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Anyone who’s been in the defense industry for any significant number of years has probably felt the impact of a major program getting cancelled or restructured. The upheaval ripples through companies of all sizes—technology supplier companies and defense contractors alike. And the disrupted or lost opportunities are hard to cope with. Such was the case with the Army’s massive Future Combat System program. In April of last year Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a bold decision to not just restructure FCS but to cancel the program. While all the reasons for cancelling it seem valid in hindsight, even I as a journalist felt a pang of loss—only because it was a program I had gained a lot of knowledge about over the years. Over the past year, the Army has turned its efforts toward the development of a new vehicle called the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV). Being in the technology information business, I’ve been hungry for details about the GCV, but the past several months haven’t yielded much as primes have been busy responding to RFPs and the development of their bid designs.
Some light was shed late last month when BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman did a media briefing talking about some specifics of their team bid for the GCV competition. They provided a graphical rendering of their GCV design (see p.8 in this issue). As is typical of such briefings, most of the media is interested in “outside in” sorts of details about the GCV, so the briefing was geared in that direction. As Editor of a technology magazine, my interests are more from an “inside out” perspective, but the BAE Systems folks were kind enough to get me that level of information in response to the follow up questions I had.
The burning question for our military embedded computing industry is, of course, what type of embedded form factors and architectures will be used in these vehicles? A good number of vendors in our industry had contracts to supply boards to various manned vehicles of the FCS programs, so they’re watching what happens with the GCV very closely. One of the points I was most curious about was how much of GCV’s computing and networking systems (including software) would be leveraged from work developed as part of the Future Combat Systems program. The RFPs for the GCV permitted bidders to make use of prior Army investment in armor configurations. It was stipulated however that contractors would not get an inherent advantage for doing so, and would instead be judged on their own merits.
As expected, the BAE Systems/ Northrop Grumman team said that they will indeed leverage significantly from FCS work. The CGV employs a general purpose computing platform throughout the vehicle, and they say their choice for those processors is a direct derivative of the FCS computer. The GCV’s software architecture also builds on lessons learned from FBCB2 Joint Capabilities Release (JCR). The JCR version of Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) software provides a common FBCB2 platform solution for both the Army and U.S. Marine Corps. By staying aligned with the FCS computer design, the GCV’s computer is primed to incorporate the FCS-developed Network Interface Kit’s (NIK) battle command software and network communication capabilities.
The GCV’s C4ISR system will exploit the capabilities of both JTRS and WIN-T by directly integrating those capabilities into the vehicle. All that is intended to meet the requirement to augment the commander’s situational awareness and ability to coordinate squad operations.
It’s natural to assume that the GCV would leverage a technology like OpenVPX for its C4ISR computer systems. When asked about that, the BAE-NG team expressed that embedded computing technology doesn’t completely address the difficult GCV environment. They do expect to exploit OpenVPX products, but those products will have to meet not just the rigorous temperature profile, but also meet requirements for shock/vibration, for chemical, nuclear, biological, and for high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) survivability. Meeting those requirements with a high-availability computing and data bus platform will, they say, call for close collaboration between product developers and system integrators. Other factors such as information assurance and roadmaps for performance/capacity growth will also come into play.
Not surprisingly, they couldn’t share many details about their GCV’s drive electronics because it’s still competition sensitive. But they are using a strategy for their drive electronics and the weapons control that is scalable, survivable and open—along the same lines as their GCV C4ISR platform implementation.
It may be a few months still before contracts are awarded. And how many contractors are involved will depend on funding. Then begins the technology development phase, subsystem prototypes and so on. The current schedule calls for first production vehicles to be around 2017. Given the history of extreme costs and problems with the FCS program, it’s clear that Congress’s level of scrutiny on the GCV program will be high. That will probably translate into fewer numbers of prototype platforms and the computing and electronics that go with them. That could impact the types of volumes embedded computer vendors can sell into that process. But it could just as easily build up the pressure for primes to leverage computing solutions from outside embedded computing vendors rather than doing their own.