FUTURE COMBAT : A Costly Vision
Weapons Upgrade Faces Big Hurdles
Problems With Wireless Technology May Threaten Army's Ambitious Plan
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; Page D01
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.