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Army Builds Future Combat Systems Around Information Technologies

November 2002
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Interoperability is made obsolete by inherent synergy.

The rapidly transforming U.S. Army is developing an entire force of next-generation fighting systems around information technology capabilities. This force, which is being designed from the bottom up to suit the requirements of the 21st century, will incorporate a host of new technologies that will work in concert to achieve desired warfighting goals.

Achieving a stated goal of deploying a fighting force into a theater within 96 hours of a deployment decision will require troops that are lighter and more mobile than the existing units that form the backbone of the Army’s overwhelming superiority. These lighter forces must ensure soldier survivability by striking an enemy before it can launch its own attacks on personnel and platforms. This requires a coordinated combination of sensing, networked situational awareness and lethality.

At the root of this effort is the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. The lead systems integrator for FCS is the Boeing Company, Chicago. The program has completed its first round of industry responses. Issues may range from types of munitions to vehicles, and may involve tradeoffs between advanced sensors and platform survivability. The recently completed second program review set the stage for large-scale integration.

“Any way you look at it, the FCS is going to be one of the Army’s largest-ever investments,” says Jerry W. McElwee, Boeing vice president and program manager for FCS.

FCS forces will be the first choice for rapid insertion of highly lethal combat capabilities, McElwee warrants. The force will be transportable aboard C-130 aircraft for deployment intra-theater within 96 hours. Designing the various platforms to fit inside a C-130 is no simple task, McElwee notes. However, designers across the defense industry—both in the United States and abroad—are working out the compromises necessary to achieve this goal, he states.

The FCS system-of-systems approach is at the heart of developing a capability that extends across the breadth of force structure. “Obviously, we have designed and put together brigade-size organizations, but we have never had the opportunity to identify the requirements for all of the pieces and parts that go into that brigade at one time,” McElwee states. “This opportunity is almost unprecedented in anyone’s history.”

This approach also leaves room for technology insertion, either through block upgrades or spiral development. For example, major changes to a manned or unmanned platform might be undertaken in a block upgrade. However, much of the system is based on networks, and they will be upgraded through spiral development. McElwee explains that this will apply whether for a sensor linked to the network or for a command, control and communications device. These elements tend to undergo their biggest changes through software improvements.

The FCS program is addressing or affecting virtually every part of the Army’s deployed force. FCS deals with platforms down to the infantry carrying vehicle. At the individual warfighter level, the Objective Force Warrior (OFW) program addresses the dismounted soldier’s gear, including sensors and communications equipment. Both will need to interoperate, especially when the soldier is inside the infantry carrier vehicle. The mounted soldier must have access to all the applicable information available in the network, McElwee points out. And, when the soldier dismounts and moves individually on the battlefield, he must remain connected to the larger network regardless of operational location.

Networking this individual soldier to the FCS system may have its roots in commercial wireless links, McElwee suggests. Cellular telephony allows individuals to network into multiple locations, and the growth of this technology is adding capabilities such as advanced messaging and Web access. “Simplistically, we are talking about that same sort of capability to dismounted soldiers,” McElwee observes.

The difficulty may lie in providing full situational awareness to these individual soldiers. FCS can provide that capability in real time by linking the soldiers back to sensor feeds going into the infantry carrier vehicle, which generates a common operating picture that can be shared with the dismounted soldier. Early attempts at providing that information to the soldier have involved personal digital assistant devices. While these devices have worked, they also have distracted the soldiers’ attention from their tasks at hand—survivability under fire, for example. “We don’t have all the answers there, although the OFW people are working hard at that,” McElwee allows. “The mission from FCS’ perspective is to ensure that, whatever they [OFW experts] decide is the most effective human-machine interface, that our network is prepared to support that interface.”

McElwee adds that the Army also lacks a robust radio for the dismounted soldier. The U.S. Defense Department’s Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) Cluster 2 (SIGNAL, August, page 47), along with other handheld radio programs that could be adapted, may fill that need. “From the FCS perspective, we would like to ensure that whatever is developed is fully compatible with the JTRS wideband networking algorithms,” McElwee contends. “That is where most of the information is going to flow within FCS, so it is incredibly important that we not have too difficult an interface between the JTRS networks supporting FCS and the radio supporting OFW.”

When an FCS force is deployed in its 96-hour window, it will enter the theater with the ability to “see first” at extended ranges using its own sensors as well as tapping other reconnaissance and surveillance assets. Data could come from the next higher headquarters, whether division or corps headquarters; from a joint task force; and from national assets. These linkages are critical to provide the necessary synergy from all the available sensor systems covering the theater of operations, McElwee warrants.

This represents a significant break from the past. Previously, sensor systems largely fed division- or brigade-level decision makers. With FCS, the information gathered from higher headquarters could be moved down to the tactical field decision makers. McElwee offers that the “see first” concepts will move that information to the echelon that needs it. The dismounted infantryman linked to his squad leader will be augmented by additional sensors that feed the squad, platoon or company.

McElwee emphasizes that FCS will feature organic sensors at platoon, company, battalion and brigade levels. These sensors will allow a company commander, or even a platoon leader, to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or guide an unmanned ground vehicle with sensors and weapon systems to a critical spot in his particular battlespace. This would empower the tactical leader to view the battlefield better or direct munitions from non-line-of-sight weapon systems to targets, all without being observed by the enemy. “That is new. We think that it is a powerful increase to the overall capability of the FCS-equipped unit of action,” McElwee declares.

Increases in bandwidth and connectivity are not the true definition of the transformation embodied by FCS, McElwee states. “The real measure of the value of FCS is how well it sees first—how the sensors provide information to the soldiers that need to make decisions in real time,” he explains. “And, once they have that information, there [must be] processors, fusion engines, correlation engines and map backgrounds that help soldiers understand almost immediately what they are seeing and its implications for them.”

Soldiers will be able to identify targets that they want to attack, and they can tap a wide range of munitions to employ against the targets. These munitions can range from personal weapons, to platform-based systems, to non-line-of-sight weapons and to joint forces in the theater. All this capability is possible simply because the soldier is a participant in the network, McElwee warrants.

The digitization efforts that linked diverse systems in a single network helped drive the transformation of the Army. However, those efforts did not represent the last word in connectivity. McElwee relates that the latency in the movement of information from one platform to another “was on the upper end of what we thought we needed” to move situational awareness data around the digitized division. That latency problem has improved with the introduction of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) system along with continuing modifications to the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) and the enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS).

However, they are bandwidth constrained, he notes. On the other hand, the JTRS threshold requirements for its wideband networking waveform is 2 megabits per second, and its objective is 5 megabits per second. That amount of bandwidth in a networking waveform represents about a 50-fold increase over current capabilities, McElwee says. The additional bandwidth will be used to reduce latency and increase the amount of information that can be received by individual soldiers.

According to Donald DePree, director of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) for FCS at Boeing, the biggest information technology challenge facing FCS is the scalability of the network within the unit of action in the theater of operations. Many current networks have thousands of nodes, but they have fixed bases. The FCS network will have upwards of thousands of nodes and will be on the move in a highly dynamic environment. Accordingly, near-term efforts are focusing on simulations leading to a scalability demonstration with some fielded systems.

Scalability issues likely will include quality of service, latency of data and connectivity, DePree continues. As FCS units deploy off the ramp of the C-130 delivering them to the theater, they self-join the network, which continues to grow as the unit of action is employed. “Understanding how that is going to work, how we will put that together, and what the quality-of-service parameters are is our number-one technical challenge,” he says.

This self-forming heterogeneous network will differ from traditional networks in its mobility. “This network, and everything on it, is on the move,” DePree explains. “There are no fixed command posts/control centers. You no longer have tent city command posts that you set up to run the operation. The commanders are up in the units and moving with them to maintain the operation’s tempo.

“So, within the network itself, we need to develop and implement all those network-control functions so that the network is managing itself as entities join and leave it. As demands grow in areas of the network, [these demands] must be balanced across the network,” he points out.

Each member of the unit of action truly is a network node, he continues, and each of these “islands” must be tied together so that command and control is exercised across the entire network. And, each of these nodes has its own functions for which situational awareness data must be moved to it.

For the dismounted soldier, this means receiving needed data and being able to pull data that is necessary for situation assessment. The system also must push vital data, such as alarms and alerts, to the soldier. Distributed information management comes into play with the ability to provide any network node with its needed data. This may involve fused data from various sensors to create a real-time situational awareness picture. These requirements also exist for each vehicle tied into the network.

UAV payloads likely will include radar, infrared and electro-optic sensors. Ground vehicles will feature equivalent sensors, with long-wave and mid-wave infrared sensors. Unattended ground sensor networks will include acoustic devices as well as other equipment.

In addition to organic UAV and other ground and airborne platforms, FCS will have inherent capabilities to tap into joint and national ISR assets, DePree continues. This will permit pooling data to generate the appropriate situational awareness assessment for each unit. Those at the unit-of-action level will have the ability to reach that data, and the unit will require interfaces to some legacy systems that draw this data. DePree reports that planners are still determining the level of direct access to these assets.

The manned platforms, the design of which currently is under study, must meet some fixed criteria. Foremost among these is C-130 transportability, which limits vehicle weight and size. Related requirements focus on onboard survivability against enemy actions. Building a lighter vehicle precludes the type of heavy armor characteristic of the Abrams tank family, and eliminating more than 50 tons of armor protection will require other measures to improve vehicle survivability.

The extensive sensor network in which these vehicles will operate should increase their survivability, McElwee notes. Enhanced sensor suites will provide vehicle operators and their commanders with awareness of enemy assets before they can engage the vehicles with heavy fire. The goal is to detect the enemy first and destroy them or bypass them to make them irrelevant (SIGNAL, July, page 31).

Once deployed, these FCS platforms must be extremely mobile on the ground. McElwee reports that the current requirements document specifies that the vehicles move at a speed of 90 kilometers per hour (56 miles per hour) on traditional roads and about 50 kilometers per hour (30 miles per hour) over country terrain. These vehicles also must be able to travel over 1,000 kilometers (625 miles) without refueling.

Platform weapon systems would provide increased accuracy in direct line-of-sight engagements, and the beyond-line-of-sight capability would engage targets as far away as 10 kilometers (6.25 miles) for the FCS tank-type vehicle and 30 kilometers (18.75 miles) for artillery munitions. Missile systems would have even greater ranges. The goal is to combine mobility with a robust lethality package on each platform, McElwee states.

Onboard weapons largely would resemble today’s heavy vehicle systems, McElwee allows. The FCS infantry carrier will have a primary weapon system with a range of about 1,500 meters, along with a secondary system. The beyond-line-of-sight weapon system will employ a suite of sensors to provide position location data back to the weapon.

A non-line-of-sight weapon system, which will serve as the FCS artillery piece, will feature a range of 30 kilometers and will include links with airborne and ground sensors. The caliber of this weapon remains to be determined.

In addition, FCS will feature missiles known as loitering air munitions and precision air munitions. These munitions, under development by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), offer 60-kilometer (38-mile) range.

As conventional as these munitions are, FCS planners are not relying exclusively on traditional weaponry. McElwee offers that other more exotic technologies are under consideration, with issues largely being technical maturity and expected availability date. A magnetic railgun, for example, might not be ready for a block 1 vehicle, but it might be incorporated in a block 2 version. Its advantages include improvements in ammunition and logistics support, but challenges remain in achieving the necessary level of electrical energy for firing the weapon. Meanwhile, recycling standard weapons such as the 120-millimeter smoothbore gun on the Abrams offers advantages in familiarity, reliability and commonality of ammunition.

McElwee explains that the company’s role as prime integrator includes laying out the full range of costs and alternatives so that the Army can choose whether to rely on tried-and-true technologies or to opt for break-ahead systems.

Afghanistan Lessons Applied to Future Combat Systems

Several experiences gleaned in Afghanistan already are influencing plans for the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS). The primary lesson learned involves networking, relates Jerry W. McElwee, Boeing vice president and program manager for FCS. “It’s incredibly important to link not only the ground forces but also the joint forces that you have operating in the theater,” he says. As a part of that network, situational awareness identification of friend and foe is a byproduct of having a robust, capable network.

Another lesson learned that is driving FCS design is having immediate, responsive fires that are organic to the unit of action, McElwee states. Several platforms are mortar-capable with a requirement for precision-guided mortar munitions with a range of up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles). McElwee relates several instances in Afghanistan where ground forces needed immediate responsive fires against targets on the move, as opposed to precision-guided munitions from aircraft that might take a few crucial minutes to arrive.

“The B-52 was very responsive and very capable, but you couldn’t always have it coordinated to be on orbit in the area that you needed it in the time in which you actually needed it,” McElwee explains. “There are stories of soldiers coming under mortar fire having to maneuver with squad munitions against mortar emplacements. That is not a case of where you ‘see first, understand first and act decisively.’ That is a case of, ‘we ran into these guys, and now we are going to have to keep our heads down until somebody can come in and take them out or we assault.’

“We will avoid that with the suite of capabilities being built into the unit of action,” McElwee declares.