Death by technology

How Gates condemned the U.S. military to equipment that is so last century.

By Thomas Donnelly

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's decision to end the Future Combat Systems (FCS) program may be a budgetary necessity, but it is a nightmare for a force that hasn't modernized since the Reagan years. As U.S. military equipment has fallen behind, warfare has kept up with the times. The FCS, begun in 1999, was meant to build a new generation of ground combat vehicles to keep pace. By quashing those efforts, Gates has widened the gap between modern wars and U.S. equipment.

It is true that the program had its kinks. The Army struggled to define just what FCS would look like in the post-9/11 world, and controversy grew over the program's seemingly unsatisfactory products and ballooning budget, which recently reached $200 billion by some estimates. Indeed, many pundits and defense analysts hailed FCS's termination as a bold reform; one retired four-star general calls it a "mercy killing." 

But with another look, it is apparent just how misguided this budget trimming will be. Without a source for new equipment, the Army will be forced to use and reuse systems dating back to the Cold War. It will be in no position to refashion itself systematically to meet the needs of U.S. involvement across the greater Middle East. Gates, the supposed visionary of irregular warfare, is now making the past's mistakes once again: He is assuming that today's combat challenges -- think IEDs in Iraq circa 2006 -- will also be tomorrow's threats.

The Army's current systems are not what the Army most needs, nor will they be in the future. The M1 Abrams and M2/M3 Bradley have been (and will remain) the Army's dominant heavy tracked combat vehicles. But they're old -- designed in the 1970s and first fielded in 1980 -- and getting worn out much faster thanks to the demands of recent years. These are vehicles conceptualized and built with the Soviet threat and a German theater in mind. In modern times, their capabilities weigh heavily -- literally -- on Army operations. The tanks are each 70 tons, with powerful turbine engines that guzzle down fuel. That was no problem when the hypothetical war was in Germany. But where supply lines are stretched and combat operations are widely dispersed, as in most 21st-century wars, the tank is itself a logistical complication.

At first glance, the Stryker looks like it might do better in modern warfare. An eight-wheeled vehicle, it has a more efficient engine and can move rapidly. But the Stryker lacks the off-road capability of a tracked vehicle like the Abrams or Bradley. Although it performed beyond expectations in Iraq -- and should as well in Afghanistan, where it is just being introduced --  it can only play a niche role, since its combat capabilities are limited.

Then there are the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), refashioned from an older model after an inexcusable three years of war to resist IEDs in Iraq. The MRAPs do what they were designed to do: They are single-purpose vehicles, basically heavily armored monster trucks. But the danger now is that the MRAPs risk becoming the backbone around which the Army is structured, despite their uselessness as fighting vehicles.

The ability to adapt and equip for new conflicts in a timely manner should be a top priority. Future vehicles will have to include all-aspect protection (that is, shells that can resist impact from above, below, and either side), a common chassis design to ease the logistical challenges on distant battlefields, and fuel-efficient engines that generate electricity for onboard and personal electronics. FCS was designed to provide these elements. Absent FCS, innovation and redevelopment will move forward only haphazardly by modifying current vehicles or introducing new systems one at a time. There will be no way to ensure common design elements across the entire force. 

Gates's decision delays Army modernization for a decade. U.S. soldiers have proven time and time again that they can make do with aging and imperfect weaponry. But they should not have to keep stretching the capabilities of Cold War-era systems that already feel dated. The termination of FCS delays the Army's ability to, as Secretary Gates often says, "win the war we're in."

Thomas Donnelly is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photo: Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images