The Future of Army’s “Future Combat Systems”

Fact:  The U.S. Army is currently in the midst of a multi-year, $6 billion software development program which it says “dwarfs Microsoft Windows.”

Analysis: The Washington Post did a long piece on the U.S. Army’s gargantuan Future Combat Systems program today, not overly critical but quite skeptical. 

Some highlights of the program itself, which has its own comprehensive site maintained by the Army: 

  • FCS is the “Big Kahuna” of Army modernization, full-on system-of-systems;
  • It’s a $200 billion program, called the most thorough modernization of the Army since WWII;
  • All depends on a massive software development effort led by Boeing; 
  • The S/W development cost alone is around $6 billion (H/W costs are much larger, for the actual weapons, tanks, etc.).

When I was serving at the Defense Intelligence Agency, I was aware that (a) everyone associated with FCS had their fingers crossed and eyes closed when talking about it; (b) everyone not associated with it used the same tone of voice about FCS as they used about FBI’s Virtual Case File and NSA’s Trailblazer – two well-known large-scale failed technology programs.  Many people who know more about FCS than I do consider it a pipe-dream (here’s a good Heritage Foundation backgrounder on the program).  Yet the program continues to spend billions and the Army is slogging on with it.

So here’s what I really think about it:

I admit that I was struck by the curious logic in a parade of statements relating to Microsoft in the Post’s article:

  • FCS is “the largest software program in Defense Department history, a project that the military says dwarfs Microsoft’s Windows”
  • “The central part of the software effort is an operating system being developed by Boeing called the System-of-Systems Common Operating Environment, or SOSCOE, which is supposed to be like Windows, the world’s dominant operating system, only better.”
  • “Boeing and the Army said they chose not to use Microsoft’s proprietary software because they didn’t want to be beholden to the company, opting instead to develop a Linux-based operating system based on publicly available code.”
  • “Instead of Microsoft, Boeing said it is using software developed by a hodgepodge of companies including Red Hat and Wind River Systems. Boeing is developing the operating system with SAIC, which is also assisting Boeing on another critical piece of software for the Army program, the Warfighter Machine Interface, or WMI, which is essentially what soldiers will see on their monitors.”
  • “The GAO, Congress’ watchdog, says the Army underestimated the undertaking. When the software project began, investigators say the Army estimated it needed 33.7 million lines of code; it’s now 63.8 million.” [my note: Windows XP included some 40 million lines of code; Windows Vista somewhere north of 50 million lines. Here’s the most recent GAO assessment of FCS.]
  • “Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s FCS PM, said, ‘The scope and scale of the software job was well understood from the start.’ He said that Boeing has delivered about a third of the software and that it remains on schedule to be completed in 2012….While he acknowledged the number of lines have increased, he said that is largely because of the use of more commercial software, which he said saves Boeing time and money.”
  • The GAO is studying Future Combat Systems’ software development, expecting to issue a report in March.”

I wish Boeing well, obviously, as the Army’s transformational efforts depend mightily on a successful FCS program.  The company still has a chance to pull the program through, and make net-centricity a reality for the grittiest of Army systems.  But one thing wasn’t mentioned in the Post’s article: Congress has again reduced FCS funding (by about $200 million) in FY08, in addition to about $825 million over the past three years; and additionally identified cuts over the next five years of $3.4 billion, according to the Heritage report. 

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