Army Scientists Wrestle With Uncertain Future

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
In the Army’s latest operating concept, leaders said that the service faces an uncertain future with many unknown variables, from the enemy to the location of the battlefield. What will be needed to counter this threat is a slew of new cutting edge technologies to give soldiers an advantage — these include more powerful helicopters, tougher trucks, better communication devices, more efficient equipment to reduce soldier load and better cyber defenses.

The Army must begin preparing for this uncertain future now, said Paul D. Rogers, director of the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center during an industry conference in August.

“We don’t know who we’re going to fight. We don’t know where we’re going to fight. We don’t know under what conditions,” he said. “What we have to realize is [it’s] probably unknowable.”

One program the center is working on is the “tactical truck of the future,” which is being developed alongside the Office of Naval Research, he said.

“The goal is to take a look at our current fleet of … medium and heavy tactical systems and really look at the 40 or 50 variants and ask ourselves and challenge ourselves, ‘Can we simplify that class of vehicles to a much smaller class, a smaller set of different solutions. Can we make it modular? Can we give it the attributes that we need in order to give that differential advantage, that flexibility to our warfighters and our commanders on the ground?’” he asked.

The joint tactical truck system would have multiple variants, and there would be commonality and modularity throughout the fleet. It would also have enhanced survivability and crew protection.

TARDEC wants to begin building a prototype in 2019, with a potential program of record starting in the mid- to late-2020s, Rogers said.

JTTS will be fuel-efficient giving deployed forces a shorter logistical tail, he said.

“We’re looking at possibly getting up to about 50 percent efficiency at the vehicle system level and that will cascade up to the formation level,” he said. “I think it’s possible based on the work we’ve seen in the commercial world and work we’ve seen in the Department of Energy.”

Rogers said TARDEC has a strong relationship with the Department of Energy. “We’re working with them to look at novel, breakthrough technologies that … at the end of the day have fuel efficiency values. We’re looking at everything from dissimilar materials to lubricants to other energy saving technologies,” he said.

In general, TARDEC needs systems to be modular, flexible and smart to counter future threats. “If we want our vehicle systems to be more than just things, they have to … be able to change as rapidly as that commander on the ground needs it to change. We need to give them the adaptability so that they can adjust to the threats and the environments that they find themselves in,” Rogers said.

Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, commanding general at the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command told National Defense that cyber security is one of the most important areas the organization is investing in.

“Whether it’s the algorithms, the methods, the tools [or] the techniques to monitor, detect/prevent/predict attacks,” the command is working on it, he said. 

“When you think about the future … there are a lot of people who … view cyber as a national security problem, so it’s not just Army or government, but look at corporations and probes into businesses and things of that nature,” he said. “If you look at the Department of Energy, their computer systems were hacked more than 100 times between 2010 and 2014.”

Cyber security is a growing area, and RDECOM is focusing on developing defensive methods. It also works heavily with Army Cyber Command and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command on the service’s cyber strategy.

RDECOM receives 74 percent of the Army’s science and technology budget, he said. In fiscal year 2014 it had a funding profile of $5.16 billion. It has more than 1,000 cooperative research agreements with industry partners; more than 1,500 university-affiliated research agreements with academic institutions in the United States and abroad; and more than 500 research partnerships with Defense Department laboratories.

In the field, soldier load is a place of heavy research and development investment, service leaders have said.

Reducing the amount of gear a soldier carries has been a perennial problem throughout the history of warfare. From guns to batteries to night vision goggles, soldiers of today can carry more than 75 pounds while on a mission. The Army has noted that an infantry platoon currently carries about 700 pounds of batteries, or 17 pounds per soldier, for a 72-hour mission.

“Increasing capabilities of our soldiers while decreasing soldier load is a significant challenge,” said Mike Van Buskirk, deputy product director for soldier systems and integration at the Army’s program executive office soldier.

“One innovative approach in early development is to provide the soldier with a means to harvest energy to reduce the increasing weight of carried batteries on long duration missions,” Buskirk said in an email. “There are several technologies being explored, ranging from harvesting kinetic energy from soldier movement to renewable sources that can be used to recharge soldier-worn power sources.”

These approaches, though in their infancy, have the potential to reduce the amount of batteries soldiers carry by several pounds, he noted.

RDECOM looks at the soldier as a system and is working to help soldiers on both a physical and cognitive basis, Wharton said. It is researching everything from new clothing to lighter ammunition to backpacks that generate power, he said. Some helmets will even have an array of solar panels on them, he added.

Aviation is another important area of investment. Army aviators of today are still flying helicopters designed in the 1970s, and the service has been investing in new technologies to take soldiers farther for longer.

Current helicopters — like the Apache and the Black Hawk — have proved at times inefficient when operated in harsh conditions such as the hot climate of the Middle East. The Army’s solution? A revolutionary aircraft with innovative designs and a new, more powerful engine to run legacy systems.

The Army wants a new vertical take-off and landing aircraft — known as future vertical lift — that will have light, medium, heavy and ultra-sized variants to carry its soldiers and equipment. The service is currently in the midst of the joint multi-role technology demonstrator program, which asked industry to design and fly a version of the medium-lift aircraft. Results from JMR will influence requirements for FVL, which seeks to replace thousands of aircraft starting in the 2030s.

Last year, the Army downselected from four vendors to two — a Boeing-Sikorsky team offering the SB-1 Defiant, a compound helicopter with coaxial rotors, and Bell Helicopter offering the V-280 Valor, a tilt-rotor aircraft. Each entrant’s demonstrator will be required to fly at least 230 knots. Flight tests are scheduled for 2017.

“From an aviation perspective, it’s certainly a priority,” said Rich Kretzschmar, acting project manager for the Army’s FVL program and program manager for the improved turbine engine program (ITEP).

Experts have said the program will be a shot in the arm for industry, giving them the ability to test new, revolutionary designs.

ITEP is the service’s effort to replace thousands of T701D engines that power Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. The Army may allocate more than $500 million for the development and engineering of the new engine over the next five years.

“This is Army aviation’s number one modernization program,” said Lt. Col. Curt Kuetemeyer, product manager for ITEP. “Ultimately, the warfighter needs the improved turbine engine. More engine power to the Black Hawk and the Apache means further range, more time on the objective … all resulting in a more lethal, more effective mission.”

The new engine is required to fly at 6,000 feet in temperatures up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. During the war in Afghanistan, the performance of engines on legacy platforms in hot conditions was severely degraded and would require aircraft to be flown with fewer crew and equipment.

The Army said it plans to buy about 2,135 ITEP engines for the Black Hawk utility helicopter made by Sikorsky. Nearly 700 would be produced for the Apache attack helicopter, manufactured by Boeing. The 3000 shaft horsepower ITEP engines would be a significant upgrade compared to the 2000 shaft horsepower T701D engines that power the latest Black Hawk and Apache models.

Douglas Royce, an aerospace analyst at Forecast International, a Connecticut-based market consulting firm, said when the Black Hawk was designed, the military expected future conflicts to be located in Europe and some parts of lower Asia.

“They weren’t thinking they were going to go into Afghanistan or be operating in areas where they would have to carry a full load of fully equipped troops over mountains in warm conditions,” he said.

Kuetemeyer noted that the new engine would be available for FVL.

Secure communications is also an area where the Army will be making future investments, said one member of industry.

The Army has made it clear that a radio can’t just be a radio, said Aaron Brosnan, vice president of business development for Thales Defense & Security. The Army faces undefined and asymmetric threats, which requires that radios be adaptable and flexible, he said.

Thales — a manufacturer of the Rifleman radio — is responding to that call and researching new technologies that will give systems more channels all while becoming more rugged and smaller. The company is also working on ways to reduce overheating of components inside the radio.

Mike Sheehan, CEO of Thales Defense and Security, said the company is eyeing the Army’s future leader radio program. The new system is meant to give a squad leader the ability to connect with both legacy and new systems, such as the soldier radio waveform.

“The Army is … conducting requirements for a leader radio that can talk to legacy systems as well as Rifleman and SRW, and they want to do that simultaneously,” he said. “It’s more in the requirements definition [phase] and industry is responding to that.”

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Cyber, Science and Engineering Technology, Land Forces, Land Forces

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