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Future Combat: The Wireless War

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Alec Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 7, 2007; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Alec Klein will be online Friday, Dec. 7 at Noon ET to answer questions about the Army's modernization program: Future Combat Systems.

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A transcript follows.

Read about this ambitious program in the story: The Army's $200 Billion Makeover.

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Alec Klein: Alec Klein of The Washington Post here. Thank you all for joining this Web chat about Future Combat Systems, the Army's ambitious modernization program. Let's get right to the questions.

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Westwood: How would FCS help us defeat a Hezbollah type force in a place like southern Lebanon? Or will we just have to wait to find an enemy who will fight us with traditional weapons platforms?

Alec Klein: Your question raises another question: How can the military divine the future? It's an inherently unknowable thing. And yet the Army and its contractors say that they must act to try to counter tomorrow's unpredictable threats. Hence, Future Combat Systems. Developers say that the systems--new weapons, drones, robots, sensors and combat vehicles--are designed to be flexible. What's more, they say it would be a mistake to stand still, especially when today's force is largely led by a 70-ton Abrams tank that was developed for yesterday's contemplated fight against the Soviets.

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Fairfax, Va.: How does the Army reconcile its strategy of becoming "lighter and faster" with its recent decision to spend billions purchasing 13,000+ MRAPs, which are the very definition of heavy and slow? Not to mention the earlier push to up-armor thousands of HMMWVs because of the IED threat. It seems that a key lesson from Iraq is that light vehicles are vulnerable to guerilla-style attacks -- won't FCS fall into the same trap?

Alec Klein: Good question. According to the Army and its contractors, Future Combat Systems will protect soldiers through what they call enhanced "situational awareness." The idea is, the soldier will see first, then strike first through superior intelligence gathered through such new systems as the unmanned aerial vehicle and the small unmanned ground vehicle. Officials say that such an increase in information will more than compensate for the new combat vehicles' lighter armor.

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Omaha, Neb.: How secure is all this high tech gear against an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack? It strikes me that when the Army gets used to all this real time tactical intelligence it will be helpless if the net gets cooked.

Alec Klein: Another good question. Military observers and others wonder about some of the same issues. What happens, for instance, if the wireless network that connects all of these new weapons crashes? According to the military and its contractors, there will be several safeguards in place to ensure that won't happen.

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Washington, D.C.: There is a classic Star Trek episode in which Kirk and his crew find two planets that have learned to avoid the complete devastation of war because computers are used. When a "hit" is scored by one of the planets, the people declared "dead" willingly walk into antimatter chambers and are vaporized.

Is or will life imitate art?

Scotty

Alec Klein: There's no question, the Army's program is aimed in part to protect soldiers as much as possible. The development of robots and drones and other similar systems is partly intended to put some distance between the soldier and danger. Increasingly, the battle appears to be becoming remote, perhaps even antiseptic and technical. And yet, I'm not sure we'll ever get to the point described in your Star Trek episode.

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Clifton, Va.: History has shown when it comes to infantry comabt and war on land that numbers not technolgy usaully win. In WWII the Germans had the best tanks, and infantry weapons but more Shermans and Allied troops overcame this advantage. In Vietnam despite our edge in technology the NVA and Vietcong were able to move troops and supplies at will througout Vietnam and in battle our edge in technology was offset by NVA and Vietcong's better training and better tactics. Technology is not.

Alec Klein: Intriguing analysis. Future Combat Systems, however, is indeed holding up technology and information as weapons of future battles. The Army also notes that the use of early versions of robots and drones has already helped to identify thousands of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan, saving many lives.

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Friendswood, Texas: Getting their 25 percent faster means nothing if you don't have sustainablility.

If it is a seaport city then use the marines they are always combat loaded at the Landing team level.

Also one of the problems with having too much info. It's that you suffer from information overload.

Finally they had down links when the rangers got their asses kicked in Somalia and a major genreral was telling 80 men what to do.

he was a day late and a dollar short on his orders and men died because of that.

How come you did not put in the article that Secretary Gates was a director of SAIC before he became Sec. of Def.???

Alec Klein: I think you're alluding to a Congressional Budget Office study that found that Future Combat Systems will not help U.S. forces deploy substantially faster to an overseas hot spot than current heavy forces. The Army counters that Future Combat Systems will get forces overseas about 24 percent faster. The Army's response is based on an internal study that has yet to be publicly published. I'd be interested in reading that study.

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Rockville, Md.: I'm currently reading Thomas Ricks' book Fiasco, and based on that, it seems that DoD in general and senior Army commanders in particualr have learned little from the armed forces' experience in Iraq, where human interaction and human intelligence makes all the difference.

Or am I missing the real objective of FCS: a taxpayer-funded boondoggle for major DoD contractors?

Alec Klein: If you talk to Army officials, they say they have learned from the experience of Iraq. Indeed, in talking to a general about the first Iraq war, he said he came away thinking that, despite the U.S. victory, American tanks were too slow, too lumbering and that a faster, agile force was needed. Part of Future Combat Systems includes eight new manned combat vehicles, which weigh between 27 and 30 tons, compared to today's prevailing Abrams tank, which weighs about 70 tons. Intelligence, too, is a major component of Future Combat Systems. Questions, though, about the program's cost continue to emerge from Congress and elsewhere.

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washingtonpost.com: Military Beat: Thomas E. Ricks

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Boston, Mass.: How hard would it be to develop an electronic pulse weapon that would effectively knock out all the circuits and wireless connectivity of our increasingly networked forces? If I was a red team playing Iran, Russia, China, etc. I would be putting a fair amount of money into that effort. Doesn't China already have the capability to knock out our military satelites? What is the redundancy in the system should these connections get knocked out?

Alec Klein: I've talked to Army generals about this very question, and they all assure me that there are several layers of security in place to protect against such a calamity. Another related question is, when and if will the Army realize all of this technology? After all, it's quite a feat to be able to have a fully networked, wireless brigade in the heat of battle. According to the GAO, Congress's investigative arm, the Army should not have launched this program until the technology was more mature. The GAO says that the program today is where it should have been in 2003.

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Omaha, Neb.: Our son is an Army Master Sergeant in the artillery. Years ago he told me he was the only person in his battery who had been around long enough to lay a barrage manually. Everyone else had to rely on the computers that were currently in use. Won't this scenario just be magnified many times with this further high tech approach?

Alec Klein: From the military exercises I've witnessed, it does seem that soldiers of the future will assuredly need to be better versed in the ways of computers. Future Combat Systems developers say this is an improvement. In addition, they note they are creating, for instance, auto loaders in a Non-Line of Sight Cannon to relieve soldiers from the task of manually loading heavy shells. The creation of sensors to protect perimeters and to clear buildings also relieves soldiers from the task--and the danger--of standing guard where a machine can do the work.

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State College, Pa.: Of the billions being spent on Future Combat Systems, do you have any sense about how much is being spent to figure out the 'Tank Armor of the Future'?

The problem with reducing the weight of Tanks, APCs, and MRAPs is that they use the heavy armors developed in the 1960s and 1970s. And while 'Situational Awareness' is a great idea, nothing protects soldiers better than a good strong sheet of chobam armor.

Has there been any headway in lightening the armor used on these vehicles?

Alec Klein: I recently visited developers of the new combat vehicles under Future Combat Systems. They told me that they are developing lighter vehicles that will have the same or better level of protection--or "survivability," as they put it. They acknowledge that these lighter vehicles cannot withstand the same kind of hit that today's Abrams tank can. But they say that won't matter with the increased intelligence and agility of these new vehicles. They also note that they are developing a new system that will intercept incoming fire before it hits one of the combat vehicles.

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Bay Area, Calif.: Interesting - the U.S. Air Force has been in the "high tech" warfare game for years. And, I might add, they take considerable flack for their investments into newer technology, especially from the air.

First, is this new story about the U.S. Army entering the tech-savvy market a way to influence Congress to take "the air" out of the U.S. Air Force when it considers who maintains recon in the sky?

Second, there are a few folks discussing generational warfare, where technology plays a key part, is this realization by the US Army something that supports their move to jump into the 4th or 5th generational warfare era?

As an aside, look into all that the U.S. Air Force does, especially in recon. My history goes back into the NRO and the SR-71/U-2 programs. I believe other branches are finally catching up on the "young one" to this game (young being that the US Air Force just celebrated her 60th birthday - they all have more time at this game yet we're in front!)

Alec Klein: You're touching on a behind-the-scenes rivalry among the various services. I've heard some of the chatter. One former Marine went so far as to wonder if the Army, with its increased emphasis on speed and agility, is trying to be more like the Marines. It's true, too, that comparisons have been made to the work of the Air Force. If you ask Army officials, some say they are actually copying a different group--teenagers--to the extent that such kids are wireless (through cellphones) and connected (via the Web) and able to transmit data quickly (eg., music downloads).

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Washington, D.C.: Since our current 'smart' bombs have a woefully low success rate at hitting intended targets, and avoiding civilian death, how much focus is (and should be) placed on fixing this problem?

Alec Klein: To hear the Army tell it, the priority right now is to upgrade its equipment to better combat an enemy that is wired and tech savvy. According to the Congressional Budget Office, tanks in the Army inventory are beginning to age and need to be replaced. It's interesting to note that the Bradley fighting vehicle and the Abrams tank--the two key combat vehicles in use today--were developed decades ago.

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My Mom's Basement: I watch a lot of TV and play a lot of video games. I also read many of Tom Clancy's books.

Therefore, I can think of multiple situations how this concept can be defeated. When will experienced military officers realize how wrong they are and how right I am?

Alec Klein: It's a conundrum that the Army says it is well aware of. But what, officials ask, is the alternative? As a side note, the Army is borrowing from video games, using a controller similar to the Xbox for early versions of robots in use in battle today to ferret out IEDs.

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Bethesda, Md.: Dumb question, but oh well... At some point, despite all of this technology, aren't there still going to have to be soldiers with a rifle on the ground? You can make him more situationally aware, but there's no way to avoid putting him in harms way, right?

Alec Klein: There are no dumb questions. If the experience of Iraq is any guide, you're right, that it's difficult to remove soldiers from danger, even if they're simply traveling as part of a convoy. The Army says that it's worth using robots and drones, for instance, if it means saving lives.

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Strykers: How did the lighter, faster Stryker brigade do in Iraq? Didn't they have to add armor to them after a few of them were attacked? Were they deployed in places where the overall attack levels were coming down (cause/effect questions)?

Alec Klein: The Stryker brigade was the first interim step that the Army took to become a faster, lighter force after the Army's troubles in the Kosovo war in 1999. It's interesting to note that one of the commanders, Col. Emmett Schaill, was tapped to head the experimental bridage that is now testing Future Combat Systems at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Tx. He was shot in Iraq during a firefight with insurgents but chose to stay with his troops for several more months rather than come home.

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Ogden, Utah: You missed Omaha's point -- only one guy can lay a barrage manually? That means, in the battlefield, when the technology inevitably goes ka-flooey, our soldiers will be unable to fight manually, which means they'll be sitting ducks.

Manual backup and training ought to be mandatory. Instead, we seem to be going the other way.

That's also the point earlier posters made about Vietnam -- technology goes so far, but a highly motivated guy in black pajamas sneaking through the brush is still mighty hard to beat.

Alec Klein: The Army tells me it continues to train soldiers in the basics so that they know, for instance, how to operate a Bradley or Abrams. Incidentally, the soldiers I have met looked pretty tough and combat ready. They also looked young enough to know how to operate the latest video games and computer programs.

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Traverse City, Mich.: I think the criticism of FCS would have more credibility if it were coming from people who do not have a long track record of opposing virtually all investments in national defense (i.e. Mr. Abercrombie). Are you aware of any significant concerns about FCS coming from moderate or conservative member of Congress?

Alec Klein: Criticism isn't only coming from members of Congress. Congressional investigators--namely, the GAO and CBO--have also raised questions. And while there are many supporters, there are also many detractors, including former military officers who have expressed concerns. As more than one pointed out to me, this program isn't just about technology; people's lives are at stake.

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Alec Klein: Thank you all for the great questions. Unfortunately, we're out of time, and I want to apologize for not getting to all of the questions. However, feel free to contact me at kleina@washpost.com. I'm planning to write more about Future Combat Systems and welcome your thoughts.

Alec

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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