More than fifteen years ago, the U.S. military embarked on a groundbreaking modernization effort then known as the Future Combat System (FCS), an elaborate suite of new weapons, armored vehicles, and sensors. generation, carried out with a “system of systems” network approach, which aimed to transmit critical data in real time through the force.
The concept of FCS, which came to life through demonstrations and experiments over many years, was to enable a future force to confront and destroy rapidly developing, high-tech threats. The program evolved considerably, culminating in the construction of a new fleet of twenty-seven ton Manned Ground Vehicles (MGV) for armored warfare. This effort included an entire series of eight vehicles with a non-line-of-sight gun (NLOS-C), mounted combat system (MCS), and medical and reconnaissance variants. The vehicles have been designed to be lighter, faster, powered by hybrid electric drive and work with 360 degree sensors. The development of the MGVs was based on the “onion of survivability” concept, a revolutionary command and control technology designed to allow a series of integrated sensors and active protection systems to detect and destroy threats before to come under enemy fire.
Much work has been done, on the NLOS-C and the MCS in particular, to enable a revolutionary measure of heavy firepower on a much smaller twenty-seven ton chassis. The NLOS-C was built for a high rate of 155m artillery fire, while the MCS was fitted with a 120mm gun to fire tank shells. These platforms, along with the concept of FCS, have generated much success and optimism about future combat capabilities.
However, the program was canceled in 2009 by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. In the years since that cancellation, many have come to believe that the FCS program, while brilliant and successful in many ways, may have been too ambitious in scope and not yet mature enough to continue. Gates raised concerns about the survivability of the smaller twenty-seven-ton armored vehicles, given the massive IED and underbelly vehicle attacks commonly seen during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, some officials have expressed concern that lighter vehicles, even if reinforced with composite materials, could prove too vulnerable if they take a hit. What happens if, for example, the vehicle’s network malfunctions or has been hacked? In a combat environment, vehicles might have been more vulnerable to these threats.
One of the great ironies of the FCS program is that, despite its cancellation, it pioneered the conceptual framework and technological focus of the US military’s major successes in revolutionary networking and improved timeline from sensor to shooter, including experiments such as Project Convergence. .
Since 2020, Project Convergence’s “Learning Campaign” has succeeded in reducing the sensor-to-gunner attack time from twenty minutes to twenty seconds, introducing game-changing attack speeds now inspiring evolved concepts of combined arms maneuver. The convergence of projects is arguably realizing the high-speed multi-domain “system of systems” networking envisioned with the FCS decades ago. Ultimately, despite being considered a failure in some ways over the years, FCS’ “ghost” could be considered inspirational and truly visionary.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a highly trained expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army – Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Osborn also worked as an on-air military anchor and specialist on national television networks. He has appeared as a guest military pundit on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.