WASHINGTON—The U.S. Army said Thursday it is speeding advanced rockets, robots and ultra-light drones to its infantry in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a reshaped $160 billion modernization program.
The move brings forward by three years, from fiscal 2014 to 2011, the high-technology spin-out to infantry combat brigades and represents "a very important shift in our priorities," said Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the army's deputy chief of staff for programs.
The army said the shift would not change the overall cost of the so-called Future Combat Systems program, or FCS, co-managed by Boeing Co and Science Applications International Corp.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates hailed the changes, which dovetailed with a recent push of his for a greater focus on equipping to fight irregulars, and less on preparing for a possible future fight against a potential foe like China.
"I was impressed" by the revised plan to speed systems to the infantry in the near term, he told a Pentagon briefing, "and frankly I think FCS, as they've restructured it, deserves support."
The reshaping turns the overarching, $160 billion project's initial focus to infantry, or foot soldiers, from armored brigades with heavy vehicles. Until now, heavy brigades were to have been the first to be equipped with some of the program's 14 new component technologies.
Gates recently warned the armed forces to avoid "nextwaritis," or preparing for a larger, more conventional potential foe.
His comments "reinforced the direction we were heading in," Lt. Gen. Michael Vaine, head of the army's capabilities integration center, told a briefing earlier in the day.
Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House of Representatives panel that doles out funds for the military, said the shift would make the FCS program "more viable."
The Army is seeking about $3.6 billion in fiscal 2009 for FCS, or about 10 percent of its combined research and procurement request for the year.
The House Armed Services Committee voted to cut about $200 million from the request for fiscal 2009, which starts Oct. 1.
Among weapons being pushed to the infantry earlier than previously planned are "rockets in the box" that will give ground troops far more accurate firepower than the howitzers they will replace, Speakes said.
Formally known as non-line of sight launch systems, this technology is provided by Raytheon Co and Lockheed Martin Corp , said Paul Mehney, a spokesman for the Army's FCS program.
The robot program being accelerated for the infantry involves ground vehicles built by iRobot Corp, Mehney said.
The ultra-light, or "beer keg," unmanned aerial vehicle, is built by Honeywell International Inc.
FCS is the centerpiece of Army modernization. It consists of 14 manned and unmanned systems tied together by communications and information links.