Tomorrow's Army Starts to Take Shape

DN Staff

April 4, 2005

8 Min Read
Tomorrow's Army Starts to Take Shape

While today's GIs wage a frustrating war against insurgents in Iraq, America's defense establishment is laying the groundwork for the Army of the future.

Through its Future Combat Systems (FCS) programs, the Army within the next decade expects to completely transform itself into a faster, deadlier, and more survivable fighting force than ever before.

With more than 200 companies already involved and nearly $30 billion pouring into development programs, the Army plans to field, among other things, 18 new platforms, including several classes of robotic vehicles and a powerful communications network.

The military will deliver all this new technology to 3,000-man brigades that can be quickly deployed to trouble spots all around the world. "With FCS, we are building the fighting unit from the ground up, not only from the standpoint of new platforms and the network, but also with respect to tactics and procedures," says Brigadier General Charles Cartwright, FCS Unit of Action program manager.

Connecting the force

Participating companies, working closely with the Army, are already developing prototypes to implement these dramatic changes. And it all starts with the network, which will connect every soldier to command posts and weapons platforms in his area.

"We are developing the network architecture first, then making sure that the new vehicle platforms are built to be part of that network," says Dennis Muillenburg, FCS program director at Boeing, the lead systems integrator for the 23 tier-one partners involved with FCS.

In late January, Boeing and the Army opened a new System of Systems Integration Lab (SoSIL) in Huntington Beach, CA, to develop, simulate, and test the FCS network. The technology includes: a common operating environment, battle command software, communications and computers systems, and components for intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. Still other segments embrace embedded training that will allow troops to rehearse tactics while being transported to battle.

"By the time we are done, we will probably need to develop more than 30 million lines of software code to support the network," says General Cartwright.

Engineers must also solve bandwidth problems to allow this far-flung network to exchange huge amounts of data, voice, and video images in real time. "You need incredible amounts of bandwidth, which we just don't have right now," says defense analyst Brad Curran of Frost & Sullivan. An effective network will require much faster transmission rates and new investments in satellite and bandwidth compression technology, adds Curran.

Even so, the Army hopes to integrate aspects of the network into a test combat unit as early as 2008. This fall, soldiers will come to the new California testing facility for computer-simulated warfare. "We want to get the war fighter involved in the developmental process," says Frank DiMattia, a Boeing FCS site leader, "so if he is looking at a display and it doesn't look right, we can make changes before we're fully committed to the design."

Linking to the arsenal

Army officials expect that tomorrow's soldiers will be much more effective because of their ability to harness a full array of new battle platforms. Among them: eight new manned vehicles, four classes of unmanned aerial vehicles, and four new unmanned ground platforms ranging from robotic vehicles to "missiles in a box" that are programmed to fire on their own.

Every infantry squad, for example, will be supported by a robotic vehicle called the MULE, short for "multifunction utility/logistics and equipment vehicle." The new platform will follow the soldier into battle, carry his extra food, equipment, and supplies, and recharge the batteries that power his computer, radio and other electronic systems.

"Soldiers no longer will be as fatigued as they are now by the time they reach the battlefront," says Don Nimblett, a business development manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control, the lead contractor.

Initially, the 2.5-ton MULE will rely on diesel-electric propulsion to power in-hub motors in all wheels, but designers also will explore hybrid electric systems. Other advances will include a magneto-rheological damping system and articulated shoulder joints that will enable the MULE to cross 1.5m gaps, traverse steep slopes, and ford streams as deep as 1.5 m.

Muillenberg, the Boeing FCS director, says prototypes or demonstration technology now exist for about 50 percent of FCS systems. Some examples:

  • Active protection systems.
    In 2004, United Defense Industries demonstrated its Close-In Counter Measure system, which successfully intercepted and destroyed incoming rocket-propelled grenades, a type of ordnance that has haunted GIs in Iraq. The system employs such technologies as tracking radar, high-speed missile launcher, and new nickel-metal-hydride batteries to supply pulse power. All manned FCS vehicles will employ active protection.

  • Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon.
    At the Yuma Proving Grounds, United Defense has been testing a self-propelled 155-mm cannon with an automated ammunition handling system and drive-by-wire capability. At 23 tons, it is only half the weight of the Crusader howitzer and needs a crew of only three.

  • Small Unmanned Ground Unit.
    iRobot, based in Burlington, MA is working on the successor to its remotely-operated PackBot, already employed in Iraq for surveillance and detection of explosives. The FCS version will weigh just 30 lbs, small enough to be carried in a backpack.

  • Class IV Unmanned Air Vehicle.
    The most sophisticated of the four UAV types in FCS, this aircraft will provide persistent surveillance of the battle space and serve as a vital communications link. Among prototypes under review is Northrop-Grumman's Fire Scout, a four-blade, vertical takeoff craft capable of staying in the air for 8 hrs at an altitude of 20,000 ft.

Still hurdles to jump

Such programs demonstrate considerable progress for FCS, a program conceived in 1999 by former Army Chief of Staff Eric Shenseki, who called for a "more lethal, survivable, and tactically mobile" fighting force. Yet many challenges still remain before FCS can be fully implemented in 2014.

John Kenkel, a consulting manager for Jane's Information Group, notes that engineers still must shave more pounds from FCS vehicles, which need to be in the 20-ton range for transport on C-130s. Compare that to 72 tons for an Abrams tank. Companies like Alcoa, Alcan, and Goodrich are exploring material options that will provide the best ratio of protection versus weight. Under review: ceramics, titanium, aluminum-lithium alloy, and polymer composites. "As you reduce the weight of the armor, your active protection systems become even more important," Kenkel explains.

Perfecting the autonomous navigation system (ANS) for vehicles like the MULE also is critical. Consisting of computers, a suite of sensors, GPS, and software, the ANS will orchestrate the movements of 13 different ground-based platforms. For example, after downloading a mission from a battlefield commander, the robot vehicle's onboard sensors must build a terrain model of the environment in real time, negotiate the obstacles along the way, and even fire weapons.

"We've been working on this ANS technology now for 10 years and have demonstrated its feasibility," says Phil Cory, program manager for General Dynamics Robotics Systems. Still, Cory points to many design challenges ahead, such as developing ruggedized hardware, more-compact sensors, and improved software algorithms to detect and avoid obstacles.

In an era of soaring budget deficits, funding worries also loom large. Yet defense experts believe that the Army will get most of what it wants. "This is money well spent," says Curran of Frost & Sullivan, "more so than a next-generation fighter plane or submarine."

Muillenburg, the FCS program director, adds that the FCS funding "seems solid overall," and he stresses the importance of implementing all 18 platforms, plus the network. Says Muillenburg: "The fact that the Army is carrying the lion's share of the work in the global war on terrorism puts it in a strong position."

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