The Army wants to modernize -- and Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn't sure he wants to pay. Among the budget cuts he announced yesterday was a major hit to the Army's most ambitious new weapons program, Future Combat Systems (FCS). Under Gates's proposed budget, a set of FCS fighting vehicles that was supposed to provided light-brigade speed with heavy-brigade punch will be axed entirely. And you know what? Maybe that's okay. The core of what makes FCS futuristic is its ambitious wireless network, which will connect soldiers, surveillance drones and sensors, giving everyone more and better information than ever before.
Author James Vlahos explains how it's all supposed to work in this article, from our May issue.
Wall-E went to Iraq.
The small robot rolled out of the desert scrub into a village, paused between two houses, and then approached the closer one. His square head swiveled around, unblinking camera eyes surveying the structure. The sound of shuffling boots filled the air as six U.S. Army soldiers rushed in behind him, assault rifles drawn. Reaching the building he'd scoped, they took cover inside. The robot, meanwhile, whirred on tank treads to investigate the second house. The building had no door, and he rolled inside easily. The soldiers followed. Bang, bang! Gunfire erupted, and moments later the Americans emerged unscathed. The two insurgents inside the house weren't as lucky.
My view of the Showdown at the Baghdad Corral came from atop the roof of the first building, where I stood with two Army colonels and a brigadier general, a cadre of defense-industry contractors, a couple of reporters, and a cameraman from Al Jazeera. For some reason, we were all wearing helmets, even though this wasn't a live-fire exercise. The shootout had been staged at Adobe Village, an Army training facility at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the robot was a prototype of a reconnaissance 'bot known as the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle, or SUGV (pronounced "sug-vee"). Transmitting live imagery back to a helmet-mounted display worn by one of the soldiers, the robot had conveyed that the first building was safely empty, while the second contained insurgents who were rigging a bomb. Tipped off, the soldiers were able to execute a successful raid and "kill" the bad guys.
The waist-high SUGV is at the forefront of more than just pretend infantry assaults. It's one of the first technologies to emerge from a program called Future Combat Systems, the most ambitious Army modernization effort since World War II. The Army traditionally develops weapons in isolation -- a new tank here, a helicopter there. But FCS, scheduled for full deployment by 2015, was conceived from the ground up as a unified family: eight armored vehicles, three robotic transports, a suite of battlefield sensors, unmanned aerial and terrestrial surveillance crafts, and a guided missile launcher. Each component boasts better-than-before features (the SUGV, for instance, weighs less than 30 pounds, half as much as the robotic scouts currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan), but stacked spec sheets aren't the main point. The key innovation is that the pieces will work as a coordinated team linked by a wireless network -- interconnection that the Army says will revolutionize the way war is fought.The FCS vision combines the best of laser-guided munitions, robotics, and Facebook. Mouse clicks steer missiles and drones, computers display the locations of combatants like restaurant icons on a GPS unit, picture messages show insurgent hideouts, and Twitter-like posts provide intelligence updates. Imagine a platoon of 50 soldiers spread out over a few miles, some on foot and some in Humvees, some out in the open and some inside buildings. Each soldier is linked to the other fighters in the area. He or she can receive pictures from a SUGV, intelligence from the command post, and information such as vibrations from tank treads and traces of biological weapons from unattended sensors. The objective is to make soldiers more precise about identifying targets and more lethal once they do; to harness Web-style connectivity to reduce the fog of war.
The goal is unimpeachable. It's the execution that's under fire. The cost of FCS has risen at least 45 percent since its inception in 2003, with the Army putting the final tally at $161 billion and an independent review by the Department of Defense estimating up to $234 billion. Either way, FCS, a dog's breakfast of 896 contractors in 45 states, is the most expensive weapons program in Army history. In March 2008, the Government Accountability Office reported that progress so far is "well short of a program halfway through its development schedule and its budget" and that "only two of FCS's 44 critical technologies have reached a level of maturity that . . . should have been demonstrated at program start." The most critical unproven technology is the network itself, which is relying on a system of high-bandwidth radios that is still being developed. Without it, FCS collapses like a house of cards.single page
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