Army to end robotic vehicle, aircraft efforts

The Army has informed Congress that it is terminating a robotic vehicle and an unmanned aircraft program that were once part of the Army’s largest modernization effort.

The move, which comes as the Pentagon prepares its 2011 budget request, highlights the Army’s need to pour money into technologies that military planners see as much more necessary to support soldiers deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq.

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The cancellation of the unmanned ground and air vehicle programs eviscerates what once was known as the Army’s Future Combat Systems. The once-ambitious $160 billion FCS was envisioned as a series of combat vehicles and unmanned systems linked through a software network, but has been whittled down to a few sensors and small unmanned systems.

The software network is still in development, but congressional sources question its future in light of all the recent cancellations.

The termination decision comes after Pentagon officials tasked the Army with devising a modernization strategy composed of separate programs. The remaining technology development efforts from the FCS era are now referred to as Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization.

The unmanned ground vehicle that was partially terminated is known as MULE, for Multifunction Utility/Logistics and Equipment Countermine and Transport, while the terminated unmanned aerial vehicle is called Fire Scout or Class IV. The MULE program includes three different kinds of vehicles with different capabilities: the countermine, transport and light-assault. The Army only terminated the countermine and transport variants.

Lockheed Martin has been developing the MULE, while Northrop Grumman is the contractor for Fire Scout. Northrop Grumman is also building the vertical takeoff and landing unmanned aerial vehicle for the Navy.

Boeing and SAIC were the lead contractors for the now-defunct FCS but have transitioned to the role of prime contractors for the Army Brigade Combat Team Modernization program.

Boeing and SAIC have a number of subcontractors for the various technologies being developed under the program. The MULE and Class IV terminations are at subcontract level.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced last April his decision to kill the manned ground vehicle portion of FCS. Gates expressed concerns that the Army had not adequately incorporated in the vehicles’ design lessons learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following Gates’s announcement, Pentagon acquisitions chief Ashton Carter formally ended the FCS program in June and directed the Army to modernize its technology as part of separate programs.

In its termination letters to lawmakers, the Army said that the two MULE variants eliminated "did not meet rapidly changing threats, nor meet the Army’s future mission needs." Instead, the Army will continue the development of the Armed Robotic Vehicle Assault (Light), which will also incorporate the technologies derived from the two other MULE systems.

Regarding the Class IV unmanned aerial system, the Army told lawmakers that an existing program, the Shadow UAV, can meet the Army needs with some technology improvements, instead of investing in the Fire Scout.

"All of these restricting steps are being taken to ensure that the Army does not lose time in providing the best possible advantages to its soldiers while remaining ever fiscally responsible to the American citizen," the Army said in the termination letters to Congress.

Boeing confirmed that it received the terminations of the contracts as well.

"These platforms are currently in System Development and Demonstration as part of the Brigade Combat Team Modernization (BCTM) program. We will now begin notifying those partners and suppliers impacted by the order and initiate the termination proposal process with the Army," Matthew Billingsley, a Boeing spokesman, said in a statement.

This story was updated at 10:48 a.m. on Jan. 13. and 5:28 p.m. on Jan. 14.