The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
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Dirty Little Secrets
What’s Really Happening With the U.S. Future Combat System Project
Discussion Board on this DLS topic
by James Dunnigan
August 16, 2005
The U.S. Army has an ambitious, and expensive, plan to replace much of its Cold War era weapons and gear with a new generation of stuff. That’s what the FCS (Future Combat Systems) is all about. FCS gets a lot of media attention because it promises to incorporate all sorts of neat new technology, and cost over a hundred billion dollars. While that sounds like a lot, it’s not when you consider that the current Cold War era heavy weapons (armored vehicles, artillery) and other equipment (radios, and all sorts of electronics) are wearing out and will have to be replaced, even if the FCS project didn’t exist. Four thousand new tanks, at a cost of $5 million each (current cost of an M1) is $20 billion. But new generations of gear rarely cost the same as the stuff they replace. So you can see how FCS grew into a hundred billion dollar baby.
While commentators, and critics, tend to concentrate on the ambitious proposals for new tanks and other armored vehicles, the true heart of FCS can be seen in every home and workplace in America. What the army wants is a battlefield Internet, with everyone from the individual infantryman, to the highest ranking general, tied into the same, real time, network. Moreover, the biggest problems with all of this are not hardware, but software. This battlefield network has to achieve a new level of reliability, because in combat, a system crash can be fatal to the user. The army is even building its own operating system (SOSCOE, short for “System of Systems Common Operating Environment”), in an effort to obtain an operating system less lethal than Microsoft Windows, and more reliable than Linux. Already, the software for the new digital radios is causing headaches, as is development of SOSCOE. This is where the real struggle to make FCS work will take place. But with a networked force, the army will be far more lethal, and far less likely to take casualties. This is already being proven in Iraq and Afghanistan, where prototype versions of FCS are in action.
There are some other new wrinkles in FCS. Aside from a new tank, infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) and self-propelled artillery (which, again, will be needed in the next decade or two anyway), there will be some new vehicle types. For example, the old command and control vehicles, which were customized IFVs with more radios and gadgets, will be even more customized, and available down to the company level (previously, battalion level.) In addition to a new armored ambulance (like the current one, based on an IFV, but without a turret), there will be a similar medical vehicle equipped for more extensive treatment of the wounded. Speed saves lives when it comes to treating the wounded. The battlefield Internet would allow the doctor in the treatment ambulance to get expert advice from other surgeons anywhere on the planet.
Another new armored vehicle (based on a rather more limited one used now) will be reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition armored vehicles, which will use the growing number of air and ground based sensors to find the enemy and immediately pass the information on to commanders and artillery and bombers.
Another growing category will be robots. Not only more UAVs and ground robots, but also “mules” (small, low slung, cargo carrying, golf cart like), which will have sensors and software that enable them to find their own way on the battlefield and, well, do the heavy lifting. Another battlefield robot will be autonomous mines that launch missiles, instead of top-attack anti-tank weapons (like the WAAM has been doing for over a decade). The new “Intelligent Munitions Systems” will be tied into a network and act as sensors as well as weapons. Combat robots are a major part of FCS that no one wants to talk about. Probably because combat robots are really, really scary, and the army doesn’t want to take a lot of heat for the battle droids before it can show them succeeding in combat. That will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan before too long.
The individual infantryman is getting new weapons, commo gear, sensors and "wearable computers." FCS is also about radical changes for the way all troops operate.
So, when you see any coverage of FCS in the future, remember that the really important stuff is networking, software and combat robots. And don't forget that the army is taking advantage of all the fighting it is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan to implement FCS. The fighting causes equipment and weapons to be destroyed or worn out at a high rate. The new gear is often FCS class stuff. The army is also testing a lot of the FCS ideas in combat. This is nothing new, as wartime always creates a call for new ideas and equipment. The army had actually tested many of the basic FCS commo ideas before 911, or the Iraq invasion, so using the stuff in combat (like Blue Force Tracker and all the UAVs) simply allows the troops to perfect the ideas and gear. Thus FCS is more than the hundred billion dollar procurement contracts that Congress concentrates on. FCS is slowly evolving within the army right now.