Army Modernization Takes Three Paths

August 17, 2009
By Henry S. Kenyon


The U.S. Army’s cancelled Future Combat Systems (FCS) program was intended to provide troops and their vehicles with a mobile, networked environment to enhance their situational awareness. A recent decision to restructure the program will see its initial components, including the network, Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) radios, ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), issued to all of the Army and Army National Guard’s 73 combat brigade teams.

Networks, sensors and robots deployed across the service, vehicles reconsidered.

The U.S. Army’s ambitious and controversial Future Combat Systems program to develop a family of networked combat vehicles, robots and sensors has been cancelled and is being broken up into three separate programs. These three divergent efforts will focus on new ground vehicles; technological upgrades, or spinouts, for all Army units; and network and software development. The changes are part of an undertaking to bring new capabilities into service over the next 15 years.

Restructuring the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program will distribute the technology across all of the Army’s combat brigades as opposed to 15 specialized brigades as originally envisioned. The changes include terminating the Manned Ground Vehicle (MGV) portion of the program and making the test and evaluation of the FCS mobile network its own program. The mobile network is planned to link all echelons into a mobile self-forming, high-bandwidth system. The restructured effort is called the Army Brigade Combat Team (BCT) Modernization.

Critics of FCS have praised the recent decision by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to create three distinct programs from the system. However, they caution that challenges remain in developing a mobile network architecture capable of scaling up to hundreds of users and operating under battlefield conditions.

Originally intended as a family of lightweight, networked vehicles relying less on armor and more on situational awareness for protection, the MGV part of FCS fell victim to combat data from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the threat of improvised explosive devices and other types of attacks in confined urban areas grew, planners increased the armor on the vehicles. Intended for airlift on C-130s, the U.S. Air Force’s most ubiquitous transport aircraft, the MGV’s increased weight limited them to larger C-17 and C-5 cargo haulers.

While work on the MGVs is being discontinued, the Army still requires a new family of manned vehicles. The successor to the MGV is the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV) program. Over the summer, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) has collected requirements and analysis to determine what type of platforms the service’s brigade combat teams will need in the future. TRADOC is scheduled to make its GCV recommendation by late September or early October of this year.

Funds for GCV contracts have been set aside in the Defense Department’s 2010 budget, but Army officials indicate that it is still too early to speculate about how the bidding process will proceed. The Army is facing termination liability costs with MGV prime contractor the Boeing Company, and these will require negotiation, Army officials say.

The Army also will determine what mature technologies can be moved from the original FCS to the three successor programs. Other systems and equipment, either from commercial sources or different programs or equipment currently in research and development, will be considered for these programs as well.

The various components of the original FCS program such as the network have passed their individual design reviews successfully over the last 12 months, permitting them to move to the next phase of evaluation. The technology and equipment will be ready for potential deployment as part of the spinouts to seven Army infantry brigades in 2011. Key parts of the network that passed preliminary design reviews were applications able to move imagery and complex data such as embedded training and unified battle command tools.

Tests in May 2009 demonstrated that all of the network’s components could operate while linked together. During the evaluation, the Army undertook several days of drills to determine how the network would operate under a variety of conditions such as irregular and regular warfare. Program officials claim that these tests demonstrated that the network can link manned, unmanned and non-line-of-sight fire support assets successfully. The networking component also is moving ahead in spinouts to the Army’s brigades and battalions (SIGNAL Magazine, August 2008).

Field tests of the remaining parts of the original FCS program will continue throughout the summer. These technology field tests are ongoing with the early spinouts and are in preparation for a limited user test that will be held during this month and September. Officials note that the tests will provide soldiers with hands-on experience on the various pieces of FCS equipment at the company and platoon levels.

Evaluations and spinouts in 2008 focused on providing B kits, packages of FCS equipment and software, to the heavy combat brigades. For 2009, the goal is to provide the new FCS equipment to the lighter infantry brigade combat teams, with the first unit being equipped in 2011. The current efforts focus on integrating systems onto high-mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle (HMMWV) platforms.

Until the May field tests, a majority of the FCS networking components had been operated by engineers, remarks Lt. Col. John Matthews, USA, assistant program manager for PM Infantry Brigade Combat team at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. He maintains that the summer’s tests are the first example of a complete integration of the various legacy and FCS systems onto current vehicle platforms. Once the equipment is issued, it will greatly enhance the commander’s capabilities. “A company commander and a platoon leader will have the same situational awareness that currently is at a brigade TOC [tactical operation center],” he says.

This summer’s series of evaluations and systems integrations is in preparation for the limited user test. The limited user test will evaluate equipment such as the non-line-of-sight launch system (NLOS-LS), the tactical and urban unattended ground sensors, the Class 1 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), small unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) and the network integration kit. Col. Matthews explains that the integration of B kits is the heart of this effort because it introduces the FCS network into current force vehicles and links with existing capabilities such as the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) and Blue Force Tracker systems.


A key part of the FCS network component as it is spun out to Army units is to interoperate with existing command and control applications such as the Blue Force Tracker.

The B kits consist of multiband antennas capable of receiving from the single channel ground and airborne radio system (SINCGARS) and enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS), as well as soldier waveforms and FCS waveforms. Another part of the B kit is the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) ground and mobile (GMR) radio. “We are the first folks to really flush out a lot of issues with the GMR and JTRS systems,” the colonel says.

The JTRS radios installed in the B kits operate four channels: two dedicated to SINCGARS, one for the command network and the other for the local network, the soldier radio waveform and the wideband network waveform. The soldier radio waveform also creates the gateway linking the networks supporting the unattended ground sensors, UGV and UAV platforms. The wideband network waveform is the main transport layer for data across the system as information is passed from vehicle to vehicle and up to battalion headquarters.

As part of the program’s restructuring, the initial BCT modernization capability originally included in the spinouts will be issued to seven brigades and later to all 73 of the Army and Army National Guard’s brigade combat teams by 2025. Program officials explain that the service is taking incremental steps to equip vehicles with the networking systems and caution that this process will take time to finish.

Army planners also are considering the future deployment of other systems developed for FCS, such as the Class 4 UAVs, the Mule UGVs and a common controller device for all the unmanned systems. The Class 4 UAV is a small unmanned helicopter while the Mule UGV is a large wheeled multimission robot designed to support ground troops. Officials note that the controller has passed its evaluations successfully, but soldier feedback indicates that the device is still very heavy for infantry use.

The FCS program office will be formally restructured in the fall. Although officials are unsure about the exact shape and responsibilities of the new organization, they speculate that it will be more focused on supporting the Army’s brigade combat teams.

Although the networking component has progressed and will be the focus of its own program, many challenges still remain to field and test an ad hoc mobile network successfully. A staffer with the U.S. House Armed Services Committee who is knowledgeable about the FCS program and military communications notes that the first goal for FCS Spinout 1 is to achieve an initial level of networking by 2012. He explains that this will be the proof of concept for the service’s network architecture. The U.S. military operates a fixed-base network in Iraq and Afghanistan. This infrastructure has allowed the Army to use commercial products to improve its networks over time. However, he says, the great challenge of the FCS network is creating a mobile network with a similar or higher level of bandwidth, adding that such a network does not yet exist.

Achieving this mobile capability was always the key leap of the technology, the staffer says. The initial proof of concept test in 2012 will use an infantry brigade to test mobile, ad hoc networking. He notes that the test is a modest step because a brigade is equipped with 84 JTRS GMR radios and a variety of other radio types linked to the JTRS systems. The staffer believes that the FCS successor network will be hierarchical because no current software system can manage a 400- to 500- node, fully mobile network. He explains that the routing traffic alone would eat up such a large network.

The staffer predicts that the FCS network probably will be broken up into subnetworks. He notes that it is not possible to manage such a large network in any other way, explaining that a network of that size would be difficult to operate in a fixed civilian network. But the FCS network must be flexible, able to work in any terrain and be self-forming. Military wireless networks also must carry a substantial level of security encryption that is far above a civilian network’s requirements. If the Army can produce a fully mobile brigade-level network by 2012, it will be an achievement, the staffer remarks.

The other components of FCS, such as the JTRS radios, have evolved out of their problem-ridden early stages and are making progress, the staffer notes. One issue with the JTRS GMR program is its cost, which originally was funded at around $370 million, but now exceeds $1.4 billion. However, the program is making its technical milestones, he says. Another area for potential difficulty is the wideband networking waveform designed to move data, images, video and data across the network. The key challenge is scaling up the network to operate across hundreds of nodes.

This year the JTRS program office is conducting its first 30-node test with early versions of the GMR radios. This experiment is the initial attempt to operate an ad hoc, truly mobile network, the staffer observes. He adds that Congress has always supported the idea of a wireless secure military network, a wireless battlefield Internet. But creating such a network is challenging, and he questions whether the Army can achieve this goal with its current schedule and costs.

Another area for concern and consideration is the application layer where the FCS battle command software resides. The Army’s current battle command software runs on the Windows operating system while the FCS software uses the program’s system of systems common operating environment (SOSCOE). The staffer relates that the Army’s goal is to move to one set of battle command software, but such a move is a challenge because of the number of legacy systems that must be replaced or modified to operate in the new environment. However, he adds that the service has not definitely stated that the SOSCOE-based battle command software will be the successor to current applications.

Despite concerns about the network, the staffer is positive about the networking component being moved to a separate program, which will greatly improve the networking program’s chances of success, he says. The staffer notes that the original idea for FCS was to use commercial equipment and technology to deploy the system quickly and then upgrade it over time. Instead, the service deferred its decision making to the contractors, which led to its cost and development problems, he contends. But he is hopeful that the program’s new direction will produce useful technology and equipment for the Army.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command:
Joint Tactical Radio System:

The Army Looks Beyond FCS

The changes affecting the Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program are part of a larger effort initiated by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to modernize the service. Cancelling and breaking up FCS represents an opportunity for change, explains Rickey Smith, director of the Training and Doctrine Command’s (TRADOC’s) Army Capabilities Integration Center-Forward in Arlington, Virginia. Smith also is tasked as deputy director and chief of staff for Task Force 120 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, which was charged in May to produce products supporting the Army’s modernization plan in 120 days.

Smith describes his responsibility as a series of force design updates that must meet both resource and fiscal limits. The upgrades apply to the network as much as individual pieces of the FCS kit such as the robots and ground sensors. His group currently is undertaking the force design reviews, which will allow Army leaders to make decisions about the shape of the future force. Smith’s task force must deliver these assessments and new program shifts to the Defense Department by Labor Day (September 7).

Another part of Smith’s responsibility is to accelerate and expand the spinout process. He notes that while the term spinout was applied to the FCS program, it also is a method to apply successfully tested items and combat-proven solutions to the Army’s brigade combat teams. The spinouts will operate in two-year increment cycles. Smith emphasizes that the spinouts go beyond the equipment already being issued to units. He explains that while equipment such as robots and sensors can be viewed as small additions to a unit, they also represent a rapid change in a unit’s capabilities. Smith cites the current Army network as an example of enabling technologies that can be improved. “The network we have in theater today is better than any we’ve ever had. But at the same time, there are even better improvements available. Do you want to give it [improved technology] to everybody or some [units]?” he states.

All of these cyclic issues relating to deployment and equipping are being considered as the Army reviews the capability sets and capability packages. The sets include the FCS network and other items that are proven solutions for operational need in theater.

At the same time that the Army is inserting the network and spinout portions of FCS, it is reconsidering and revising the ground combat vehicle part of the program. The new vehicle will have network items in it, but its design will be influenced from lessons learned in Southwest Asia. Smith notes that Secretary Gates has indicated that funding will be preserved in the Army’s budget for new vehicle development.

These considerations will be applied to the Army’s budget for the 2011 fiscal year. He adds that the opportunity for the FCS/Army network, based on the supplemental funding, is huge. But the key is to remain integrated. “You don’t want to bring in something that can’t play on the network because it didn’t go through NSA [National Security Agency] certification, as an example,” he says.

Smith’s first responsibility was to gather data on the Army’s existing systems. This has allowed the task force to form a view of the existing integrated architecture. From this information, the group is mapping what can be achieved in the 2011-2012 fiscal year sets within existing funding projections. But to map the Army’s integrated network architecture and all of its equipment and software—recently purchased systems and items in the inventory—must be cataloged down to the data standard level. “Because if you can’t figure out all the waveform sets, you’re not going to be interoperable today,” he maintains.

Although TRADOC does not control the funding for the Army modernization effort, Smith explains that it serves as a central coordination and reference point for the rest of the service’s components. The command allows the various aspects of the service to negotiate and discuss how to share applications and capabilities across operations.

The final outcome of the task force’s work most likely will be a compromise. “It’ll probably look ugly, but it will be as good as we can get it. And then we will continue to shift from that known point so that the network chunks—the two-year sets—align with the capability packages. If the BCTs [brigade combat teams] are in the first focus, then let’s move on to support brigades. Because a network that doesn’t connect all of them [Army force components], doesn’t really help you,” he says.

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