By Ann Roosevelt

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M.–Technical Field Tests (TFT) are under way for the Army’s most mature Future Combat System (FCS) equipment leading to limited soldier testing in late summer.

"We’re trying to weed out any issues prior to giving the equipment to soldiers," Jerry Tyree, deputy director Army Evaluation Task Force Integration, told reporters here.

The tests are another step toward improving how soldiers conduct operations across the spectrum of warfare in an era likely to consist of continuing conflict.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates April 6 recommended accelerating the early FCS equipment to all Army brigades (Defense Daily, April 7).

Earlier this month, Boeing received an $18.7 million contract to buy long-lead items, including non-recurring test items, tools and other needs to meet projected Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) requirements for the FCS E-Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT)–work to be completed by January 2010.

In particular, the Honeywell [HON] Class 1 unmanned aerial vehicle, iRobot‘s [IRBT] small unmanned ground vehicle (SUGV), and Textron‘s [TXT] Urban unmanned ground vehicles and the Network Integration Kit (NIK) were being tested here May 28.

The Non-Line of Sight Launch System (NLOS LS) under development by NetFires, a joint venture formed by Raytheon [RTN] and Lockheed Martin [LMT], and Textron’s Tactical UGS are also part of the equipment set.

While soldiers in current operations may have robotic vehicles or unmanned aerial vehicles, the ability for small units and equipment to pass images and data to each other and to higher command over a network does not exist.

The TFT-Alpha tests are examining FCS software and how images and data from the equipment were passed to and through Army battle command systems.

"It’s better to find problems early on [in] prototype systems rather than having to redesign something that’s ready for production," Tyree said. In his 26 years at White Sands, he said, "I have never ever seen anything work perfectly the first time out of the box. Never ever."

The Early-IBCT equipment is slated for fielding as a set of equipment initially to IBCTs in 2011 with all 73 Army brigades receiving the equipment by 2025.

As the FCS equipment continues to mature, incremental improvements will be made.

Army officials and testers here are working closely with the FCS Lead System Integrator Boeing [BA]-SAIC [SAI] conducting the tests. Field service representatives from developers of the E-IBCT equipment were on scene and working to ensure the tests went smoothly. Currently, the FCS industry team currently consists of about 900 suppliers in 43 states.

TFT Bravo running from about June 15 through July will follow TFT Alpha. In the Bravo test series, some 72 soldiers will participate, setting up a tactical operations center and running maneuver and movement scenarios to simulate tactical operations.

The FCS LSI, government and industry then turn the equipment over to the Army Evaluation Task Force (AETF), for limited user tests (LUT) overseen by the Army operational test command, expected late this summer.

While AETF soldiers work with E-IBCT equipment and master trainers observe TFT-A, the Future Force Integration Directorate, which commands AETF, is examining issues such as supporting the equipment in the field, how to maintain the equipment in an operational environment, the tactics, techniques and procedures associated with the equipment and the doctrine, or how to use it. Everything will be ready to go when the equipment is ready for fielding.

The LUT provides more information on the E-IBCT equipment and it all goes to support a Milestone C production decision by the end of the year.