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High-Tech Weapons Plan for Now

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/10/robot.jpgThe Marcbot is designed to investigate suspected explosive devices.

The tiny four-wheeled robot made it halfway to the fist-size bomb before its battery ran out of juice. It was early January 2005 in Baqubah, Iraq, a hotbed of insurgent activity. The Army officers standing at a distance cursed the tiny robot, a 25-pound remote-controlled truck equipped with cameras for investigating suspected explosive devices. The captain who had been steering the so-called “Marcbot,” Scott Holland, tossed aside the remote-control device in frustration and walked right up to the bomb. His staff held their breaths. Holland leaned over the bomb, then kicked it. It was a dud.

Holland’s encounter with the botched bomb and out-of-juice robot is all too common as U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan adopt untried new technologies to defeat evolving insurgent tactics. In previous wars, enemy infantry and artillery attacks claimed the most U.S. lives. Today makeshift bombs are the biggest killer – and robots could be one of the safest means to confront them. If only the robots worked better.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1-150x150.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Getting more reliable and capable robots to the troops in Iraq is a possible result of one congressman’s radical plan for the Army. Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), the powerful chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, is seeking to revamp Army technology plans to focus on current wars, rather than looking forward to some projected future threat, as some senior Army officials prefer

For example, one ambitious weapons program that could be killed off soon aims to produce a family of new hybrid-electric armored vehicles and other weapons, all connected by an electronic communications network. The so-called Future Combat Systems, which has cost taxpayers roughly $20 billion so far, has come under fire from the Government Accountability Office for exceeding cost estimates. Other critics say the electronics network is pure fantasy. Still others contend that the new hybrid vehicles – which are still in development and should enter production in 2013 – are modeled on an outdated style of firepower-heavy conventional warfare. But the program, co-managed by Boeing and consultants SAIC, has also produced some smaller technologies, like new bomb-defeating robots, that are clearly useful in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Murtha has proposed adding another $20 billion to FCS research and development this year, in an effort to speed up these more immediately useful technologies. But there’s a caveat: in exchange for the extra cash, the Army might have to cancel the rest of the program.

** Extra cash – with a catch**

Future Combat Systems was launched in 2002, before the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program was designed for a U.S. Army that would be fighting high-tech battles similar to those of the 1991 Gulf War: tank versus tank on open terrain. By contrast, low-tech insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan move on foot, blend in with the civilian population and prefer ambushes, sniping and roadside bombs to any stand-up fight. For this reason, some critics contend, FCS is outmoded before it even enters service.

“FCS is yet another iteration of attempts since the 1950s, if not earlier, to automate human conflict,” Elise Szabo and Ana Marte, from Center for Defense Information, a Washington policy organization, wrote last year. “These multiple efforts have resulted in repeated failures and frequent defeats for the side attempting to employ them … FCS, if ever deployed, is more likely to impede U.S. military mental and physical agility on the battlefield, rather than facilitate it.”

But the $160-billion, 20-year program does have a number of secondary technologies that might be useful for current wars – provided they’re finished fast enough. FCS, which has already eaten up about $3.5 billion per year and growing, features improved robots plus new sensors and a family of “universal” radios that can connect robots, armored vehicles and airplanes in a single network. Murtha wants to know if any of these technologies are good candidates for fast-tracking. “If the subcommittee gives the Army an extra $20 billion, what can they do with it?” said Matt Mazonkey, a Murtha staffer. “He [Murtha] wants to get stuff out.”

Budgetary concerns are one reason for Murtha’s proposal. “It’s a $160-billion program that, like all military programs, continues to grow [in cost],” Mazonkey said.

The escalating price of repairing vehicles worn out in Iraq and Afghanistan has added to the military’s cash crunch. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated the repair bill – “reset,” in Army parlance – at $120 billion over 10 years.

While paying for reset is a major priority for Murtha, Mazonkey says, the chairman is willing to “downsize on reset” in the short term in order to “get FCS [technologies] out faster.”

Army representative Paul Mehney says it is considering Murtha’s proposal and will issue a report on which technologies can be accelerated for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Army has asked Congress to redirect $250 million of the service’s research budget this year to speed up some FCS research. It’s a move that can be read as a tacit endorsement of Murtha’s proposal — or read as the Army facing the reality of FCS’s eventual cancellation.

** The (robotic) shape of the future**

Current war operations, and Army experiments on the Texas plains, hint at what aspects of FCS the Army might salvage, and how the service will equip itself in order to fight Iraq-style conflicts in coming years and decades. Early incarnations of the FCS robots – bigger and better than Holland’s Marcbot – have already begun trickling down to combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. At Fort Bliss in Texas, the Army is testing out 1990s-vintage M-1 tanks with new sensors and radios, called “B kits,” that have been “spun out” from FCS.

If FCS and its fleets of hybrid-electric armored vehicles get cancelled, as Murtha’s plan might require, the M-1s will have to soldier on for decades to come. But some observers contend that the “old,” 70-ton M-1are actually better suited to current conflicts because they have the heavy armor to resist most roadside bombs. The new FCS hybrids weigh only half as much and rely on “situational awareness” – that is, all-seeing sensors – to avoid attacks.

“So many of these future concepts are predicated on very, very high levels of situational awareness in the future,” RAND analyst John Gordon told GovExec reporter Greg Grant last year, “but there’s precious little evidence we’re going to get there from here, particularly in a cluttered ground environment.”

But with the B kits, the M-1s and other older vehicles “were able to share information [more] quickly” than before, according to FCS official Charlie Wilson. These old vehicles with the B kits perhaps represent the best of both worlds. They’ve got the old Army’s thick armor, and some of the new Army’s smart communications, thanks to FCS. What they don’t have is the diesel-electric hybrid engines that are at the heart of the new FCS vehicles’ designs. It’s these engines that FCS supporters often point to when defending the program.

** Armor versus sensors**

Mehney says that FCS’s hybrid engines aren’t just intended to save fuel, but are required to power the program’s full range of new sensors and communications gear. Without a hybrid’s power boost, much of FCS’s new technology is useless. While some FCS components, like the radios, can be ported to older vehicles, hybrid engines cannot, according to engineers at the Army’s Detroit-based engineering command.

For this reason, there’s ultimately a limit to how much new gear can be “kluged” onto the Army’s existing tanks and other vehicles: the B kits pretty much are the upper limit. But if Gordon is right, and “situational awareness” is no panacea, then the B kits’ modest improvements might be all that U.S. forces need – or can afford.

Army officials, for several years now, have walked a careful line between pushing for more armor and advocating high-tech sensors and communications (“the network,” in Army-speak) — all against the backdrop of tightening budgets. Last year the Army rushed new heavily armored trucks into production for the Iraq war, at a cost of up to $20 billion.

Maj. Gen. Charles Cartwright, the FCS manager, urged caution. “If all we’re doing is piling on armor, where does that stop?” He said an FCS-style network was the only way to end the potentially endless cycle of heavier and heavier armor. But it’s not clear that the network and situational awareness are viable replacements for armor. So FCS remains a hard sell, especially with the reset bill now topping $100 billion.

Murtha is due to get his report soon, and shortly thereafter FCS might see a quick injection of cash that, ironically, could also spell its ultimate demise. Canceling FCS could mean that the Army is focusing more on helping soldiers like Holland fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on repairing gear worn out in those wars, and less on some imaginary future threat that can be defeated solely with high technology.

David Axe is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. and the author of Army 101: Inside ROTC in a Time of War. He blogs at www.warisboring.com.

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