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Future Combat Systems: The US Army’s $18 Billion Modernization Flop?

M1 Abrams

A M1 Abrams from 5th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, fires a round during a Combined Arms Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX) at Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, Mar 26, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Hubert D. Delany III / 22nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The US Army’s future combat systems (FCS) program was a multiyear, $18 billion dollar acquisition program at the center of the Army’s transformation and modernization efforts.

Future Combat Systems, Explained

Formally launched in 2003, the program was scrapped by Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in 2009. At the time funding was pulled, FCS was largely seen to have gone nowhere and was dominated by a toxic and inefficient network of contractors and government departments. As one writer has put it: “an industry consortium led by Boeing and SAIC was effectively put in charge of overseeing its own performance.”

In the end, FCS was considered a complete failure. In order to have seen the program all the way through, $92 billion would have had to have been invested across decades. In addition to the expense, one additional reason was cited by Gates at the time: the need to move away from preparing for large-army, great power wars and toward counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. It goes without saying just how ironic this is in retrospect given the changing geopolitical environment the United States finds itself in today.

Future Combat Systems: The Idea

The program as originally conceived was expansive in scope and seen as high-risk even at the time it began. Its object was to research, develop, and produce an integrated platform of fourteen manned and unmanned systems tied together by advanced communication and sensor network.

Standard manned ground vehicles (MGV) such as the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles were to be replaced by lighter weight MGVs dependent on their advanced sensors, networking, and protection systems to avoid taking large hits.

One major problem, however, was that at the time no sufficiently effective lightweight armor composite systems existed to ensure a vehicle could continue operating after taking a massive hit. Though in the eyes of the FCS this would matter little, since advanced sensors would allow vehicles to avoid such a high-impact event, vehicles would need to be able to survive scenarios in which their sensors and advanced systems might be compromised or jammed.

Future Combat Systems: Not Entirely Dead

Interestingly enough, there are still shadows of FCS remaining today.

The Army still ended up with many of the core FCS elements and capabilities. For example, the development of the non-line-of-sight cannon for MGVs exists today at the M109A7 155-millimeter self-propelled Howitzer, which can provide the shoot-and-scoot capability FCS originally promised. FCS’ emphasis on robots and unmanned vehicles also lives on today in a growing emphasis on UAVs, as well as their ability to integrate with other platforms and share information in real time. This emphasis is further bolstered by the leaps in artificial intelligence technology of the last decade.

Thus, despite the perception that FCS was a total and complete failure, it is better described as being too ahead of its time. The program simply lacked the technological capabilities needed to develop a true “system of systems” as conceived by the program. Yet today, it is the employment of unmanned vehicles, advanced sensors, and artificial intelligence that will transform advanced fighting in the twenty-first century. Overpriced and badly timed, the FCS is still certainly a program from which the US military can learn.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review

Written By

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Hugh Pilgrim

    June 10, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Many things were correct. Many were used. The Army Pentagon leadership was flawed.

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