Future combat systems: the US military’s $18 billion modernization flop?


The U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems (FCS) program was an $18 billion, multi-year acquisition program central to the Army’s transformation and modernization efforts.

Future Combat Systems, Explained

Officially launched in 2003, the program was scrapped by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2009. By the time funding was withdrawn, FCS was widely seen as having come to nothing and was dominated by a network toxic and inefficient contractors and ministries. As one author put it, “an industry consortium led by Boeing and SAIC was effectively tasked with overseeing its own performance.”

In the end, FCS was deemed a complete failure. For the program to be completed, it would have required an investment of $92 billion over decades. In addition to the expense, an additional reason was cited by Gates at the time: the need to move away from preparing for grand military and great power wars and towards counterterrorism and counterterrorism. insurrection. It goes without saying how ironic this is in retrospect given the changing geopolitical environment in which the United States finds itself today.

Future combat systems: the idea

The program as originally designed had an extensive reach and was considered high risk even when it started. Its objective was to research, develop and produce an integrated platform of fourteen manned and unmanned systems linked together by a state-of-the-art communication and sensor network.

Standard manned ground vehicles (MGVs) such as the M1 Abrams and M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles were to be replaced by lighter MGVs dependent on their advanced sensors, network and protection systems to avoid suffering big hits.

A major problem, however, was that at the time there were no composite light armor systems that were effective enough to ensure that a vehicle could continue to function after taking a massive hit. Although in the eyes of the FCS this would matter little, since advanced sensors would allow the vehicles to avoid such a high impact event, the vehicles should be able to survive scenarios in which their advanced sensors and systems could be compromised or blocked.

Future combat systems: not entirely dead

Interestingly enough, there are still shadows of FCS today.

The army still ended up with many basic FCS elements and capabilities. For example, the development of the no-sight gun for MGVs exists today with the M109A7 155 millimeter self-propelled howitzer, which can provide the firing and scooting capability originally promised by the FCS. FCS’s focus on robots and unmanned vehicles also lives on today in a growing emphasis on UAVs, as well as their ability to integrate with other platforms and share information in real time. This emphasis is further reinforced by the technological advances in artificial intelligence of the last decade.

So despite the perception that FCS was an utter and complete failure, it is best described as being too far ahead of its time. The program simply lacked the technological capabilities needed to develop a true “system of systems” as the program designed. Yet today it is the use of unmanned vehicles, advanced sensors and artificial intelligence that will transform advanced combat in the 21st century. Too expensive and poorly chosen, the FCS certainly remains a program from which the American army can draw inspiration.

Alex Betley is a recent graduate of Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was a researcher in international security studies on civil resistance and editor of the Fletcher Security Review.


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