By Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
With several of the big networking initiatives begun during Donald Rumsfeld's tenure as defense secretary beginning to implode, many observers are curious why the Army remains so committed to its Future Combat Systems (FCS) program. That vast collection of communication links and next-generation vehicles is the centerpiece of Army modernization, but the service has never found a compelling way of explaining it to outsiders and the Army traditionally has been more about people than hardware.
Why cling to FCS when there are more pressing needs and almost nobody on Capitol Hill seems to understand the program?
The answer to this question can be found not in Army budget documents or doctrinal pronouncements, but in the casualty reports from Iraq. During the first four weeks of the new year, 22 American military personnel have died in action, and 21 of them were soldiers. America's Army is taking a beating in Iraq, not just in terms of the toll in men and materiel, but also in terms of its reputation for being the world's preeminent practitioner of land warfare.
Even now, with the Bush Administration's eleventh-hour surge of forces in Iraq showing impressive signs of tactical success, the Army seems to be saying that the only way it can get a handle on insurgencies is to greatly outnumber the enemy. Obviously, that approach wouldn't be feasible in places like Pakistan, where the number of insurgents might be some multiple of what we face today in Iraq. Unless the Army finds a better way of waging war, it could suffer horrendous losses in future wars while still failing to secure national objectives. Future Combat Systems is the closest thing the service has to a real solution.
The basic logic of FCS can be distilled down to four words: connection, detection, protection and projection. Connection means that every soldier will be continuously linked to all friendly forces in an area, able to see what they see and exploit what capabilities they possess to influence the fight. Detection means that by leveraging this pervasive network of sensors and communications links, soldiers will be able to uncover and counter enemy movements before they produce tactical consequences. Protection means that soldiers will be less vulnerable to all forms of attack. And projection means they will be able to reach objectives quickly with the capabilities needed to survive and win.
Although it has always been the goal of soldiers to know where their friends and enemies were on the battlefield, FCS taps into a range of new technologies to provide gains in situational awareness that wouldn't have been possible in the past. And because each soldier shares the knowledge and capabilities of all, the force can generate much greater war-fighting leverage without a proportional increase in investment or headcount. That's why the service believes it can remake its approach to warfare while spending only four percent of its budget on FCS over the next several decades.
Of course, none of this is a substitute for being able to understand what that fellow with the AK-47 is shouting at you from across the street. Ground combat will never be just about technology. But technology has traditionally been a source of strength for U.S. forces, and 80% of the 3,000 operational needs statements generated by soldiers in Iraq relate to capabilities FCS was designed to field.
Critics who doubt the value of robots in fighting insurgents need to realize that U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are already using 4,000 robots (and a thousand unmanned air vehicles) to very good effect, even before FCS sees combat. So, much of what FCS delivers is what soldiers want today -- the Army just needs to tell that story better.