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#2761, 23 December 2008
The Future Combat System
Sanjay Kumar
Research Assistant
United Services Institution

The US President-elect Barrack Obama's has promised not only the scrutiny of the national defense strategy but also of some of the leading defense acquisition programmes of the previous regime - programmes that promised to shape the future direction as well the deployment capabilities of the US military over the next two to three decades.

Barrack Obama promised to 'go through the federal (defense) budget, line by line, eliminating programs that no longer work'. Constrained by a depleting economy, Obama promised to reduce the U.S. defense budget - the largest in the world - by "tens of billions of dollars". Among the programmes which are most likely to be affected are: National Missile Defense, space-based weapons, reduction in number of nuclear weapons and the most importantly, the Future Combat System (FCS) which is currently the umbrella for every current modernization program of the US Army.

Barrack Obama contends that proven weapon systems are good enough for the US Army's present requirements and as such, it would be unwise to look at the battle spectrum two to three decades from now. The President-elect, however, has promised to provide his troops "with the first-rate equipment, armor, training and incentives they deserve". As the presidency unfolds we are likely to witness in the coming months an interesting debate between the Department of Defense and the State Department over army's requirement for high-tech weapon systems.

The pre-election statement of Barrack Obama to slow down the development of the FCS is unnerving for the U.S. army which is already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of its fighting capabilities. The scale of war causalities in these two countries - exceptionally high for a military considered to be the best in the world in terms of technology - has put additional onus on the Army to continue to look for technologies which will minimize physical risks to its soldiers in the battlefield while maximizing its fighting capabilities.

The FCS, conceived almost a decade ago, is a US$160 billion plus project that seeks to address the Army's requirements to fight medium to high intensity protracted conflicts with a considerably low burden of logistics. The FCS, touted often as a network of 'system of systems' presently visualizes 14 manned and unmanned systems tied together by an extensive communications and information network.

The FCS intends to replace current systems such as the M-1 Abrams tanks and the M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles by combat sensors and robots in the battlefield arena, integrated on a common grid with systems existing presently, in development, and those that will be developed in the future. The FCS is believed to have reached a level where at least some of the prototypes are on the verge of being fielded to units.

Ever since its conception in October 1999 by the then Joint Chiefs of Staff, the FCS has remained controversial for its high price tag. In 2007, restructuring due to financial constraints, downsized the 18+1+1 FCS to the present 14 systems, resulting in the delay of its implementation by at least five years. The first FCS equipped Brigade Combat Team not likely to roll out before 2015 and thereafter one FCS BCT rolling out every year, as per the existing time-frame, it will not be before 2030 that the FCS is deployed in the entire spectrum of future battlefield.

The reduction in the military budget as intended by the new President will not only further delay the implementation of the FCS but also result in further scaling down its range. The Army, on its part, wants the system to proceed at an accelerated rate with the first FCS-equipped brigade combat team (BCT) to be deployed by 2012 or 2013 instead of 2015 as currently planned. In fact, what makes the FCS a high-risk venture is because of the advanced technologies involved as well as the challenge of fusing all of the FCS subsystems together. There is also the question of FCS compatibility with a joint operations structure.

The FCS, promising to alter the future battlefield in the most fundamental ways, remains one of the most closely watched military technology transformation drives in the world today. In so far as the relevance of an FCS in the Indian context is concerned, India neither has the resources to emulate it in its entirety, nor is there any chance of Indian troops fighting protracted conflicts overseas in any foreseeable future.

The internal security situation of India, however, demands developments of robotic ground and air vehicles to carry out surveillance, reconnaissance and precision attack missions. The long stretch of India's border - inhospitable and impassable at several places - requires constant vigil, particularly in view of the frequent terrorist attacks taking place across India. Deployment of semi-automated to automated systems along the border, including the coastline to keep surveillance and reconnaissance would go a long way in bolstering security. The excessive deployment of army personnel in internal security and the ever increasing asymmetric threats, use of booby traps and mines by insurgents and difficulty in gathering human intelligence, mandate requirement for speeding up research in technologies which can save precious lives.

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