How Future?

The Government Accountability Office minced no words in expressing its alarm about the Army's Future Combat Systems project. Five years and many hundreds of millions of dollars into the project, and there's still no way to say "if or when the information network that is at the heart of the FCS concept can be developed, built, and demonstrated."

Government Inc. has just one word here: Yikes!

My colleague Alec Klein has been showing just why there's such concern. For starters, the project, with Boeing as the main contractor, is expected to cost some $200 billion. Boeing has been having some troubles on government contracts lately, as some of you know.

Sadly, based on the past performance of technology contractors, the actual price tag could end up at $400 billion, maybe more. Who knows?

Here's what Alec wrote in The Washington Post in December. "In the Army's vision, the war of the future is increasingly combat by mouse clicks. It's as networked as the Internet, as mobile as a cellphone, as intuitive as a video game. The Army has a name for this vision: Future Combat Systems, or FCS. The project involves creating a family of 14 weapons, drones, robots, sensors and hybrid-electric combat vehicles connected by a wireless network. It has turned into the most ambitious modernization of the Army since World War II and the most expensive Army weapons program ever, military officials say.

"It's also one of the most controversial. Even as some early versions of these weapons make their way onto the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, members of Congress, government investigators and military observers question whether the Defense Department has set the stage for one of its biggest and costliest failures. At risk, they say, are billions of taxpayer dollars spent on exotic technology that may never come to fruition, leaving the Army little time and few resources to prepare for new threats."

In their report, GAO auditors seemed very gloomy too: "Because the performance of the network and the success of the software effort are not assured, decision makers should allow for the possibility that full success will not be achieved."

What to do with a revolutionary system that will cost gazillions and may not work? How should the government reevaluate? All ideas welcome. Stay tuned.

By Robert O'Harrow |  March 11, 2008; 7:00 AM ET defense
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This is a much chewed over program, and nothing would surprise consistent observers. If the Air Force considered FCS as relevant past performance of program management, it is not surprising that it shunned Boeing for the tanker award. FCS is arguably much tougher than making an existing plane into a tanker

FCS fits the sterotypical profile of almost all large defense programs: uncertain requirements, immature technologies, low-balled budget, poor management arrangements on both sides. In this case, Boeing, and its partner SAIC, as lead systems integrator, have been playing roles that the government has traditionally done, e.g., make-or-buy decisions. They pick and run the subs, and to a limited degree, can do some of the government acceptance of concept, design and deliverables, though not to the degree of the lunacy in NG+LM jv in the Coast Guard's Deepwater.

Sen. McCain, early on, found the soft spots in this program and got it renegotiated to put more risk on Boeing and build in more transparency to avoid self-dealing of sub work. This is a major reason why new LSIs will be banned after three more years.

The lesson? As in information technology: avoid the big bang. Neither the present government (Army) capability nor some of the purported best integrators know how to handle a program like this successfully. Requirements have to be rethought into discrete programs and broken up for management purposes. Remove potential organizational conflicts of interest, balance risk fairly between government and contractor, and make sure that you have the government resources to oversee the integrator(s). The Army misconceived this program, bungled oversight, and was hardly frank with Congress.

Consideration should be given to putting FCS under a special cadre of DoD overseers. If nothing else, this might help save the program and keep it from becoming a full-time oversight task for Congress. Congress is obviously in a mood to step into any large acquisition oversight vacuum that the agencies present.

M. Lent
Editor & Publisher
Government Services Insider

Posted by: Michael Lent | March 11, 2008 11:11 AM

I tend to agree with M. Lent. If FCS had great oversight by DoD-wide thought leaders the issue of inter-service redundancy would be reduced to a minimum, more thought would be given to Joint CONOPS, etc.

Aren't there already joint capability boards that perform those functions though? I'm not sure it's wise to remove Congress from the process in favor of more DoD bureaucracy.

Each service has it's own interest at stake. Careers are altered if the Army takes responsbility for the USMC air defense mission, on if the USAF changes the C-130 procurement schedule to adopt the Joint Cargo Aircraft, or if FCS technologies disrupt the budget in other services.

I don't disagree with the point raised by M. Lent. I am just trying to further the question. Any thoughts on what exactly a Joint FCS oversight committee would do, that other Joint committees aren't already trying to?

Posted by: R. McKown | March 11, 2008 10:12 PM

While the issues of oversight are certainly timely and valid, there is another level of scrutiny that should be applied: how will this program function in combat against a tough opponent? If the network does not function, the remainder of the 14-system organization will be vulnerable to even a less sophisticated enemy. One of the most astounding elements of the GAO reports is the fact that so many of the most critical decisions - i.e. when to commit to low rate initial production - come BEFORE the equipment has even seen the light of day for testing.

What sense does it make to make billion dollar decisions on a program that will have a significant role to play in our national security in the land power realm, before so very little key knowledge is known, and before testing could validate or refute the concept? Who knows, the field testing of the production prototypes could well surpass everyone's hope and prove that FCS should go forward. But evidence suggests that such will not be the case. How much less, then, should we commit to paying billions of dollars and embarking on fielding a system that may fail us at the most critical point: on a battle future field.

Posted by: David Lee | April 11, 2008 12:33 AM

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