With such noble goals, why does FCS have so many doubters in Washington? Paul Francis, who authored the GAO's March 2008 report to Congress, describes the fundamental problem as one of putting the cart before the horse. The network is the key to FCS, and yet the Army dove into building every piece of equipment before proving the core network technologies that would connect them. If some of these don't pan out, major aspects of FCS may have to be scrapped and rethought.
The fate of the network and, therefore, of FCS, hangs principally on those JTRS radios, which will serve as the primary means of connection. But the JTRS program, launched in 1997, has been so plagued by delays and cost overruns that some components were nearly canceled before the program was reorganized and transferred from Army to Department of Defense oversight in 2005. To be sure, the technological challenges are significant. Features like the ability for the radios to assemble themselves into ad-hoc networks have little precedent, even in the civilian world. The JTRS radios must be compatible with all preexisting military radio systems, adding to the complexity of the software needed to run them. Because they can't rely on cell towers to pick up and relay signals, they must radiate 10 to 20 times the energy of a cellphone and have bigger antennas. All these attributes must be crammed into packages small and light enough so that overburdened soldiers can carry them or fit them into cramped vehicles and robots. Yet the cost per unit must be relatively low because they will be widely deployed.
FCS's manned vehicles are a case study of the promise and peril of relying on as-yet-unproven technologies -- the JTRS radios, as well as new, lightweight armor and a missile-detection system. The Army has long been confounded by the fact that its heavy brigades have battle-winning weaponry but take too long to deploy, while light brigades are fleet but firepower-light. FCS offers a solution in the form of vehicles that pack heavy-brigade punch with light-brigade speed, deployable to anywhere in the world in 96 hours or less. This is possible in part because each vehicle weighs as little as half that of similar previous vehicles.
I got to check out one of the FCS vehicles, the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C). The interior wasn't so different from that of the family minivan. After I lowered myself through a narrow hatch into the prototype, the first controls I noticed on the dash were those for the air conditioning and high beams. The gas and brake pedals were underfoot. I could just hit the power button, roll off the warehouse floor, and lay waste to the nearest Wal-Mart.
The NLOS-C, heir apparent to the Army's M109 Paladin -- a self-propelled howitzer widely deployed in armored divisions -- is one of the eight manned vehicles in FCS. Featuring the Army's first hybrid-electric drive, the NLOS-C is designed for a common counterinsurgency challenge: trying to attack foes who strike quickly and disappear. Col. Robert McVay, an Iraq veteran who is the NLOS-C's product manager, describes how "the insurgents would set up a 127-millimeter rocket launcher, fire on us, and then take off within two to three minutes." The Paladin takes that long just to get ready to fire. But the NLOS-C can get off a shot within 30 seconds of receiving coordinates because the fire system is automated; the vehicle needs a crew of two rather than the Paladin's five because soldiers don't have to manually hoist 100-pound shells into the breach. The weapon fires up to six rounds a minute -- three times as fast as the Paladin -- and can change the trajectory of each shell so that they all hit nearly simultaneously, depriving the enemy of the opportunity to take cover after the first shell strikes.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.