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06-30-08, 07:59 AM
The revolution of warfare

San Diego-based SAIC is tackling part of the costliest,most complex modernization program in the Army's history
By Paul M. Krawzak

June 29, 2008

WASHINGTON – Imagine a battlefield where soldiers, sensors, robots, vehicles and weapons are all linked in a high-speed wireless network, allowing the enemy to be seen, monitored and, if necessary, attacked from afar.

Such is the promise of Future Combat Systems, a $160 billion Army modernization effort in which San Diego-based SAIC is a key contractor.

FCS is the largest, most costly and complex modernization program in Army history. Proponents say it will revolutionize warfare, increasing the lethal force of U.S. troops while providing them with additional protection.

It's also a big deal for SAIC, which serves as co-manager of the program in its capacity as co-lead systems integrator with the much larger Boeing Corp.

SAIC will earn about $2.7 billion from its contract with the Army, marking the largest contract ever won by the company.

“FCS is the most relevant program in the Army, and many would suggest the most relevant program in the Department of Defense,” said Dan Zanini, an SAIC senior vice president who serves as deputy program manager of Future Combat Systems.

Winning the contract to help integrate the program was a leap forward for SAIC, a company that prides itself on providing scientific, engineering and technical solutions to defense and intelligence agencies, analysts said.

“Here they are on the same level as a Boeing,” said Alex Hamilton, who follows SAIC for Jesup & Lamont. “Psychologically, it just catapults SAIC into a whole new level.”

Under current plans, FCS will consist of 14 pieces of equipment – including portable sensors, unmanned air and ground vehicles and guided rockets – connected by a network that will transmit photos, video and other data, and allow soldiers to talk with one another.

Some of the more unusual devices in the system include a keg-sized, unmanned aerial vehicle – essentially a flying robot – that can “perch and stare,” sending back photos, video and other information.

An unmanned ground vehicle that fits into a backpack can be sent into buildings by remote control to search for explosives.

Another weapon, popularly called “Rockets in a Box,” resembles a refrigerator. Dropped into the field by parachute, it can be placed on a vehicle or the ground. Rockets can be fired from the box by a soldier using remote control from a distant location and guided to targets identified by unmanned vehicles.

Although the system was conceived before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Army officials insist it is also suited to battling insurgents and terrorists in the 21st century.

The five-year-old program is controversial.

Critics say it's too costly, isn't being managed properly and ultimately might not work. Some doubt its effectiveness against an irregular enemy.

But the program will reach a key juncture next month, with plans to test equipment developed at Fort Bliss, Texas. That equipment includes sensors, small unmanned air and ground vehicles, rockets and a kit to link Army vehicles to the system.

The entire FCS system will not be fully developed until 2015.

One complaint about the program has been that FCS isn't geared to the most immediate threats facing U.S. troops.

With that in mind, the Army announced Thursday that the first equipment developed for the system would be fielded to combat infantry brigades, which need it the most, rather than heavier brigades as previously planned. The first soldiers will get that equipment in 2011.

Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, has pushed the Army in the past to accelerate its plans to get equipment to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He welcomed plans to outfit infantry brigades first.

“I think the Army is refocusing on FCS in terms of being able to get a capability to the field, to the troops, as quickly as possible,” Hunter said.

The Army also faces the task of persuading Congress to provide sufficient funding, a job that takes on added urgency with the possible changeover to an administration that may be inclined to cut the program.

Gregg J. Martin, FCS program manager and a Boeing vice president, said maintaining stable funding is his greatest challenge.

In the past three years, Congress has cut the program by almost $800 million.

Whenever funds are cut, the program has to be reorganized, Martin said.

Congress has yet to finalize funding for next year. Although the Senate authorized the full $3.6 billion requested by the Bush administration, the House refused to go along, slicing $200 million from that sum.

SAIC has been working on FCS since 2002, when it and Boeing were chosen to manage a program the Army viewed as too complex to handle by itself.

Under the $21 billion management contract, SAIC is allotted 15 percent of the work, while Boeing gets 85 percent.

The two companies are overseeing the more than 500 contractors and suppliers operating in 41 states who are involved in the program.

SAIC has assigned 430 employees to the project, including program managers, system and software engineers, and other experts.

“We work from concept to the architecture to the design and then go out and do source selection, identifying ... those best-of-industry companies that can produce for us the systems and the ... subcomponents of those systems,” said Zanini, a retired three-star general who commanded Army forces in South Korea.

The company also is heavily involved in developing software for the system.

Little of the work is being done in San Diego, where SAIC is based.

“We move the work force to where the center of gravity is for the work,” Zanini said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is that we are nested with our customers.”

While FCS has many supporters, there is no shortage of critics.

Chief among these is the Government Accountability Office, which says the program commits billions of dollars to development before ensuring that the system will work as planned.

“In the key areas of defining and developing FCS capabilities, requirements definition is still fluid, critical technologies are immature, software development is in its early stages (and) the information network is still years from being demonstrated,” the agency said in an April report.

The managers of the program counter that they are using an innovative development model, which they say is better suited to a huge project with multiple interlocking parts.

Zanini said FCS is being developed in phases. At each stage, products are tested by soldiers to see if they work and how they can be improved, he said. Lessons learned from testing are applied to the next phase of development, which allows the program to keep up with advances in technology, he said.

“You're in a build-test-build cycle throughout the life of the program,” Zanini said. “If you didn't take that approach, you'd be gambling.”

Despite criticism of FCS, SAIC has drawn positive reviews for its role.

Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute, said managing the program is a breakthrough for SAIC.

“They seem to have done their job as well as Boeing in terms of keeping the program on track and the budget within the available funding,” Thompson said.

Cai von Rumohr, who follows SAIC for Cowen and Co., said FCS positions the company for more ambitious projects in the future.

“It's been a good piece of business,” he said.

Paul M. Krawzak: (202) 737-7688,paul.krawzak@copleydc.com