GAO Future Combat Systems Report: 2008
The USA’s $160+ billion Future Combat Systems program aims to replace at least 1/3 of the USA’s land forces. The program’s original mandate had its components replacing the USA’s heavy armor, but that plan collided with the reality of front-line experience in Iraq. FCS is now slated to be a set of medium forces that are slightly more deployable than a Heavy Brigade Combat Team, but still cannot fit into the C-130s that are expected to make up the USA’s tactical airlifter fleet. The concept of an integrated set of vehicles, robots, sensors, and UAVs, all backed by a high-performance network, remains.
The US Government Accountability Office has been asked to report on the program every year, and its 2008 report suggests that FCS is reaching a critical stage on 2 fronts: system design and development, and software design and development. Their overall 2008 report says that…
“The progress made during the year by the FCS program, in terms of knowledge gained, is commensurate with a program in early development. Yet, the knowledge demonstrated thus far is well short of a program halfway through its development schedule and its budget. This portends additional cost increases and delays as FCS begins what is traditionally the most expensive and problematic phase of development. Thus, FCS’s demonstrated performance, as well as the reasonableness of its remaining resources, will be paramount at the 2009 milestone review for the FCS program. In the key areas of defining and developing FCS capabilities, requirements definition and preliminary designs are proceeding but not yet complete; critical technologies are immature; complementary programs are not yet synchronized; and the remaining acquisition strategy is very ambitious.”
The December 2005 article “FCS Spin-Out Plans Detailed” and the July 2007 article “FCS Phase 1 Spinouts Prepare for Production” discussed the revised strategy to prove out the system’s benefits sooner, and shore up program support. The GAO report adds details:
“In 2008 and 2009, the Army plans to begin funding production of the first of three planned spin outs of FCS technologies to current forces. However, its commitment to the first spin out may be made before testing is complete. Also starting in 2008, the Army intends to commit to production of early versions of the Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon. This commitment is being made to respond to congressional direction to field the cannon. FCS technologies, network, and designs are not yet mature enough for production, and thus the cannons produced will not be deployable without significant modifications. Advance procurement funding for the first full suite of FCS systems will begin in fiscal year 2011, the budget for which will be presented to Congress in February 2010 – less than a year after the milestone review and before the stability of the FCS design is assessed at the critical design review.”
The most critical aspect of Future Combat Systems, however, is arguably its network and software. That can be something of a double-edged sword on the battlefield, and presents procurement challenges as well:
“As software controls 95 percent of FCS’s functionality, it determines the success or failure of the program… Almost 5 years into the program, it is not yet clear if or when the information network that is at the heart of the FCS concept can be developed, built, and demonstrated by the Army and LSI…
Software being developed for the network and platforms is projected to total 95.1 million lines of computer code, almost triple the size since the program began in 2003. FCS’s software is about four times larger than the next two largest software-intensive defense programs. Although several disciplined practices are being used to develop FCS’s network and software, the program’s immaturity and aggressive pace during development have delayed requirements development at the software developer level… It is unclear when or how it can be demonstrated that the FCS network will work as needed, especially at key program junctures… The first major FCS network demonstration – the limited user test in 2012 – will take place at least a year after the critical design review and only a year before the start of FCS production… A full demonstration of the network with all of its software components will not be demonstrated until at least 2013 when the fully automated battle command system is expected to be ready.”
Which brings us to the key point of the GAO report, as seen from a 2008 perspective:
“By the time of the production decision in 2013, $39 billion will have already been invested in FCS, with another $8 billion requested. Thus, while demonstration of the FCS’s capability falls late in the schedule, commitments to production are likely to come early – an untenable situation for decision makers… There is not a firm foundation of knowledge for a confident cost estimate. Also, two independent cost assessments are significantly higher than the Army’s estimate. However, the Army maintains that it will further reduce FCS content to stay within its development cost ceiling. Should the higher cost estimates prove correct, it seems unlikely that the Army could reduce FCS content enough to stay within the current funding constraints while still delivering a capability that meets requirements.”
Software development, and indeed any technologically complex system, follows a “cone of uncertainty” that narrows as development progresses. As it narrows, limits on both low and high estimates are refined. It would appear that the 2008-2009 period will be a major inflection point for the cone – and for the program as well.
- GAO (#GAO-08-408, March 7/08) – 2009 Is a Critical Juncture for the Army’s Future Combat System
- GAO (#GAO-08-409, March 7/08) – Significant Challenges Ahead in Developing and Demonstrating Future Combat System’s Network and Software.