It's hard to overstate the disastrous effect that the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program has had on Army acquisition. Meant to catapult the service toward a new generation of ground-warfare equipment, the effort instead ended up as a textbook example of roughly $18 billion in taxpayer money wasted — though there are still officials who'd like to believe some good came out of it, somehow.
"The FCS program was such a massive failure and a missed opportunity for Army modernization," says Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the advisory board for Defense News' 30th anniversary edition. "I think this program single-handedly set the Army back a generation in vehicle technology."
A new fleet of ground vehicles were at the heart of the massive modernization effort, augmented by a smattering of tech gadgetry whose operational assumptions were – in hindsight – rather half-baked.
The all-encompassing program was remarkable because there was no mechanism in place to periodically re-evaluate key assumptions, leading officials to charge forward without asking important questions along the way.
"The Army's new concepts for operating during this period of time were monolithic and without alternatives," a 2010 RAND report commissioned by the service on lessons learned from the program stated. "Concepts such as strategic and operational maneuverability — 'see first, decide first, act first'—which led to a tradeoff of armor protection for intelligence and decision-making, suggest that the Army did not have a clear grasp of which technologies were feasible and which were necessary and satisfactory to meet the needs of the future."
Contributing to the program problems was what is now widely considered a toxic contractor-government constellation: an industry consortium led by Boeing and SAIC was effectively put in charge of overseeing its own performance.
The rest is acquisition history.
This article is part of a larger Defense News 30-year anniversary project, showcasing the people, programs and innovations from the last three decades that most shaped the global security arena. Go to defensenews.com/30th to see all of our coverage.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News.