By Ben Ames
ST. LOUIS — U.S. Army combat planners envision a future battlefield where every soldier is linked to autonomous sensors, such as robotic trucks and planes that feed him instant data on targets, reconnaissance, and communications.
That vision moved closer to reality on Aug. 28 when engineers at the Boeing Co. in St. Louis and Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in San Diego named the final members of a 21-company development team for the Future Combat System — otherwise known as the FCS .
This real-time network of 18 separate platforms is part of the Pentagon's transformational goal of increasing the speed and killing power of the nation's military forces. Army planners say they hope to field the first FCS-equipped unit by 2010.
As lead system integrators, Boeing and SAIC will assemble the technology components into a complete system, and distribute Pentagon funding to the subcontractors. On May 14, the U.S. Defense Acquisition Board approved a $14.9 billion contract for the Future Combat System (FCS) project to move into the system development and demonstration phase.
But first, the team partners have a lot of designing left to do. The armed robotic vehicles (ARVs) and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) are still on the drawing board.
The FCS system calls for a range of UAVs, from the tiny Class IV — which can be carried by one soldier — to the heavyweight Class I. But the list of 21 partners did not include an assignment for the Class I.
"That's because we're still looking at research projects with DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the Army. We need better payload and endurance capabilities, and the ability to hover and stare," says Dennis Muilenburg, vice president and FCS program manager for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems in St. Louis.
In contrast, the smaller version is nearly ready today. Northrop Grumman will design it as a variation of its current RQ-8 Fire Scout, a vertical takeoff and landing tactical UAV that U.S. Navy experts are testing.
"We chose it for the flexibility of missions it can accomplish," Muilenburg says. "It must perform wide-area surveillance and be a key node in the communications network, so it needs to handle different payload size and variety. It met all our threshold requirements: range, payload, mission radius, takeoff length, and altitude. For payload, our requirement was 130 pounds, and Northrop exceeded that."
Development of the armed robotic vehicles is moving more slowly. Boeing and SAIC engineers are resolving basic design issues such as choosing wheeled or tracked suspension, placing the engine in the front or back of the vehicle, and deciding whether the reconnaissance variety would carry weapons.
That slower design has one benefit — since United Defense and General Dynamics will contribute to both vehicle designs, they are also trying to choose a single chassis.
"We'll be looking for commonality on design between the manned and unmanned vehicles," Muilenburg says. "For example, some sensor capabilities reside in both designs. If we can make them common, that would reduce logistics and spares."
Linking all these systems together will be the warfighter machine interface (WMI), a software connection to the network that can link any given soldier to his unmanned ground vehicle, his command and control center, or any other platform. The WMI will also link to Pentagon transformation projects like the Objective Force Warrior and the Land Warrior.
"Wherever a soldier touches the network, he'll be able to link to sensors in the field for situational awareness," Muilenburg says. "That can be tailored to enhance awareness for a specific job."
Although it also acts as a lead system integrator, Boeing chose one of its own divisions to supply the WMI — Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems Group in Mesa, Ariz., for the contract because it offered better value and flexibility than two rivals.
He did not reveal the competitors' names. But he did say the Department of Defense oversaw all contract negotiations through its Defense Contract Management Agency and its Defense Contract Audit Agency. The final customer is TACOM, the U.S. Army's Tank-automotive and Armaments Command.