STEPHEN MANNINGWASHINGTON (AP) ¿ The Army plans to break up its $160 billion modernization plan and will give the high-tech fighting tools to all its combat brigades instead of just a handful as originally planned, a spokesman for the service said Monday. The decision to field the robots, precision missiles and surveillance tools across the Army's force essentially dissolves what has been one of the service's top weapons programs for the past 10 years, and a target of criticism over whether it was affordable and would work. The Army had envisioned a force of 15 brigades that combined gadgetry with heavy firepower that could dominate battles through military muscle and advanced technology. The service planned to field the Future Combat Systems brigades with all the equipment. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month proposed stripping $87 billion worth of ground vehicles and a giant cannon from the program, saying they didn't fit with the Army's current fights against insurgencies in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Critics, including the Government Accountability Office, also have argued that some of the technology was untested, a claim the Army vigorously disputed.
Instead of fielding just the 15 brigades, the Army will gradually introduce the Future Combat Systems tools to all of its 73 existing brigades, said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the program. The new approach is a "more holistic modernization effort," he said. The change will be outlined in an acquisition decision memo in the next few weeks, he added. The Army already has said it plans to develop a new ground vehicle to replace those that would be canceled under Gates' proposal. The new vehicles are expected to be better designed for fighting insurgents, and will include more protection against road side bombs. Boeing Co. and SAIC Inc. are the lead contractors on the Future Combat Systems program, which includes work by most of the nation's major defense contractors. In a joint statement, the companies said the Army's decision to spin out Future Combat Systems tools to all of its brigades "represents a vote of confidence in both the technological maturity of the program and the role we have played in that effort." The acquisition decision will provide more detail on the contractors' role under the new plan, said Boeing spokesman Matthew Billingsley.
Defense analyst James McAleese said the Army likely will keep Boeing and SAIC for work on the overall network, but it's unclear whether the two will be part of the new combat vehicle program. "They are going to have to hustle to demonstrate their need to the rest of the program," McAleese said. Future Combat Systems had included 14 different weapons systems and an overarching information network to weave them together. Unmanned vehicles would help spot foes and hunt road side bombs. Giant cannons and precision missiles were designed to hit targets from miles away. New armored vehicles would ferry soldiers into combat and shepherd them out if they were injured. Satellites would help commanders collect the information they need to make decisions in battle. But with so many different components, critics said the Army was rushing to cobble together its plan without making sure the technology worked or fulfilled its mission. In March, the GAO said the cost of the program likely would grow, and recommended that Congress not approve full funding until the Army better justified its costs and capabilities.