Some of the key systems that will enable future network centric operations offer great promise, but their development is plagued by considerable risk, according to recent congressional language and government audit reports.

Some experts believe that this risk should not keep the Pentagon from developing new platforms like the Future Combat System (FCS), but recommend that the military focus on fielding the technology in a more incremental fashion.

Experts believe this type of gradual approach may not appear to have as high an immediate payoff for new network centric systems as military and industry planners envision, but say it could be the most effective way to achieve some near-term improvements in capability while minimizing cost growth.

This has worked in the past with the development of new weapons that initially are not as capable as some planners might have hoped, but are regularly upgraded so that future variants are far more effective, said James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

Lewis cautioned Congress and the Pentagon from turning their backs on FCS because of the problems experienced on the effort. Aircraft like the SR-71 reconnaissance plane and the B-29 bomber ran into major developmental problems, but ultimately worked and proved valuable, he said.

The U.S. Army envisions FCS as a fleet of relatively lightweight combat vehicles connected via satellite and airborne communications systems. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) addressed FCS, as well as several other interdependent systems that are under development, in a report released July 2 entitled “Defense Acquisitions: Resolving Development Risks in the Army’s Networked Communications Capabilities is Key to Fielding Future Force.”

The report found that each of the communications links for FCS, which has a total price tag of $108 million, “is struggling to meet ambitious sets of user requirements and steep technical challenges within highly compressed schedules.”

The Army’s current approach to those programs — which includes the Joint Tactical Radio System, the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical and the System of Systems Common Operation Environment — is unlikely to yield the expected capabilities by the initial FCS deployment in 2008, according to the audit report.

The Joint Tactical Radio System program, which will provide a key communications link for FCS as well as a variety of other military ground vehicles and helicopters, is struggling to meet requiremen ts for size, power and range of transmission. The problems with the initial batch of radios could delay scheduled availability past 2008, according to the report. These problems have raised the cost of procuring the initial batch of radios, known as Cluster 1, by $531 million over its initial budget estimate. The new estimate at $898 million caused the Pentagon to consider scrapping the Cluster 1 purchase, according to the report.

Program officials working on a lighter-weight variant of the radios known as Cluster 5 have run into trouble as well, according to the audit report. The Cluster 5 radios would be far lighter than the 84-pound Cluster 1 radios — some would weigh only one pound. However, power supply and cooling system work for the smaller radios has stumbled, casting doubt on whether they will be ready for the initial FCS deployment, according to the report.

Key technology for the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical system still is immature, and is not likely to be ready by March 2006 when the equipment is slated to go into production, according to the report. A delay on this equipment could hamper the ability of FCS vehicles to communicate on the move.

Philip Coyle, a former top Pentagon weapons tester, noted that soldiers in FCS vehicles could be extremely vulnerable if they run into communications problems during deployment. The vehicles need connectivity to enable their high-speed operations with light armor, he said, noting that Army ground vehicles in Iraq have struggled to defend themselves against the relatively modest weapons employed by insurgents.

One Army official who declined to be identified said that the risk identified by the GAO is not the last word on the matter. The GAO has labeled other elements of FCS, such as a backpacked-sized unmanned aerial vehicle, as risky in the past, but work on those systems has progressed well, the official said. The Army has contingency plans to use less-capable radios for the initial FCS deployment if necessary, the official said.

The GAO report was requested by U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

The Army is facing a $449 million funding reduction to its 2006 budget request for FCS on Capitol Hill in the House version of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act.

In a report accompanying the House legislation, which was passed by the House June 20, Lewis’ committee indicated that it “harbors serious concerns” about the Army’s progress on the program as well as the affordability of FCS.

James Carafano, a senior defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a think tank here, said that the Army should re-examine the elements of the FCS system to focus on fielding the most mature systems first.

This approach could result in the initial FCS deployment bearing little resemblance to the visions on briefing charts when the Army began working on the effort, but it would allow the service to make incremental improvements to its network centric warfare concepts, Carafano said.