Army Pursuing Alternatives to Heavy Vehicle Armor

By Jon Harper
In the face of growing threats to ground vehicles, the Defense Department is teaming with industry and academia to pursue alternatives to traditional armor systems. The Pentagon is chasing a range of cutting-edge technologies that could enhance survivability without sacrificing mobility.

U.S. military officials have been sounding the alarm about the need for a new approach.

“The problem we’re seeing now is with the proliferation of [anti-tank guided missiles] and chemical energy munitions, shaped charges, etc. … it’s much easier to develop new ways to penetrate the armor” of U.S. military vehicles, Gen. David Perkins, commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command said at a recent conference.

The Army is now on the losing side of the cost curve because adversaries can enhance their attack capabilities faster and cheaper than the United States can add heavier armor to its vehicles, he noted.

The Army has “got to think of a different way to protect,” he said.

In November, the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center will host a ground vehicle survivability training symposium at Fort Benning, Georgia. The confab is expected to cover a wide range of technologies that could improve vehicle survivability and mobility including: advanced materials; manufacturing techniques and design methodologies; active blast mitigation systems; physical and electronic decoy and deception applications; hit avoidance and active protection technologies; and concepts that address threats posed by unconventional weapons or delivery systems.

“The overarching attempt of that is to bring together government, industry and academia for technical training … to provide a technical foundation across Army acquisition and ground vehicle survivability” offices, said Erik Kallio, assistant associate director of ground system survivability at TARDEC.

Classified sessions will involve a “deep dive” into ground vehicle survivability, he said.

Army requirements and acquisition communities will be represented to ensure that everyone is on the same page, he noted. The intent is to hold more of these symposia annually or biennially. The meetings will inform the overall ground vehicle survivability technical strategy, he said.

While the gatherings won’t lead directly to requests for proposals, “understanding where the marketplace is indirectly informs future requirements,” he added.

A key technology on the Army’s radar is active protection systems, or APS, which are designed to intercept incoming enemy warheads and projectiles before they are able to land a fatal blow.

“To break that direct tie between weight and protection, there is an increasing emphasis on looking at active systems,” Kallio said. “If you actively intercept a threat before it makes a terminal engagement with the vehicle, you can potentially take on or protect against larger threats without putting more weight on the vehicle.”

Active protection systems are one of the Army’s highest acquisition priorities, service officials have said.

The service is now involved in the installation and characterization of active protection systems on Abrams, Bradley and Stryker platforms, according to Ashley Givens, spokeswoman for program executive office ground combat systems. The effort “helps the Army understand various space claims and power budget issues caused by the addition of the systems. That work is currently ongoing,” she said in an email.

The development of modular active protection systems, known as MAPS, is another project that is the Army science and technology community’s “cornerstone” APS effort, Givens said.

But the service is looking at more mature systems for potential near-term fielding.

“To establish more immediate options that might address more urgent operational needs while we work towards an objective capability, we intend to install and characterize a range of matured and improved commercial APS solutions across the ground combat portfolio,” Givens said.

“By prototyping these integration activities cooperatively with Army S&T, potential APS vendors and our platform installers, we will be able to posture the Army with solutions that can be more rapidly installed and greatly reduce both acquisition and operational risk,” she added.

The Army is pursuing an expedited non-developmental item approach in parallel with the MAPS effort to obtain a “kittable” active protection system installation package to potentially accelerate fielding should an urgent need arise, Givens said.

“This approach allows the Army to assess current maturity, performance, integration risks and determine requirements to transition the [non-developmental] solutions to potentially support a future operational need or program of record,” she said.

Fiscal year 2018 will be a decision point where off-the-shelf technologies either enter the process for accelerated acquisition or the APS installation kit is shelved for potential future use, she said.

Examinations of active protection systems are slated for the coming months. “Over the course of the winter and into spring we will be working through the series of demonstrations … which will take mature systems and install them on our vehicles and do assessments,” Kallio said.

The modular active protection system would take longer to acquire, officials said. It is slated for a technology readiness level 6 demonstration in 2019, which would entail testing a prototype in a realistic environment such as a high-fidelity lab or a simulated operational scenario.

The ultimate goal is to use open standards to integrate industry subsystems. “The open factor is to take the best of breed components and … make a working system from them,” Kallio said. A modular system could theoretically be incorporated on any ground combat vehicle, he noted.

In addition to attempting to thwart anti-tank missiles, the Army is now turning its attention toward potential solutions for the growing threat posed by directed energy weapons.

The Army already has active programs dealing with laser protection for sensors, he said. “We’re just starting to have a look at directed energy … for anti-materiel” attacks by high-energy weapons that could destroy or damage vehicles, he said.

“It’s a threat that hasn’t proliferated yet but we’re cognizant of it,” he added.

TARDEC is also monitoring the progress of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Ground X-Vehicle Technology program. The Army hosted agency officials for a GXV-T workshop earlier this year.

“We look to other organizations to primarily do the technology maturation when things are less mature, and then we do the vehicle integration, the specific developments needed to put it on a ground vehicle,” Kallio said. “We’re tracking DARPA’s developments just like our other partners.”

Ground X-Vehicle concept artwork

DARPA is pursuing new technologies to improve vehicle survivability and mobility.

“For the past 100 years of mechanized warfare, protection for ground-based armored fighting vehicles and their occupants has boiled down almost exclusively to a simple equation — more armor equals more protection,” DARPA said in a fact sheet about the GXV-T program.

But due to increasing threats, “the U.S. military is now at a point where … innovative and disruptive solutions are necessary to ensure the operational viability of the next generation of armored fighting vehicles.”

Areas of interest include: “radically” enhanced mobility and the ability to traverse diverse terrain; autonomously avoiding incoming threats with technologies such as active repositioning of armor in real time; crew augmentation through improved situational awareness and automation of key crew functions; and the reduction of visible, infrared, acoustic and electromagnetic signatures.

Technical goals of the program are: decreasing vehicle size and weight by 50 percent; reducing onboard crew needed to operate vehicle by 50 percent; increasing vehicle speed by 100 percent; and accessing 95 percent of terrain.

DARPA declined to provide additional comments or details about the program beyond what has been publicly released.

The agency has awarded GXV-T contracts to at least eight organizations including Raytheon BBN Technologies.

BBN is developing a system that would enable 360-degree situational awareness for vehicle crews and potentially eliminate the need for windows.  It utilizes light detection and ranging surveying technology.

“We’re using essentially LiDAR to … create a 3D model of the world, and then we’re overlaying essentially textures from multiple cameras onto that scene,” said David Diller, BBN senior scientist and program manager.

“Then you can really view the world from wherever you want to view the world. You’re not stuck viewing the world just from the location of a camera or the location of a window,” he said.

Diller compared the technology to a popular driving app.

 “Think Google Street View where you’re able to move down the street and see the environment from multiple perspectives,” he said. “But imagine doing that in real time … [where you can] pan and tilt and zoom.”

The technology is designed to use cameras and other sensors to collect information from the visible and infrared spectrum. “We’re essentially looking to fuse the imagery, the data such that you can get a better view of what’s going on in an easier way,” Diller said.

The ability to get a grid location for a particular target could be integrated and potentially linked with Raytheon’s Boomerang shot detection system, he added.

The company completed phase 1 of the proof of concept effort this summer, and has already started phase 2. It is expected to be completed by the end of June 2017.

DARPA recently awarded a contract to United Kingdom-based QinetiQ to take its electric hub-drive technology from a concept design phase into the building and testing phase, to include the production of two fully working units.

QinetiQ’s system replaces the multiple gearboxes, differentials and drive shafts found on conventional vehicle drive systems with compact, high-powered electric motors contained completely within the wheels.

“This approach dramatically reduces overall platform weight and opens up new design possibilities that improve safety and increase performance,” the company said in a press release.

Using an electric hub drive enables greater suspension movement, said John Mackey, head of engineering within QinetiQ’s research services division.

“You can move the vehicle up and down, which is a big survivability advantage if you’re worried about blasts,” he said. “You could actually move the vehicle much higher in the air if you’re suspicious of [improvised explosive devices] and things on the road.”

Eliminating pieces of the mechanical drive system means fewer vehicle parts that could act as shrapnel against crew members in the event that the vehicle gets hit. It could also provide more design options, he noted.

“Because you haven’t got so many things coming through the hull, if you get a blast there’s less likelihood of something being driven into the vehicle,” he said. “You can really sort of optimize the whole structure to protect the crew … [by] getting rid of a lot of clutter.”

The hybrid system includes a battery that could provide a power boost and enable more rapid acceleration. Additionally, driving in battery mode could make the vehicle stealthier, he said.

“You also have a silent movement capability depending on the size of your battery,” he said. “If you’re running on the batteries the vehicles are incredibly quiet” like commercial electric vehicles. “People don’t hear them coming.”

Carnegie Mellon University is also working on GXV-T to develop a system that could enable a vehicle to switch from wheel drive to track drive — and vice versa — “on the fly.”

“Imagine now if you have a vehicle that had wheels that allowed you to go really fast on highways or on prepared terrains … yet when it got into other situations where the terrain was very soft … you could change its configuration to become a tracked vehicle without somebody going there and changing the locomotion elements,” said Dimi Apostolopoulos, senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute.

“If you have something that will switch this from one mode to the other you can get the benefits from each one of these types of locomotion elements,” he added. “The value to the warfighter is that … you can go from prepared terrains and roads and semi-rugged terrain to … sand and marsh and mud and swamps and things like that where tracks work better.”

The dual-mode technology could potentially enable U.S. military vehicles to go around enemy forces if they wanted to avoid a fight. It could also enable them to more quickly get from point A to point B, Apostolopoulos said.

Kallio said TARDEC was planning to host officials from DARPA’s tactical technology office in the coming months to see where things stand with GXV-T-related technologies.

Topics: Army News, Land Forces

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