Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Great Leap Forward

The NYT reports that the Army is having problems developing the Future Combat System, the family of networked armored vehicles that will be light and lethal and which will replace our heavy armor.

Says the Times:

Paul L. Francis, the acquisition and sourcing management director for the accountability office, told Congress that the Army was building Future Combat Systems without the data it needed to guide it. "If everything goes as planned, the program will attain the level of knowledge in 2008 that it should have had before it started in 2003," Mr. Francis said in written testimony. "But things are not going as planned."

He warned that Future Combat Systems, in its early stages of research and development, was showing signs typical of multibillion-dollar weapons programs that cost far more than expected and deliver fewer weapons than promised. Future Combat is a network of 53 crucial technologies, he said, and 52 are unproven.

I've been a bit skeptical of the military's plans to dump heavy armor for light vehicles. I particularly noted the ambitious technology goals:

Although different authors project capabilities, some ordinary and some fantastic, the overall tenor of the debate has a science fair quality. If you could wish for a future combat vehicle, it would be nice to receive one that was beyond your wildest dreams. Reality is likely to be far less comforting in its ability to reconcile the Army’s need for power and deployability. It must not count on fielding a system that “pushes the boundaries of technology well beyond what is achievable today.” It may be as reasonable just to skip the inconvenient task of building an FCS and just wish for victory.

We make a terrible mistake if we assume that victory is a given and that we have only to get to the battlefield faster in order to harvest our assured victory more quickly. Worried about US forces going into battle with nineteen ton tanks? No problem, we'll just shoot the enemy first!

The wonder tank will not be built. We are pushing the boundaries of technology and we aren't meeting the timelines we assume we will make. We need a more evolutionary backup plan for the day when our Abrams and Bradleys wear out and the FCS doesn't quite pan out as we hope.

UPDATE: The New York Times editorializes about the dangers of the FCS program:

One frustrating thing about futuristic weapons is that the future does not always turn out the way people expected at the start of the decades it takes to design, develop and produce them.

Indeed. Our assumptions have changed. Look at what we have based on our old assumptions. We have a light Stryker that didn't need to be airlifted into Iraq fast being uparmored for combat and the armor is insufficient while harming the mobility of the vehicle. With the FCS, we want a 19-ton tank (it will have banded tracks, I just read, and not wheels) that can be easily airlifted to replace a 70-ton Abrams and its lighter cousin the Bradley. We may get a 40-ton tank that can't be airlifted and won't be protected enough. Much like the German World War II pocket battleships that were advertised as able to outfight anything it couldn't outrun and able to outrun anything it couldn't outfight. In practice, it was a ship that couldn't sink anything it could catch and couldn't catch anything it could sink.