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For military contractors, FCS is far from a done deal

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If the U.S. Army decides to reduce funding for Abrams tanks, M2 Bradleys and Stryker wheeled combat vehicles, it will mean some fresh challenges for General Dynamics Corp. and BAE Systems Plc.

General Dynamics, based in Falls Church, Va., builds Abrams tanks and Stryker wheeled combat vehicles, while BAE Systems, Farnborough, England, makes M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles.

But the move toward Future Combat Systems (FCS) might not be entirely unwelcome. The two companies together secured contracts to build prototypes of the lighter FCS manned ground vehicles.

A General Dynamics spokesman said his company isn't anticipating significant changes in its steel plate requirements "for the time being." He declined to speculate further, noting that possible cuts by the U.S. Army haven't been confirmed at this point. "Orders for armor upgrades and for Stryker production are all continuing fairly aggressively," he said. "There is a significant backlog in all of those vehicle programs, so based on that we don't anticipate any significant changes."

General Dynamics expects to produce a total of 477 Abrams tanks this year, up 71 percent from 279 in 2007, according to another company spokesman. The company's plans for the Stryker were scaled back slightly, though, with 316 Stryker wheeled vehicles earmarked for production this year, 20 percent less than the 397 produced in 2007.

General Dynamics uses 3.7 tons of steel per Abrams tank and 6 tons in each Stryker wheeled vehicle, according to Peter Keating, vice president of communications at General Dynamics Land Systems, the division focused specifically on military ground vehicles. General Dynamics uses military-grade high-hard steel on both the hull and turret of Abrams tanks, while Strykers have steel hulls with an overlay of ceramic armor tiles.

Lighter-weight materials, including aluminum composites, are being targeted for use in FCS manned ground vehicles, Keating said. However, he noted that FCS vehicles are still early in the design phase and plans can change. "Those decisions are still about two years away, so there are no specifics yet. We're only building eight of the FCS prototypes in the next year, and as for further prototypes after that those decisions will be made later next year."

Chicago-based Boeing Co. and Science Applications International Corp. are leading the FCS modernization effort, intended to be a family of 14 manned and unmanned aerial and ground systems tied together by communications and information links. The U.S. Army said in June it wants to speed up delivery of portions of the FCS weapons program to get equipment to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan as soon as possible.

A significant ramp-up of FCS manned ground vehicles would take three years after a final decision is made to proceed, Keating said. A new administration in the White House also could throw a wrench in the plans, as it could bring new or different spending priorities.

As for BAE Systems, a company spokesman for the defense giant didn't appear to be sounding any alarms. "In response to orders for steel plating and vehicles, BAE Systems is flexible and responds to the needs and requirements set by the U.S. Army as outlined in the contracts," he said.

Indeed, in a mid-year update to shareholders in August, the company indicated that overall order books were strong, with particularly hefty growth seen in land military systems. "Orders for further mine protected vehicle and other land systems contracts have enhanced the group's outlook for 2008," BAE management wrote in the report. "Notwithstanding budget pressures in many defense markets, BAE Systems' large order book, together with realistic planning assumptions, provide confidence in the outlook for the group."

The M2 Bradleys produced by BAE Systems have an aluminum hull, although the latest version of the Bradley, the M2A2, has additional applique steel armor for added protection, according to company sources.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of funding cuts for the heavier vehicles and its impact on the industry. "Given that both our budget and the future of our tactical wheeled vehicle fleet mix are currently undecided, it would be irresponsible to speculate about the amount of steel expected to be used," he said.
ALANA VANNAHME


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