Next-Gen Combat Vehicle to Require Emerging Tech
This is part 5 of a 6-part series covering the Army’s modernization priorities leading up to the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., Oct. 8-10. Today’s priority: Next-Generation Combat Vehicle.
The Army has made clear that it wants to field a next-generation combat vehicle by sometime between 2028 and 2035. Beyond that, a myriad of questions remain as to what such a vehicle would look like, what it would replace and how much it should cost.
Within the context of what the Army has stated publicly, the prevailing thought is such a family of vehicles would incorporate a platform capable of both human-piloted and unmanned operation — diverse enough to do everything from carry troops to deliver fires. The flesh-and-blood drivers could have the option of controlling the unmanned vehicle systems directly, or allowing them to proceed and communicate with each other autonomously.
The Army has called for the development of six prototype vehicles, to be delivered sometime next year. Two would be piloted, while the other four would operate autonomously. The human operators would have the option of allowing the robotic vehicles to move and communicate with each other on their own, or assume control and deliver instructions on the spot.
These initial robotic prototypes would be built on the M113 armored personnel carrier, while the soldier-operated ones would consist of entirely new designs, the Army has stated. Soldiers could begin testing the prototypes as soon as next fall, when fiscal year 2020 begins.
Meeting these capability goals would require advancements in emerging technologies, and some determination as to how they should be incorporated into this new fleet of vehicles. One recurrent thought among experts in military procurement is that the newly established Army Futures Command, based in Austin, Texas, would grapple with such matters as one of its first major tasks.
“It’s really how we engage in close combat and how we have a maneuver capability within the ground combat force,” Thomas Russell, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for research and technology, said in a speech earlier this year.
Russell described ongoing efforts to incorporate emerging robotics and artificial intelligence technologies into these new platforms, which could “move equipment and force, potentially, with one leader.”
Active defense systems, with the potential to intercept incoming fires, would allow for the use of less cumbersome armor, enhancing mobility and fuel efficiency but somewhat compromising armor protection. Whether the next combat vehicle should include a 50mm or 120mm gun also is to be determined.
“Power and power management are crucial,” Russell said. “It’s a … problem we face from a science and technology perspective, and we really need to think about how we build a better-integrated program in that area — not just for ground vehicles, but also for dismounted soldiers and aviation platforms.”
Science Applications International Corp. is leading a five-company effort to develop the manned prototypes, under an eight-year, $237 million Army contract that began last year.
SAIC has worked on 10 different directives to date for the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in working toward an experimental prototype, said Michael Gray, the company’s senior director for TARDEC and the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command. The work is taking place in Sterling Heights, Michigan, near the home of both Army agencies.
“What we’re concentrating on now with TARDEC is integration efforts on the existing Mission-Enabling Technology Demonstrator, an old Bradley [fighting vehicle],” Gray said.
The team plans to produce and deliver a vehicle for testing by next summer that would address the Army’s architecture, lethality, physical and power requirements, Gray said.
“What it will be designed to do is take some of the current more promising technologies that the Army has been working on, trying them, and confirming the value they provide on the platform, which then could fit into a platform in the future,” Gray said.
Gray hailed the initiative as a sign of TARDEC’s and TACOM’s willingness to try a fresh approach toward developing a new system.
“We’re able to go out and get academia and true commercial industry, and leverage their skill sets and technologies,” Gray said. “I believe we’re getting out the tenet the new Army Futures Command is trying to bring to bear on a problem. It brings flexibility to the program.”
M113 armored personnel carrier (Army)
Experts in military procurement find things to like and dislike about the combat vehicle plan. To some, it looks all too similar to past ideas that sounded good on paper but ultimately proved impracticable. There is a prevailing notion that the Army has not quite justified the need to produce an entirely new system rather than improve on the existing M1 Abrams tank, M2/M3 Bradley and the Stryker infantry carrier vehicle.
The Future Combat Systems program was supposed to fulfill similar expectations, but was shelved roughly a decade ago because they could not be realized, experts said.
Program officials and others “assumed capabilities they wanted but they really didn’t have the ability to generate,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. “That led to 18 different permutations off of one construct.”
O’Hanlon said he has yet to see convincing proof that a future vehicle can move forward on the basis of lessons learned from FCS and incorporation of new technology in armored active or reactive defensive systems. Change is necessary and doable, he believes, but an incremental approach might work better. And while active defense systems sound beneficial in regards to incoming rounds, he questioned their effectiveness against improvised explosive devices or drone-swarm attacks.
“You need to be pretty wary that you’re going to be able to protect future combat systems through a higher technological version of battlefield awareness and defensive technology,” O’Hanlon said. “Armor is still going to have a place. Heavy armor is still going to have a place.”
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the Army is still trying to determine what they want in terms of modernization.
“They’re looking at the modernization plan and the budget and operations-and-maintenance costs,” Clark said.
He does not believe a complete recapitalization effort to buy a very high-end vehicle to replace a large portion of its fleet would be sustainable over the long haul.
“The Army needs to reconsider the gold plating they’ve been accused of in the past, such as FCS and the Crusader” artillery system, Clark said.
Also, any future budget that would have to pass muster on Capitol Hill must be considered in the context of the possibility that the House of Representatives could flip Democratic in November, Clark noted. In such a case, the likelihood of more money in the Pentagon’s budget diminishes considerably.
Then there is the need for a clear definition of mission.
“They don’t want to say it, but the system would replace essentially what Bradley augments and Stryker does — with a combination of manned and unmanned” platforms, Clark said.
“You’ve got to figure out what you really want to get out of this, given that they’re not going to be able to replace all the Abrams or Bradleys,” Clark added.
Maybe the unmanned vehicles would carry guns, capable of going in and softening a target before soldiers move in, Clark said. Such a move would be the next step in the progression already underway, which incorporates unmanned systems into the mainstream of the force. He surmises that the Army may look at the Marine Corps’ approach to replacing its all-terrain vehicle, accepting the fact that they might have to settle for something less lofty than the system on its initial wish list.
“There is a lot of uncertainty [about] what it would look like, but they’re going to build something along these lines,” Clark said.
The Army might be best served by biding its time until the ongoing incremental advances in technology reach the point where they can provide both protection and mobility, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There have been two, maybe three attempts to come up with a compelling case for why this vehicle is necessary and can’t be satisfied by an upgrade of existing systems or an off-the-shelf vehicle.
The case has collapsed when there have been attempts to make it better — through bad timing,” he said.
“The program names have changed over time. Future Combat Systems, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, Ground Combat Vehicle. None of them have managed to overcome the burden of proof that this is a compelling investment for the Army to make,” Hunter said.
He also cited earlier attempts to trade off armor protection for reduced weight, allowing for a vehicle able to operate in a more urban terrain with a smaller footprint. The tradeoff at the expense of robustness against attack proved unacceptable. The question that emerged then centered upon the need for a vehicle with a mission that Abrams already fulfills, he said.
The service’s contention that any such advances must start with prototyping is understandable, Hunter said, but there are limitations to that approach.
“It’s a pretty reasonable argument, building things that will track the technology and scientific research — that if you wait until the day the technology is perfect, that day will never come. The technology won’t get there unless an investment is made that drives us there,” Hunter said.
“But the caveat is doing prototyping is different from doing a vehicle design that allows you to go ahead and manufacture thousands of vehicles,” he noted. “They’re related, but not the same activity.
When you embark on a path of a rapid prototyping effort to drive technology where it needs to go but may not go on its own, and in five years you need thousands of vehicles, it doesn’t add up.”