EL PASO - A $200 billion plan to remake the largest war machine in history unfolds in one small way on a quiet country road in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Jack Hensley, one of a legion of contractors on the project, is hunkered in a slowly moving sport utility vehicle, serving as target practice for a baby-faced soldier in a Humvee aiming a laser about 700 yards away.
A moment later, another soldier in the Humvee punches commands into a computer transmitting data across an expanse of sand and mesquite to a site 2 1/2 miles away. On an actual battlefield, this is when a precision attack missile would be launched, killing Hensley almost instantly.
For soldiers in an experimental Army brigade at the sprawling Fort Bliss base, it's the first day of field training on a new weapon called the Non-Line of Sight Launch System, or NLOS-LS, a box of rockets that can automatically change direction in midair and hit a moving target about 24 miles away. The Army says it has never had a weapon like it.
"It's not the Spartans with the swords anymore," says Emmett Schaill, the brigade commander, peering into the desert-scape.
In the Army's vision, the war of the future is increasingly combat by mouse clicks. It's as networked as the Internet, as mobile as a cellphone, as intuitive as a video game. The Army has a name for this vision: Future Combat Systems, or FCS. The project involves creating a family of 14 weapons, drones, robots, sensors, and hybrid-electric combat vehicles connected by a wireless network. It has turned into the most ambitious modernization of the Army since World War II and the most expensive Army weapons program ever, military officials say.
It is also one of the most controversial. Even as some early versions of these weapons make their way onto the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, members of Congress, government investigators, and military observers question whether the Defense Department has set the stage for one of its biggest and costliest failures. At risk, they say, are billions of taxpayer dollars spent on exotic technology that may never come to fruition, leaving the Army little time and few resources to prepare for new threats.
Future Combat Systems "has some serious problems," said Neil Abercrombie, Democrat of Hawaii, chairman of the House Air and Land Forces Subcommittee. "Since its inception, costs have gone up dramatically while promised capability has steadily diminished. . . . And now, with the Army's badly degraded state of readiness from nearly five years of continuous combat in Iraq, I don't see how the Army can afford to rebuild itself and pay for the FCS program as it stands today."
To hear the military tell it, there's a hint of Buck Rogers in the program, including an unmanned craft that can hover like a flying saucer between buildings and detect danger. The idea of Future Combat Systems is to create a lighter, faster force that can react better to tomorrow's unpredictable foes.
The last time the Army tried anything so far-reaching was more than half a century ago when it introduced mechanized forces, moving soldiers en masse by machine rather than by foot, Army program officials say.
"We are pushing the edge of technology," said Lieutenant General Stephen M. Speakes, a leader of the Army's modernization efforts.
Others say the Army has pushed too far. The Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office have questioned the cost and management of Future Combat Systems. And in the midst of such questions, Army officials confirmed that they are planning to change the project's name. They said it's not because of its troubles but because the future is now.
The Army is playing catch-up, adopting the advances of the Internet and wireless technology for next-generation warfare.
"We're slightly lagging, but we're essentially doing the same thing they're doing on the commercial side," said Scott Davis, the Army's Future Combat Systems deputy program manager.
The project originated in part in 1995 when Major General Robert H. Scales Jr., now retired, launched a series of war games. As director of the Army After Next project, his job was to divine the nature of war a quarter century hence. So Scales assembled a team of about 700, including members of the Army, Air Force, Marines, the CIA and civilian scientists, who warred over the next two years in a huge simulation center at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
"The Army had never done it - they thought I was off my rocker," he said.
The blue team represented the Americans. The red were the Iranians, who in one scenario captured Riyadh and began executing the royal Saudi family on live television. That drew the blue team into the streets of Riyadh, which, choked with heavy armor, became a bloody mess. Scales, building on earlier military research, realized that the United States needed a lighter, mobile force.
He called it the "Aha! moment."
Then a fiasco hastened the Army's commitment to modernize. In 1999, the Army was bogged down in muddy logistics as it sought to move