Is IBCS Another 'Too Big to Succeed' Army Program?

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Nobody can accuse the Army’s acquisition system of thinking small. The Army has a nearly three-decades-long history of inventing massive, highly integrated and extremely complex modernization programs that go through years of research and development, cost billions of dollars and, in the end, often produce nothing.

The earliest example of this phenomenon was the RAH-66 Comanche, intended to be a stealthy scout/attack helicopter to replace both the Kiowa Warrior and the Apache. The program began in 1991 and was terminated in 2004 after producing two prototypes and spending nearly $7 billion.

The Crusader program started in 1994. It was intended to be an advanced mobile, long-range artillery system and to serve as the basis for a family of armored vehicles. The combination of the end of the Cold War and the system’s growing weight, complexity and cost resulted in Crusader’s cancellation in 2002 following the expenditure of more than $2 billion.

Then there was the canonical “too big to succeed” program, the Future Combat Systems (FCS). FCS was the largest and most ambitious acquisition program the Army ever attempted. It encompassed a suite of manned and unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, new long-range fire systems, a variety of sensors and a new command, control and communications architecture. Begun in 2003, the FCS program encountered a series of developmental delays, management mistakes and funding cuts that resulted in its cancellation in 2009 after some $19 billion had been spent. An attempt to harvest the work performed on the manned vehicle segment of FCS via the Ground Combat Vehicle program also came to naught when that program was terminated in 2014.

In contrast to these difficulties, the Army is really good at developing modifications and upgrades to existing platforms and systems that not only extend their life but improve their effectiveness. The Abrams Main Battle Tank, first produced in 1980, has undergone repeated upgrades. The latest of these, called the System Enhancement Package Version 3, will improve the tank’s flexibility, mobility and lethality. The Abrams’ companion in the armored brigade combat teams, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, has similarly benefitted from repeated modernization cycles in its nearly 40-year history. The replacement for the obsolete M-113 armored personnel carrier is the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle which is based on the Bradley chassis. The relatively new Stryker Infantry Fighting Vehicle, first produced in 2002, has undergone major enhancements to meet the challenge of both counterinsurgency warfare and major power competition. The Army is currently upgrading the Stryker fleet with a Double V-hull for protection against improvised explosive devices and pursuing an up-gunned variant, the Dragoon, with a 30mm cannon and potentially anti-tank guided missiles.

The Army also has been continually modernizing its fleets of Black Hawk, Apache and Chinook helicopters with improved avionics, better weapons and sensors and advanced survivability measures. So successful has the Army been in upgrading the Black Hawk and Apache that these platforms have gained a lot of weight and now need a new engine. The soon-to-be-awarded Improved Turbine Engine Program (ITEP), will provide a more capable system with a significantly improved power-to-weight ratio, reduced fuel consumption, greater design life, and lower procurement and sustainment costs. ITEP will allow the Black Hawks and Apaches to remain effective for decades to come.

So it is unsettling to see that the Army hasn’t learned from its own history. It is still creating large, complex, all-encompassing and expensive programs. The latest example is the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System which goes by the less wieldy initials IBCS. The program’s goal is to create a single shareable view of the battlespace of sufficient fidelity to enable air/missile defenders to rapidly select the best shooter for every target. The program has demonstrated that it can tie together Patriot air and missile defense launchers with the new Sentinel radar. The IBCS now is working to connect a broader set of Army air and missile defense systems. Later still, IBCS is supposed to connect to joint and even coalition assets.

Begun in 2004 IBCS was scheduled to achieve an initial operating capability (IOC) in 2018. Well, the program has already missed that date; the new IOC is 2022. In truth, the system won’t be fully operational until Increment 3 is fielded in 2025. But meeting even that date depends critically on successful development not only of the IBCS system but of several planned sensors, launchers and weapons systems. For example, another Army air defense program, the Indirect Fire Protection Capability, is itself still in development. Furthermore, the Army is accelerating deployment of air and missile defense systems such as the Interim Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense and its yet-to-be-defined follow-on that will need to connect to the IBCS. Once again, the Army is betting that all the stars in the firmament will align perfectly.

Ironically, much of what IBCS hopes to do is already being done without that program’s complexity, layers of bureaucracy and high price tag. Individual upgrade activities are providing the capabilities IBCS promises but in less time and lower cost. For example, the Army is already deploying a system called the Dismounted Patriot Information Coordination Central, which links individual dispersed Patriot batteries to air and missile defense radars. There is a program underway to connect the Army’s two primary air and missile defense systems, Patriot and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) so they can share data and coordinate their intercepts. A third initiative is focused on developing a common man-machine interface for Patriot units at battalion and battery. In essence, three-fourths of what IBCS is supposed to do is already being done.

IBCS is going the way of other Army mega-modernization programs. By the time the acquisition bureaucracy can define requirements, organize a program and develop the necessary funding plan and schedule, technology and the military environment will have changed. IBCS is going to be too late to meet the need, way too complicated to work and wildly expensive. We have seen this movie many times before. It ends badly for the Army.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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