FCS and the Birth of FRES
Future Combat System (FCS)
This section spans a number of years, outside of the chronological structure of the document.
One cannot understand the origins of FRES without examining the military transformation movement of the late nineties and early millennium.
In its search for a replacement for CVR(T), FV432 and Saxon, the UK had chewed through an alphabet of programme acronyms (FLAV, FFLAV, MBAV, MRAV, TRACER), many years, and millions of Pounds, all whilst failing to deliver a single vehicle to Tommy Atkins.
As a result, the legacy fleet continued to be deployed on operations, mostly to good effect it must be said. Their underlying design principles had proven to be sound, their engineering likewise, and through a series of incremental improvements kept relevant to contemporary operating environments. No doubt though, they were beginning to show their age and every failed attempt at replacement compounded the problem.
Unfortunately, there is no force on earth that can resist the power of transformational thinking when it has taken root in a complex organisation.
Time for mixed metaphors…
These large and complex organisations are like supertankers; very difficult to change course without external stimulus. When the super tanker encountered reality; in our case, logistic, scientific and fiscal reality, it was given a good stiff ignoring for a long time until it could be ignored no more. There is a certain irony in a programme that ignored reality for so long being characterised as being able to apply rapid effects, because rapid it was not.
The US Future Combat System
When General Sullivan took up the position of US Army Chief of Staff (ACS) in summer 1991 he recognised significant change was imminent and that change would be at an unprecedented pace. In a letter to the Army titled ‘Maintaining Continuity While Accommodating Change,’ he described three significant changes that the US Army could not ignore.
- Changes in the political environment
- A reduction in defence spending
- Changes in the nature of war, increasing technology for example
His book about the period between 1991 and 1995, Hope is Not a Method, is well worth a read.
He was not alone in this opinion and all would have significance for FRES.
Changes in the political environment…
Also in Summer 1991 the US published a new National Military Strategy. This postulated that the post-Cold War threat landscape would require US forces to intervene in multiple simultaneous regional crisis at a scale and intensity lower than its post-WWII planning had catered for. No longer would it have to fight Russia, it would be engaged across many fronts as post-Cold War stability collapsed.
Reduction in spending…
From the mid-eighties Reagan era high of approximately 6%, by the Gulf War, spending had fallen to 4.6% of GDP with more cuts likely to follow. Butter was winning and it would continue winning until after 9/11 when the taps were turned back on.
Changes in the nature of war…
4 days after Iraqi forces had invaded Kuwait the Saudi King (Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud) agreed to US intervention in defence of Saudi Arabia. Forces deployed to Saudi Arabia included two squadrons of F15’s with AWACS, two carrier battle groups and the ready brigade of 82nd Airborne Division. 82nd Airborne, facing 3 Iraqi divisions, armed only with light weapons. Desert Shield, as it became known, was a rapid build up and in the next two months that sole brigade was joined by the rest of the 82nd Airborne Division, an air assault division, two heavy divisions and an armoured cavalry regiment. Supporting these were the full range of combat support and logistics functions. In November, the intent to liberate Kuwait was clear and the relentless build-up of forces continued until it comprised several US heavy divisions and a British armoured division, with additional forces from France, Egypt, Suadi Arabia, Syria and others.
The rest is history.
In the months that followed cessation of hostilities, a thorough analysis was carried out by all parties, looking for lessons to learn.
The US concluded that its inability to do anything without a massive build up of combat and logistic power was a significant gap. Their forces were either too light or too heavy with nothing in between. 82nd Airborne got there fast but they were terribly vulnerable and a meaningful build up of heavy armoured forces took two months at maximum effort. Experience in the Balkans with the Sava River crossing and Task Force Hawk simply underscored this. A smaller (cheaper) Army was being told it needed to adapt to the changing political reality of multiple regional interventions whilst maintaining combat superiority and readiness could do no other than to transform.
A smaller yet more capable and agile Army was the desired end point.
But how could it transform?
The undisputed media stars of the Gulf War were those grainy images of laser guided bombs destroying targets in Iraq. No matter the reality of ground warfare and the enduring usefulness of heavy weapons, the future was clear; smart weapons and communication networks. The technology used, although much less well used than many think, had clear potential to enable the required transformation.
The transformation would be enabled by technology.
And so a number of programmes and studies began to coalesce around the transformational theme, the revolution in military affairs, Joint Vision 2010, Force XXI and Army After Next.
Underpinning them all was a recognition of the power of networking, information dominance, modern sensors and the desirability to intervene rapidly with enough force to be decisive, thus preventing the need for hugely expensive deployments at large scale.
Desert Shield and Desert Storm was so last decade!
What is interesting from a US perspective in this period is a difference between thinking and doing in response to the perceived deployment and logistics failures of the early to mid-nineties.
The thinkers were redesigning the Army from the top down, the doers were;
- Buying more RORO shipping, from 17 in 1990 to 36 in 1994.
- Investing half a billion dollars in infrastructure improvements at Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Stewart, Fort Hood and Fort Bliss.
- Significantly increasing budgets for deployment exercises
- Dispersing 8 brigade sets of pre-positioned equipment to Qatar, Europe, South Korea and afloat such that it could position a heavy division in the Gulf region within days
- Investing in logistics tracking and movement capabilities
Clearly there was disagreement and hedge betting. Regardless of the transformation vision envisaged by FCS, the US Army and other forces were by the end of the nineties hugely more agile and deployable than they were at the beginning of the decade.
General Eric Shinseki (Chief of Staff of the US Army between June 1999 and June 2003) was a vocal enthusiast of what would become FSC. As soon as he took up his position he ordered a detailed review of the Army’s future requirements. It was also obvious that the US Army was fighting an intense budget war in Washington, the USAF was riding a wave of change coming after its star performances in the Gulf War and the Balkans. The Army knew full well it needed something big or it would find itself on the road to irrelevance, perhaps more importantly, budget irrelevance.
The USAF lost no opportunity to remind the US Army about the embarrassment of Task Force Hawk either.
Transformation proponents characterised the US Army as either ‘too fat to fly or too light to fight’, a phrase that would be repeated endlessly through the period.
And so was born FCS
It had the goal of deploying a combat brigade anywhere globally in 96 hours, a division in 120 hours, and five divisions in 30 days. In addition, those deployed forces would posses a step change in lethality, connectivity, responsiveness and logistics footprint reduction. The Future Combat System was a breathtakingly ambitious programme that would accept nothing less than revolution. New technology, new organisation, new doctrine and a new training regime; every part of the US Army’s approach to fighting and winning was to be ‘transformed’
It’s $200 billion price tag was equally ambitious.
It would be wrong to characterise FCS as the brainchild of one man but instead, it was the culmination of thinking over many years from many organisations and many people.
What would be its undoing, however, was that every single (bar one) scenario used to inform the requirement was based on high-intensity state on state conflict, nothing like Iraq and Afghanistan operations that would characterise the following decade. There was also the widespread assumption that rapidly deployed forces would always have the political cover to enable that rapid response, and that combat would be decisive, extended deployment over years were not seen as likely.
This was the ‘go fast, go hard, go home’ mantra, another endlessly repeated phrase.
As the programme matured the vehicle requirements were built around the central requirement of inter-theatre lift by C17 and Intra-theatre lift by C130. This meant the vehicle weight and dimension envelope would be dictated by an aircraft that had been in service for decades.
Not only was FCS broad in its span it was also aggressive in its timelines, in that typical US style the US Army set about its business of transformation with almost religious zeal. An interim force was to in place in two years (2002) and the objective force, the end state, was planned to be in place by 2008.
Because Congress did not allocate any extra money for FCS, the Army needed to find the funds from within. Many programmes were cancelled, both new developments like TRACER and programmes that would modernise the legacy, heavyweight force. By the end of 2000 General Dynamics had been contracted to provide vehicles for the Interim Force, a version of the Canadian Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) III.
This interim force would become known as the Initial Brigade Combat Team (IBCT)
As the programme progressed through these initial years the C-130 transportability requirement was the only one not open for trade-off and so the impossible task of shrinking a 70 tonne M1 into a 20 tonne Future Combat Vehicle began.
The fundamental need for speed dictated travel by air and this meant travel by C-130.
In order for the vehicles to be survivable and able to fly C-130 class, active protection systems would need to play a large role. FCS imagined survivability as an onion skin and defined a hierarchy of technologies to achieve that, underpinning this was a ubiquitous, high bandwidth low latency network.
To see how FCS grew into what could conservatively be called ‘a bit of a monster’ the programme needed its own book of acronyms, a mere 75 pages long.
FCS was not without significant resistance within the US Army but the momentum was with the transformationistas, those voicing concerns about the pesky laws of physics were quickly sidelined.
And then this happened.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks against the US mainland in 2001 the US Army proposed a large-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Yet it was a CIA plan for special forces combined with a powerful air component that was chosen.
The Army was in danger of becoming a dinosaur.
That these special forces were largely US Army was irrelevant, the perception was the big fat Army was incapable of deploying in response to such a powerful strategic shock. Compounding the problem was the perception that it was US Marines that were first into action around Kandahar. Again, this was not actually the case, initial operations were conducted mostly by the Rangers and 101st Airborne but it was the follow on 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit that appeared to be at the forefront.
Marines, in a landlocked country, the outrage!
Then came Operation Anaconda, again, where was big Army?
Donald Rumsfeld was originally aligned to the US Army transformation efforts but relations broke down, especially in the run-up to the Iraq War of 2003.
Right or wrong. this had a significant impact on the US Army FCS programme.
Future Rapid Effect System (FRES)
It would be most unfair to characterise the British transformation journey during the same period as slavish forelock tugging US Army aping because there were significant differences.
The fact remains, though, the direction of travel was the same.
In the nineties that transformation journey started with the term digitisation, essentially, taking advantage of advances in microelectronics described in the nineties section of this document.
As the nineties concluded the main challenges for the UK were largely the same as those experienced US forces, namely;
- A change in the post-Cold War political landscape and expectations of being able to intervene in regional crisis, reinforced by the 1998 Strategic Defence Review and the ‘Force for Good’ foreign policy of the Tony Blair Labour Government,
- Reductions in the defence vote, from between 5% and 5.5% of GDP in the early eighties to around 3% by the mid-nineties, with further reductions envisaged,
- Changes in the nature of war informed and influenced by technology.
Where the UK differed to some degree from the US was its experience with out of the area/expeditionary operations, since 1945 the Army had been continually deployed overseas on a range of operations. The nineties also saw the bruising Front Line First and Options for Change reviews that saw Army personnel reduced by 25% and with SDR 98, an additional set of civil resilience and humanitarian relief demands. The Falklands conflict in 1982 underscored the requirement for greater cooperation and coordination between the services and operations in the Balkans merely confirmed that need. The success of British operations in the Gulf in 1991 served to confirm new equipment like Warrior, MLRS and Challenger Main Battle Tanks would still constitute the core of heavyweight combat power but this success hid a number of emerging structural, command and technology cracks.
Despite the creation of Permanent Joint Force Headquarters in 1994, operations in the Balkans showed yet again, difficulties with coordination across the services. Joint, expeditionary and the 1998 SDR went hand in hand.
SDR also ushered in a great deal of change in the MoD back office.
Following the 1998 SDR and Smart Procurement initiative, the MoD created a single Equipment Capability Customer (ECC) called Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability), a 3* joint post. Underneath, were four capability portfolios, each with a single manager; strategic deployment, strike, manoeuvre and information superiority. Spread across these four portfolios were fifteen individual 1* Directors of Equipment Capability (DEC).
The Joint Capabilities Board was chaired by the Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) with the four Capability Managers, the Director General (Equipment) and Director General (Research and Development). Director of Equipment Capability Ground Manoeuvre (DEC(GM)) would normally take the lead on requirements setting after consulting with various stakeholders. Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S) then delivers the requirement to the user. The Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) was responsible for equipment capability but did not sit on the Defence Procurement Agency Equipment Approval Committee.
The language might have been different as were much of the outputs, but fundamentally, the defence reform broad brush was the same on both sides of the Atlantic.
FRES was no different to many other projects that had to deal with the constantly shifting sands of acquisition reform, smart procurement, integrated project teams, the move from the Defence Procurement Agency to Defence Equipment and Support and the removal of the development establishments.
An important pillar of Post-Cold War British Defence thinking has been to be able to stand side by side with the USA. Nothing wrong with this of course but it does drive behaviours and for FRES, following US defence transformation was fundamental.
Whilst the UK was keen on the US Network Connected Warfare concept it adopted a much more cautious approach, Network Enabled Capability (NEC), reflecting the British focus on technology as an enabler, not a replacement for speed, surprise and superior fighting capabilities.
It is widely thought that the UK also insisted on C130 limits but in these early stages there was a recognition that the A400M was probably going to be ordered and so it was recognised that A400M would be the minimum requirement, C130 being desirable. In May 2003, the partner nations signed the development and production agreement for A400M, Atlas was on his way. The C130 limits and their attendant complications would come later in the FRES programme.
Although General Dannatt had been instrumental in getting MRAV and TRACER cancelled in favour of FRES in his autobiography he made the point about getting something into service quickly.
We were not aiming for a highly technical solution, merely something that could meet most of our requirements in a timely fashion.
This sentiment was echoed by then Chief of the General Staff, General Michael Walker who was quoted in the book ‘Transforming Military Power Since the Cold War’ about what the requirement was;
A big armoured box, stick an engine in it, a set of tracks or wheels, and upgrade it as and when we needed
The Army, despite cancelling MRAV, itself a big armoured box, wanted a big armoured box.
This is where the story gets interesting because reading between the lines it seems there was some disagreement about who was in the FRES driving seat, no pun intended.
In 2002, Air Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup was Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) and Royal Marine Major General Rob Fulton, Director of Equipment Capability (Information Superiority). It was Major General Fulton that coined the phrase NEC and produced the NEC plan in 2002, it being endorsed by the Joint Capability Board the same year.
In the same period, the Effects Based Approach to Operations (EBAO) would also be a significant influence on FRES. EBO was another US theory (USAF more accurately and mainly focussed on targeting) that would be developed further for the UK, this time by the Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre at Shrivenham, another result of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. In 2002, the Director General JDCC was Air Vice Marshal Ian McNicholl
Would it be fair to say that joint effects based transformation was being solely driven by the RAF and RN, probably not, but they were very influential and this overall theme would in turn influence the Army and its vehicle choices?
Whilst recognising the similarities between FCS and FRES it is equally important to take note of the differences.
FCS envisaged the network being at the heart of the system, FRES envisaged the network as an enabler. FCS was looking at replacing the concept of the main battle tank, FRES recognised the role of heavy forces.
Similar problems often drive different people to find similar solutions.
The three fundamental changes were the same for both the US Army and British Army and although the ambition of the two desired end states were different, FCS and FRES were very much in the same ballpark.
Events, as they so often do, would intervene.
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