Boeing refines Future Combat System for U.S. Army

ST. LOUIS, 27 May 2005. The Pentagon is spending $122 billion on an Internet connection to remove the fog of war.

Within 10 years, grunts on the ground won't have to lead with their chins. Robotic planes, sensor pods and unmanned ground vehicles will shoulder some of the dirty work of looking around corners. Out of harm's way, soldiers will watch the action on a small computer, eager to unleash the latest firepower with a text message on their software-based radios.

Chances of friendly fire will be lower, because the crew of the F/A-18 Super Hornet flying overhead will have a clear picture of the enemy target on an 8-by-10 inch color monitor inside the cockpit.

It's not fantasy. Within a few years, elements of that scenario will be ready for battle, Boeing Co. and Army officials say.

By fiscal 2007, an active Army unit will begin testing early equipment of Future Combat Systems, whose cornerstone is a digital communications network that connects soldiers, pilots, ships, satellites, robotic planes and tanks to command centers and an array of weapons systems across all branches of the military.

"We're taking the network that sits on your desktop and giving it to the guys at the point of the spear," said Brig. Gen. Charles A. Cartwright, who's overseeing the $122 billion program in Hazelwood, Mo., for the Army.

The Army's digital doctrine is guided by what it calls "a quality of firsts -- see first, understand first, act first."

Napoleon lost at Waterloo partly because a poor communications network prevented his soldiers from getting to the right place at the right time.

The Pentagon wants a network of unmanned planes, vehicles, soldiers and jet fighters and electronic sensors to remove the "fog of war," a phrase made famous by Karl von Clausewitz, a Prussian army officer whose 19th-century book "On War" is considered a seminal work in military theory.

An 18-year-old who today plays video games, listens to music on an iPod and bangs out cell-phone text messages simultaneously will be an Army captain on the battlefield of the future, operating in the middle of up to 6,000 decisions in 30 minutes, Cartwright said.

The captain won't make that many decisions, but the network around him, plugged into a multitude of sensors and weapons, will shape and accelerate the decision-making of future combat operations, Cartwright said. The soldier on the ground can be included or excluded, depending on the situation.

Future Combat Systems, or FCS, is the Army's most expensive and complex project ever. Boeing is managing the St. Louis-based FCS program, which promises to integrate all U.S. forces with a common picture of the battlefield.

The idea is to create a more-mobile fighting force that uses network-generated information to provide better awareness during the chaos of combat.

With superior information, commanders can make better decisions on how they deploy weapons and troops. Ultimately, the premise says, superior information and firepower will secure victory.

Or, as Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest put it, "Get there firstest with the mostest."

The cost of designing and building FCS is nearly unmatched in the annals of Pentagon spending. But Boeing and the Army say the expense of operating and maintaining an FCS unit of some 3,000 soldiers will be substantially less than a traditional brigade.

The Army's manned ground vehicles, for example, will be much lighter and have mostly common parts, drastically cutting spare part requirements and fuel consumption, said Dennis Muilenburg, FCS program manager for Boeing.

The Army's logistical supply trail will be reduced as much as 50 percent because of FCS, he said.

Here's the downside.

The cost of the program probably will grow, forcing reduction or cancellation of other weapons programs to make room in a defense budget strained by the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Already, the Pentagon has cut the Commanche helicopter and the Crusader artillery system in favor of FCS spending, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently noted at an Armed Services subcommittee meeting.

Putting FCS together is so complex that some inside Boeing and the Army have compared it with putting a man on the moon.

Jeff Worley, Boeing's deputy program manager for FCS, said his previous work on the international space station was like putting together Tinkertoys compared with his mission of fielding digitally connected Army units of 3,000-plus soldiers.

However, Jim Albaugh, head of Boeing's St. Louis-based defense business, winces at the thought of FCS' complexity being overplayed. To members of Congress, complexity also can be code for cost overruns, making them nervous.

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative -- the concept of a space-based missile shield against Soviet nuclear warheads -- derisively was called Star Wars, because of the seemingly far-fetched technology and exorbitant price tag.

"FCS is high-risk, but not risky," Albaugh said.

Still, more than 12 studies and internal audits have targeted FCS in the last two years, reflecting concerns over the cost and complexity. Albaugh said he welcomes the scrutiny.

Last year, the Army restructured FCS so that current forces can receive its technology and equipment sooner, rather than wait until 2014 for a fully equipped FCS unit of action of about 3,000 soldiers. In all, the Army wants to field 15 units of action.

"It is not easily defined like a ship, plane or tank might be," Albaugh explained. "We're working hard on our messages . . . on what sort of capabilities the (FCS) program brings to the warfighter of the future and currently deployed forces. Yes, we do need to do a better job of communicating what those capabilities are. There's no question we need to do that."

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee expressed "numerous concerns" about the FCS program, citing immature technology, unknown costs and duplication. The committee passed a defense spending bill that cuts $400 million, or 9 percent, from FCS' proposed funding of $3.8 billion for fiscal 2006. It also said the program should be restructured. In the Senate, however, the markup of the defense spending bill left FCS spending fully intact.

Fiscal concerns aside, the technology isn't a given.

The digital radios -- a vital layer in the communications network -- have experienced software problems in the early phase. Boeing's development of the Joint Tactical Radio System, or Jitters, is a $15 billion piece of FCS that will allow old hardware-only radios to communicate with software-based sets through a common operating language.

The digital radios will be based in every element of FCS, from soldiers to fighter jets, transferring voice, data and video between man and machine. The digital radios also are vital to building an airborne Internet, which has never been done, Air Force Lt. Gen. Tom Hobbins said in the Air & Space Power Journal.

As a lead systems integrator on the FCS program, Boeing has the Herculean task of building a common operating system that allows all weapons systems to talk to each other. It's a radical concept for the defense industry.

It some respects, Boeing is writing software akin to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system for personal computers. But instead of tying together computers made by Dell, Apple or IBM, the operating system under construction at Boeing will link rivals such as Lockheed Martin Corp., General Dynamics Corp. and Raytheon Inc.

Its means an Abrams tank made by General Dynamics and a Lockheed-made F/A-22 Raptor fighter jet will plug into the same network, communicate with each other and still have proprietary applications inside each respective weapon.

"The network almost operates like a heart valve, controlling the flow of messages as a heart would control the flood of blood," Cartwright said.

Boeing recently released the first version of the System of Systems Common Operating Environment, which consisted of 3.2 million lines of software code. Version 1.0 had its share of bugs, and elements of the Java and C++ software used had pass rates of 69 percent and 67 percent, respectively, according to the Army's qualification test. Muilenburg said most of the problems have been corrected.

Also running off the common operating system will be applications for battle command management, training and logistics software. In addition, the sensor layer will feed information into the network.

"Even though risks come up in development, by going through an incremental test, experiment and fielding process, we believe that allows us to manage the risk effectively," Muilenburg said.

Testing the FCS network will become a common exercise in St. Louis, where Boeing recently opened a $25 million Virtual Warfare Center. Simulating war scenarios with actual soldiers and pilots will help develop a reliable FCS network. The center will be able to connect to other Boeing locations, so software, helicopters, surveillance planes and fighter jets can test themselves in a war games environment.

Cartwright said having soldiers involved in the early development of the digital network and FCS-based weapons promises to be a rigorous review.

"About every two years, we'll take stuff to the active Army unit and they'll tell us, 'You guys have got this screwed up, you need to fix it this way,' or 'We really like it this way,'" Cartwright said. "The soldier will always find a better way to do something."

By Tim McLaughlin
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


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