21, 2009: The U.S. Army is bracing itself for the cancellation of its FCS (Future Combat Systems), as an impatient Congress moves to cut off all (over $100 billion) the money. FCS was a broad array of new weapons and equipment, including new vehicles and electronic devices that took advantage of the latest technologies. FCS has been in the works for over a decade, and was supposed to replace existing weapons and equipment between 2015-30. Many in the Department of Defense saw this as another procurement boondoggle (along with the F-22 and the navy's new destroyer). There have already been some cuts in the FCS budget. In response, the army hustled to get into production with some of the FCS gear that was good to go.

 For example, the replacement for the half century old M-109 self propelled artillery vehicle, the NLOS-C, will be the first of the eight MGV (Manned Ground Vehicle) systems to enter service, in a year or two. The other seven MGVs may never make it into service, but that won't stop the formation of at least one "FCS combat brigade" within three years. These units have fewer troops (2,500) than the current (and newly implanted) combat brigades (3,500 troops). The FCS brigades depend on automation and more electronics to make up for manpower. If that works, many in the army believe that the NLOS-C will quickly replace the M-109, especially in the newly reorganized Brigade Combat Teams.

The prototype of the 155mm NLOS-C was cobbled together in six months, after the new Crusader SP artillery system was cancelled in 2002. Although the M-109 has been frequently updated, the NLOS-C incorporates many new technologies the M-109 still doesn't have. This includes an auto-loader (from the Crusader) and a more modern 155mm gun (the M-777, a towed, British designed system) and an APC chassis with a hybrid-electric engine (to reduce fuel consumption.) This all weighs 23 tons, about the same as the M-109. But the NLOS only has a two man crew, compared to five in the M-109. The final version of the NLOS-C will be heavier (about 27 tons), because more defense systems have been added, to reflect experience in Iraq. be a ton or two lighter. The M777 howitzer will not be used in the NLOC-C, but an even lighter (by at least half a ton) 155mm gun.

Because of heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan, the FCS versions of the five pound Raven UAV and PackBot infantry robot, will be arriving ahead of schedule. More problematic is the new wireless data network (think battlefield Internet). Only about half of software has been written so far. Another vaporware type item is the lightweight composite armor that will give the FCS combat vehicles a high degree of protection. This armor is still being tested and developed. Much depends on this stuff working.

Since there's a war going on, and some 200,000 troops are constantly in combat, there is ample opportunity to try new stuff under combat conditions. The current generation of troops grew up with short consumer product development cycles (new products coming out frequently) as civilians, and expect the same thing with their weapons and equipment. Normally, the military takes its time developing new items. But not in wartime. So the army is making the most of this by trying to get a lot of FCS into service before the war ends.

Meanwhile, the army has found out that its current tank, the M-1, is still very useful, even in irregular warfare. And more likely to survive than the proposed FCS replacement. What the last eight years of war have done is expose FCS elements that were not really ready for combat, and quickly move forward the many (UAVs, robots, communications and Internet stuff) that were.

 


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