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Future Combat Systems: The Abandoned US Weapons Platform That Cost $18.1 Billion Dollars

The decade is the 2000s. The United States of America is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and basically anything that could benefit the military gets approved and a few billion dollars thrown its way. But as long-term viewers of this channel may have noticed, not every project born of the military industrial complex pans out. In fact, you could say that most of them don’t. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of them that didn’t. This is the story of Future Combat Systems, the US Army’s modernization program that ended up being a giant money sponge.

A Modernized Army

The origins of the FCS program begin in late 1999, when the Army Chief of Staff, Eric Shinseki, decided that the US Army needed to transform itself into a more streamlined and efficient organization. One of the primary goals in doing this was to increase the speed at which the army could deploy soldiers – if the forces were more modular, then different units could be quickly swapped out and thrown together in a more haphazard manner whilst retaining combat ability.

Eric Shinseki Official portrait as Vice Chief of
Staff of the Army

It was in this strategy of modernization that the Future Combat Systems program emerged. Now, the FCS program was huge and consisted of many different components, but the gist goes something like this. Over the course of three decades, the Army’s “Legacy Forces” consisting of heavier armored vehicles like the M-1 Abrams and the M-2 Bradley, would be steadily equipped with new, small and lightly armored vehicles. Some of these vehicles would be manned, but others wouldn’t, instead being operated remotely or even robotically, that is to say by an A.I.

All of these vehicles would be connected with each other in a network that was termed a “system of systems”. Whatever that means. In theory, all of these vehicles would be capable of communicating with each other through this network, providing enhanced situational awareness and… blah blah blah. Basically, the vehicles use other vehicles to see the targets and then they shoot them. Armies can talk about doctrines and stuff all they like, but at the end of the day it just boils down to “go here and shoot things”.

So, now that we’ve explained the overarching goal of the program, let’s get into some of the designs it came up with.

The Future of Warfare… Maybe

It should be noted before we get started that there’s not a lot of concrete information on this program because one, it was classified, and two, it was cancelled. So, yeah, it’s rather difficult. To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, the Wikipedia page for the “Manned Ground Vehicles” part of the program says, “The armor was a unique secret matrix that may be utilized by industry in the Ground Combat Vehicle program.” A unique secret matrix… what does that even mean?

The Ground Combat Vehicle program, by the way, is the successor program to the FCS after it was cancelled. So you might think to go there looking for information on this unique secret matrix, only to find out that that program was… also cancelled. Yes, really. The bottom line is that all of the information we give you here is relatively incomplete and might just be incorrect in some ways, but that’s really the best we can do.

Further information on these vehicles, or at least what they were intended to be, was taken from a report on the project’s cancellation as well as a PowerPoint from 2009 talking up the program. You can go and read this PowerPoint yourself, by the way; it’s one of the citations on Wikipedia. And we recommend you do, because it is one of the worst PowerPoints you’ve ever seen. Basically imagine everything your schoolteacher told you not to do with your presentation slides, throw all of it in the trash, and then do it anyway. Crammed information, designs overlayed on top of each other, misspelled words, the list goes on. But enough dunking on the Army’s PowerPoint skills, let’s get into some designs. There were a total of eight designs in the MGV portion of the program, and we’re going to talk about them all.

Starting with the basics, all of these models were designed with a common chassis. This would make streamlining production easier, as well as any maintenance. The idea was that if the vehicles were all very similar to each other, it would be easier to have mechanics from other units help to fix it.

Then we get into the specialized designs, with all their fancy names. These just count up in order, so we’ll go through them by number. Starting off the list, the XM1201 was to be a reconnaissance vehicle, with a suite of sensors such as infrared, radar, radio interception, and even a chemical sensor. This was to be the eyes and ears of the whole system, so to speak, finding targets for the other designs to shoot at.

Then we have the XM1202, which was probably the most conventional design of the entire program. This was intended to be a successor to the M-1 Abrams tank, and would be equipped with an auto loading 120mm main gun, a .50 caliber machine gun, and a 40mm automatic grenade launcher. Worth noting that the Abrams already has all of those things and then some, but move over, old man, it’s time for you to retire.

The XM1203 was, as far as we know, the only part of the program to actually get a working prototype. Its official name was the Non-Line-of-Sight-Cannon, a 155mm self-propelled Howitzer. It used technology from the XM2001 Crusader, another cancelled project, and would’ve been a replacement for the M109, which was first introduced all the way back in the 1960s. This design had a lot of overlap with the XM1204, a Non-Line-of-Sight mortar as opposed to a cannon and functioning in a similar role.

We’ve finished with the actual combat vehicles, so let’s wrap up by quickly summarizing the support vehicles. The XM1205 was by far the dopiest looking of the bunch, which is probably because it was intended to perform field repairs for broken vehicles. The XM1206 was a standard infantry carrier vehicle, and would’ve carried up to 9 passengers and all their equipment. The XM1207/8 was a mobile field hospital, and lastly the XM1209 was the “command and control vehicle” tying the whole thing together.

With that, we’re finished with the manned ground vehicles, which leaves us with the robots. Yes, the robots. These were relatively simple designs – one was a transport that would’ve been capable of hauling around 1000kg of equipment, one was designed to neutralize mines (and no, not by just running over them), and the other was a proper combat robot with guns attached to it. This last one was actually pursued for a number of years after the FCS program officially ended, but was ultimately cancelled like the rest of the program.

The last design we want to tell you about is the XM1216, a military robot whose primary purpose is to go forward and scout the area while the soldiers sit a safe distance back. And we mention this for two reasons: first, it may actually still be in use, with the Marine Corps ordering 75 in 2015, and second because it has created some amazing photographs, like this one of a soldier operating one with an Xbox 360 controller. If it works, it works, I guess.

Failure is Part of Success

The FCS program was officially “restructured” in April of 2009. Certain parts of the program would be spun off and introduced into Army units, but the manned ground vehicles were to be scrapped. Shortly after that, the program was cancelled in its entirety, with the final cost coming out to $32 billion over the course of fourteen years. Probably for the best, all things considered, but I guess we’ll never know for sure if the FCS program could’ve proven itself in combat. One might even say it’s a unique secret matrix.

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