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Weapons Upgrade Faces Big Hurdles
Problems With Wireless Technology May Threaten Army's Ambitious Plan

By Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The U.S. Army is in the early stages of developing the most expensive weapons program in its history, but the project could already be in jeopardy because it largely depends on three separate military programs that have been plagued by cost overruns, immature technologies and timetable delays.

At stake is what the Army calls its most ambitious modernization since World War II -- Future Combat Systems, a new generation of weapons, combat vehicles, robots and sensors connected to a wireless network. Imagine, for instance, a battlefield on which soldiers use remote-control devices to position hovering drones over an enemy encampment, then send those coordinates to a box of rockets that can launch and strike a moving target.

It's a costly vision: In the complicated math of the military, the Army said the program will cost $124 billion, or $162 billion including inflation. Independent estimates from the office of the Secretary of Defense price the project at $203 billion to $234 billion.

But none of those figures takes into account the expense of three complementary military programs that are supposed to serve as a critical communications network for Future Combat Systems. The three projects -- the development of high-speed radios, a wireless network and satellites -- are expected to be used by different parts of the military and cost about $80 billion combined, a figure that has risen by about $29 billion in recent years.

The military and its contractors concede past problems but say they have corrected each program so that they are on schedule, close to budget and developing technologies as expected. Dennis A. Muilenburg, until early February the program manager of Future Combat Systems at Boeing, the lead contractor, said he expects the high-speed radios and the wireless network to be finished on time and to "dovetail very nicely with" Future Combat Systems. Muilenburg, since promoted to president of a Boeing support systems business, said the third program, a new constellation of satellites, is "not required."

Other defense experts disagree, saying that the new, faster satellites are crucial to make Future Combat Systems work. Congressional investigators also question whether the trio of complementary programs will be ready in time to be incorporated into the Army project, which also has been restructured in the face of immature technologies, rising costs and timetable problems. After all, the three programs involve complex technologies and an alphabet of acronyms across military services with development stretching years into the future. And congressional investigators wonder whether the three programs -- all of which have been restructured in light of their problems -- will work as intended.

The three complementary programs are a "key issue" for Future Combat Systems, according to Paul L. Francis, who oversees its review for the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm. All of the programs "have their own set of issues," he said. "Everything has to come together and work. . . . So far, each of these areas have had a lot of trouble." The GAO recently issued two reports, raising new questions about the viability of Future Combat Systems and the network on which it will depend.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, acknowledged that the complementary systems and how they will work with Future Combat Systems are "obviously heavy in our mind." But he added: "No system is without risk, especially one that's as forward-looking as this system is."

New Radio System

Launched as a concept in 1997, the Joint Tactical Radio System, or JTRS, was an Army program intended to take advantage of emerging software-based radio technology. The idea was to create a radio that could transmit dramatically more data -- such as maps and images -- faster than existing radios, military officials say. And the new radios would be able to transmit streaming video among combat vehicles on the move.

Developing JTRS became so difficult that in 2005, the project, hampered by cost problems, was taken out of the hands of the Army and placed under the Defense Department's supervision. That same year, the military threatened to terminate Boeing's contract. "That's old news," said Dennis M. Bauman, who oversees JTRS for the military. Since the program's restructuring, he said, "We've turned the program around and we're delivering it on schedule."

But after the restructuring, the GAO said in another report that "several risks remain. The radio has only demonstrated limited networking capabilities." Partly because of delays in the development of JTRS, the Defense Department has been forced to buy an estimated $11 billion in existing radios, according to the GAO, which noted that those funds instead could have been used for JTRS. The Army said the existing radios were needed for combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ralph Moslener, Boeing's JTRS program director, said the program has been on schedule for the past 24 months. He also said that as the military adds requirements, "the cost of that development goes up," but he declined to comment on what that increase is. In addition, he said he does not know the total cost of the JTRS project that Boeing is developing because he does not know how many radios the military plans to build.

According to the GAO, the overall cost of the JTRS program is about $37 billion. That figure includes inflation, according to the military. When JTRS formally began development in 2002, the cost was estimated at $20 billion, but since then several components have been added to the program, the military said.

Communications Network

Future Combat Systems will depend on another costly program that has been restructured, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T. An Army project, it is a high-speed communications network that uses radio and satellite technologies, officials say. WIN-T, made up of computing and network gear in boxes in military vehicles, will be able to move more data at higher speeds than JTRS. Future Combat Systems would allow commanders on the battlefield to wirelessly communicate so that, for instance, a robot could identify enemies on the move and transmit their location to other commanders who could then launch laser-guided missiles.

WIN-T is expected to provide more bandwidth than JTRS, providing better-quality video and more of it. But streaming cannot yet be done among moving vehicles. In 2006, David M. Walker, then the GAO's comptroller general, told Congress that the Defense Department approved the start of development in 2003 when "only three of WIN-T's 12 critical technologies were close to full maturity."

But Bill Weiss, vice president of tactical networks for General Dynamics, WIN-T's lead contractor, said, "The basic underlying technology is sufficiently mature." The company said it has recently completed critical design reviews, leading up to field testing in October, which it said will keep the program on schedule.

The GAO also said that when WIN-T began, the developers of Future Combat Systems did not fully understand the project's networking requirements. As a result, the WIN-T program was restructured last year, in part to better synchronize its development with Future Combat Systems. In a report around then, the GAO said this required substantial changes that created delays and increased costs.

General Dynamics said it is unclear on the program's overall price because it depends on Army plans, and the company deferred cost questions to the military, which said the program is expected to cost about $16 billion, including inflation. That's about $4 billion, or a third more than the project's original cost, an increase the military largely attributes to the absorption of another program and the rising number of brigade combat teams.

Air Force Component

At risk also is the development of the Transformational Satellite Communications program, or TSAT, an Air Force project that is supposed to work with Future Combat Systems. The Defense Department is planning to cut about $4 billion of the TSAT budget over the next five years, partly because of congressional concerns about an expensive and technical project that already has been cut, delayed and restructured. The Air Force has yet to select a contractor for the project, though Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the two leading contenders, have both been working on development contracts.

TSAT would be about 100 times faster than military satellites in orbit now, Air Force officials say. That's to an extent because the satellites would take advantage of the latest Internet technology to reroute communications traffic more efficiently, they say. TSAT is expected to also provide more securely encrypted communications for Future Combat Systems to prevent enemies from intercepting or jamming signals.

Until recently, military officials said the program would launch its first satellite in 2016, though now they say the schedule is uncertain. According to a 2006 report, the GAO said TSAT began without sufficiently mature technology, noting that costs have increased and the timetable has been delayed.

Before the latest cutbacks, according to the Air Force, the program had increased by about $8 billion, or 50 percent, to $24 billion, including inflation. The new cutbacks will defer work, delaying the timetable and adding to the program's overall expense because of "the costs associated with extending the contract to perform necessary work," the military said. But Richard Pino, the Air Force's TSAT program director, said "the technologies are all at the right levels of maturity."

Boeing's Muilenburg said the prospect of additional cuts should not pose a problem for Future Combat Systems. In lieu of TSAT, he said that the Army program could use current military and commercial satellites.

Loren B. Thompson, a defense consultant at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank, said, however, that TSAT "is crucial to the secure networking capabilities that underpin" Future Combat Systems. Given the cutbacks, he said, "If TSAT collapses, which looks like a distinct possibility, soldiers may have to rely on links that are harder to access on the move, more vulnerable to jamming and interceptions, and offer nowhere near as much bandwidth."

Cristina Chaplain, who oversees the GAO's review of space systems, also said that "TSAT was being designed to support communications on the move, whereas other programs don't do that to the extent that's needed by" Future Combat Systems.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, the Army's chief information officer, acknowledges that the development of TSAT and the other complementary programs represent a "high risk," but he said the military is attempting to manage that risk by developing the programs incrementally.

Rickey E. Smith, a retired Army colonel who is part of the military team designing how Future Combat Systems will be used, said that if the complementary programs fail, the Army project would certainly be impacted, but so would other military services that depend on these technologies. And he said that while the GAO does good work, "They've never seen a program they liked."

For the GAO's Francis, the question for his team of investigators is not whether they like these military programs but whether they will work in concert with Future Combat Systems.

That remains a multibillion-dollar question. "The Army believes this will all work," he said, "but they won't be able to demonstrate that for some time."

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