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To give soldiers every advantage on the battlefield, the Army is purchasing 181 high-tech communications kits at $800,000 a pop.

But the service is spending that money — nearly $145 million — for something that’s still in the test phase and may never make it to infantry units on the front lines of the future.

According to a Government Accountability Office report issued Wednesday, the Army wants to modernize its combat vehicles and improve battlefield technology, but doesn’t consider whether upgrades are needed, or the likelihood of fielding such expensive initiatives.

The report comes as the Army simultaneously faces aging equipment and a need to tighten its purse strings.

“While continued development and testing of the (communications) kit may be appropriate, procurement of up to 181 units seems far beyond what may be needed for testing,” according to the GAO. “If the kit is not a viable, affordable, long-term solution as the Army has stated, we question why it is procuring kits for fielding.”

The report also questioned how the Army is carrying out a $40 billion plan to replace armored fighting vehicles in heavy and Stryker brigades.

As the Army proceeds with modernization plans, it needs to consider how badly upgrades are needed, available alternatives and the feasibility of rolling out these initiatives in the coming years, as well as costs, the GAO report states.

In 2009, the Army canceled its Future Combat Systems program, a modernization program that cost $18 billion since its inception in 2003. Critics said the program was too skewed toward future warfare with conventional armies rather than the asymmetrical insurgent fights the service has seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, and can expect to face in the coming years.

One initiative noted in the GAO report, the “early infantry brigade combat team,” involved the development of unmanned ground and air vehicles, sensors, precision launch systems and network integration kits. Many of the plan’s components were scrapped based on early tests of the equipment involved and “pervasive reliability problems.”

Some of the brigade program’s components were introduced in the Future Combat Systems initiative, according to the report, and are continuing to be developed. Despite concerns about the program revealed in 2009, the Army paid contractors more than $912 million for development of these systems between March and December 2010.

Questions also remain about how urgently the Army needs to replace its ground combat vehicles, particularly a seven-year time frame the GAO says is being driven by funding issues, not a capabilities gap on the ground.

One Army analysis found the service could improve the survivability and mobility of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle in the next seven years, and that the development of a next-generation combat vehicle would actually take 10 to 12 years, according to the GAO.

Major acquisitions like replacing ground vehicles have historically taken longer than the current time line, the report states.

“Decision makers should be careful to apply knowledge-based acquisition principles and not be artificially constrained by the predetermined fixed schedule,” according to the GAO. “The cost and affordability of the program must be confirmed through rigorous, independent cost estimates and an assessment made of whether the program is affordable in light of budget constraints.”


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