This Failed Modernization Program Is Still Inspiring Major Army Breakthroughs

This Failed Modernization Program Is Still Inspiring Major Army Breakthroughs

While deemed a failure in some respects, the “ghost” of the Future Combat System can now be seen as truly visionary.


It was more than fifteen years ago when the U.S. Army embarked upon a paradigm-shifting modernization effort then known as the Future Combat System (FCS), an elaborate series of weapons, armored vehicles, and next-generation sensors, carried out with a “system-of-systems” network approach, that aimed to transmit critical real-time data across the force. 

The concept of FCS, which was brought to life through demonstrations and experiments over many years, was to enable a future force to meet and destroy fast-developing, high-tech threats. The program evolved considerably, resulting in the construction of a new fleet of twenty-seven-ton Manned Ground Vehicles (MGVs) for armored warfare. This effort included an entire series of eight vehicles with a Non-Line-of-Sight Cannon (NLOS-C), Mounted Combat System (MCS), and medical and reconnaissance variants. The vehicles were engineered to be lighter, faster, propelled by a hybrid electric drive, and operate with 360-degree sensors. The development of the MGVs was based on the “survivability onion” concept, a breakthrough command and control technology designed to enable a series of integrated sensors and active protection systems to detect and destroy threats before taking a hit from enemy fire. 


Much work was done, on the NLOS-C and MCS in particular, to enable a paradigm-changing measure of heavy firepower on a much smaller, twenty-seven-ton chassis. The NLOS-C was built for a high rate of 155m artillery fire, while the MCS was outfitted with a 120mm cannon to fire tank rounds. These platforms, as well as the concept of FCS, generated much success and optimism about future combat capabilities.

However, the program was canceled in 2009 by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. In the years following this cancellation, many have come to believe that the FCS program, while brilliant and successful in many ways, was perhaps overly ambitious in its scope and not yet mature enough to continue. Gates raised concerns about the survivability of the smaller twenty-seven-ton armored vehicles given the massive IED and underbelly vehicle attacks commonly seen during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, some officials expressed concern that lighter-weight vehicles, even if reinforced by composite materials, might prove too vulnerable if they took a hit. What if, for instance, the vehicle’s network malfunctioned or was hacked? In a combat environment, the vehicles might have been more vulnerable to these threats. 

One of the great ironies of the FCS program is that, despite its cancellation, it pioneered the conceptual framework and technological focus of major U.S. Army successes in the realm of breakthrough networking and sensor-to-shooter timeline improvement, including experiments such as Project Convergence.

Since 2020, the Project Convergence “campaign of learning” has successfully shortened sensor-to-shooter attack time from twenty minutes to twenty seconds, introducing breakthrough attack speeds now inspiring evolved combined arms maneuver concepts. Project convergence is now arguably achieving the “system-of-systems” multi-domain, high-speed networking envisioned with the FCS decades ago. Ultimately, while it was deemed a failure in some respects over the years, the “ghost” of FCS could be seen as inspirational and truly visionary. 

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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