Armor: The Future Sneaks Up On You


May 13, 2009: The U.S. Army is caught in the middle of a debate over  its future. Many politicians want to turn the army into a force specializing in irregular warfare (as seen in Iraq and Afghanistan). Many generals, and some politicians, warn that the army is still needed for conventional warfare, against a foe with lots of armor, aircraft and trained troops. While the army still contains many armored unit (about half the 45 brigades are equipped with tanks and other armored vehicles), many of the tank crews have gone to Iraq and served as infantry. In the last five years, very little mechanized warfare training has been done. The troops train for Iraq and Afghanistan, which means infantry fighting. 

But there has been another development, which is largely overlooked. And that is the fact that the army and marines have been able to upgrade their fighting capabilities considerably in the course of fighting this irregular war. That has produced American ground forces that are combat experienced, and equipped with new, and combat proven, technology. This would be a powerful weapon in any kind of war.

This happened because of all the money that has been spent to support the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. The war on terror has cost over a trillion dollars so far. Over 90 percent of that has gone to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the costs go to construction, transportation and hiring of civilian contractors (mainly for support jobs, but also for security work.) Putting reservists on full time duty status has also been expensive, but not as much as the higher paid civilians.

About fifteen percent of the money goes to buying and repairing equipment and weapons. The war effort is building lots of spiffy new bases, but it is also enabling the army and marines to upgrade their weapons and equipment, while, at the same time, making sure that new stuff works in combat. The army and marines are quite happy with this, but keeping quiet about how they are, in the process, obtaining new stuff they didn't expect to see for another decade. Compared to past wars, not a lot of ammunition has been used, and this accounts for less than one percent of all costs.

Meanwhile, a decade ago, the U.S. Army came up with an ambitious, and expensive, plan to replace much of its Cold War era weapons and gear with a new generation of stuff. This is what the Department of Defense has decided to cut back on. The replacement program was called FCS (Future Combat Systems). FCS got a lot of media attention because it promised 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 (to its users) 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. The new equipment troops have received for Iraq and Afghanistan operations have, in effect, created the battlefield Internet. Not on purpose, just in the course of giving the troops new gear that will help them win and survive. This has worked, as U.S. troops have fought over the last eight years and suffered a casualty rate a third of what was experienced in Vietnam and World War II. This is unprecedented, and much marveled at by foreign military experts. The U.S. ground forces have become the most effective in history. The U.S. media has not picked up on this, but Chinese and Russian generals and military planners have.

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. Capabilities like this have already evolved in Iraq and Afghanistan. The army doesn't call this FCS, but, for all practical purposes, it is.

Another new FCS 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 FCS 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 has already happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. The individual infantryman is already getting new weapons, commo gear, sensors and "wearable computers." FCS is also about radical changes for the way all troops operate. But it's already happened.

So, when you see any coverage of FCS, 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 replacement 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 September 11, 2001, or the Iraq invasion, so using that gear in combat (like Blue Force Tracker and all the UAVs) simply allows the troops to perfect the ideas and hardware. Thus FCS is more than the hundred billion dollar procurement contracts that Congress concentrates on. FCS is slowly evolving within the army right now, even as the official budget for these innovative systems is cut.





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