Future Combat Systems: Lessons learned

The Army’s Future Combat Systems failed to live up to expectations, but it failed well rather than badly, according to a Government Accountability Office official.

The FCS experience has been productive, and the best aspects of its “vision, holistic context, and penchant for innovative managerial and experimentation techniques are worthy of emulation,” said Paul Francis, managing director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO.

On the other hand, Francis told a Senate Armed Services Committee's Airland Subcommittee June 16 that the problems experienced in executing and overseeing the program were not because of discoveries made since the 2003 launch of the program but were apparent from the start. (Read his testimony here.)

FCS was designed to make the Army a lighter and more agile force by replacing combat systems with a family of manned and unmanned systems linked by an advanced communications network. It was to be the central component of the Army’s plans for a network-centric battlefield.

However, the program faced major delays and cost overruns, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates recommended canceling it earlier this year. FCS spinouts will be included in a new program named the Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization.

FCS broke from tradition in a number of ways. Historically, once the Army selected a lead systems integrator, that contractor would use its own chain of suppliers and the Army would not be closely involved in the choice of subcontractors.

With FCS, however, the prime contractor was required to hold a competition for the next tier of contractors, with the Army having veto power over the selections. That kind of oversight was pushed down even further to lower levels of suppliers.

“Enhanced visibility into the selection and design decisions of subcontractors appears to have benefited the FCS program and warrants consideration in future efforts,” Francis said.

Likewise, the program’s goal of building a linked system of systems — rather than the traditional approach of building individual systems and then deciding how to integrate them — is seen as an advance. Even though the approach resulted in an overly broad scope for a single acquisition program, that vision should continue to guide the Army’s modernization efforts, Francis said.

The biggest problem with FCS was that it was too ambitious and not executable within reasonable technical, engineering, time or financial resources, Francis said. It was also immature when it began and didn’t meet the Defense Department’s own standards for technology and design.

Oversight of such an ambitious project was, not surprisingly, extremely challenging. The Office of the Secretary of Defense did not play an active oversight role until the last two years of the program, and Congress eventually intervened to mandate that officials make a decision about the program’s fate by late 2009, Francis said.

The Army and DOD should continue to be innovative in future programs as far as concepts and approaches are concerned, he said, but should anchor them in knowledge-based strategies about specific systems development.

“The key in going forward is to take the best from both kinds of lessons and apply them, in a tailored way, to the different modernization efforts that will succeed FCS,” he said.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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