Members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are concerned that the U.S. Army’s plans for the Future Combat System (FCS) are too ambitious, but the prime contractor for the effort is confident that it has a plan in place to manage risk on the program .

Boeing Co. has worked with the Army to take a variety of steps to ensure that the FCS capabilities come online as scheduled, and in fact intends to deliver some systems earlier than initially planned, according to Jack Paul, manager of FCS strategic business development at Boeing.

Those steps include the early purchase of new radios that will play a key role with the FCS, Paul said in June 5 interview.

FCS is envisioned as a family of ground vehicles as well as unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems that are linked by satellite and other communications connections. It includes 18 different systems, each equipped with computers and communications links.

One example of the advances that FCS plans to make is the ability to distribute information about the location of friendly and enemy forces on the battlefield, Paul said.

While this information, which is gathered by systems that rely on GPS navigation signals and are distributed via satellite communications links, was not widely available during Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, this capability, known in the military as “blue force tracking,” will be available to any soldier who is part of an FCS brigade, he said.

Paul said the steps that are being taken to mitigate the risk on FCS include early delivery of Joint Tactical Radio System ground mobile radio devices , which began in January. A recent delivery brought the number of radios to date to 27, and a total of 50 are expected by the end of the year, he said.

Boeing is using those radios at its Huntington Beach, Calif., facility to conduct exercises that examine the operation of the FCS network, Paul said.

Other steps to deal with the complexity of the FCS effort include the appointment of Frank De Mattia, a senior Boeing executive, to handle risk management, Paul said. De Mattia and his team work full time to monitor the program and raise red flags about portions of the effort that could cause problems, Paul said.

The FCS program was initially expected to cost $99 billion, but that figure rose to $160 billion after the program was restructured in 2004 to field certain capabilities earlier. The Pentagon created a series of four “spin outs,” adding money for four systems that were previously unfunded. The Defense Department also included money for additional experimentation. However, Paul said the $160 billion figure appears artificially high because it accounts for inflation that was not factored into the $99 billion figure.

Under the spin-out plan, the Army will begin fielding unattended ground sensors and remote weapons in 2008, rather than waiting until 2014 to begin fielding all of the systems together.

The next spin out would involve fielding four classes of unmanned aerial vehicles in 2010, followed by ground vehicles in 2012, and the full network beginning in 2014. The full capability of the various FCS systems is expected to be realized beginning in 2017.

GAO has raised concern about the FCS in past reports, and an agency official told Congress in April that the program is at a high risk of running into technical difficulty that could cause major problems for the Army’s future battle plans.

“FCS has all the markers for risk that would be difficult to accept for any single system, much less a complex, multi-program effort,” Paul Francis, director of acquisition and sourcing management, said in written testimony submitted to the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee April 4.

Congress also has expressed concern about FCS in the past, and did so again this year. The House of Representatives reduced the Army’s 2007 budget request of $3.7 billion for the program by $326 million in its version of the 2007 Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 5122, which passed the House May 11.

In a report accompanying the House version of the authorization bill, the House Armed Services Committee cited FCS as an example of its concern that the Army is not properly balancing technical risk with its desire to field improved capabilities.

The committee also expressed concern that the price tag of the FCS effort could rise, and noted a Congressional Budget Office analysis that projected the cost to increase by 60 percent based on historical trends. Significant cost growth could force the service to rob more near-term efforts and possibly reduce its force structure to cover the potential overruns, the committee stated.

“The committee believes that as the [Defense] Department proceeds with its decisions in reference to the FCS program, that it must preserve its ability to change course on acquiring FCS capabilities to guard against a situation in which FCS would have to be acquired at any cost,” the committee stated. “The [Defense] Department must hold the Army accountable for delivering FCS within programmed resources.”

The House authorization bill also caps annual spending on FCS at $2.85 billion in years beyond 2007 until the Army secretary submits a report on budget priorities related to the war against terrorism and modernization, and funds those priorities.

In a statement sent to Congress May 11 that addressed a variety of issues the White House has with the House version of the authorization bill, the Office of Management and Budget said that the proposed reduction to the FCS budget request would “unnecessarily impede Army modernization plans.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the Army’s 2007 budget request for FCS in its version of the bill, S. 2766, which has not yet come to the Senate floor for a vote.

However, the committee included a provision that would withhold $500 million from the FCS budget in 2007 until the secretary of defense submits a new cost estimate for the program to Congress.

In a report accompanying S. 2766, the Armed Services Committee stated that it believes that the current cost estimate “lacks a firm knowledge base” and might not cover all of the systems involved with FCS. The committee directed the Defense Department to obtain a new cost estimate from a federally funded research and development center.

Maj. Desiree Wineland, an Army spokeswoman, did not return requests for comment about this article .