Viewpoint: New Dimensions for the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle
Photo: BAE Systems
What’s in the realm of the possible for the Army’s next-generation infantry fighting vehicle?
If one were to extrapolate promising innovations in materials, propulsion, robotics, artificial intelligence and sensors 20 years down the road, something like this could be within reach: A nimble 25-ton platform formed from exotic composites and honeycombed “foam” steel, the “Manned Fighting Vehicle” has organic ballistic and mine protection superior to the best protected 40-plus-ton infantry fighting vehicle operating today.
Using a powerful but quiet electric propulsion system, it achieves unprecedented range and stealth while generating loads of exportable power. It is neither tracked nor wheeled, but incredibly, a “reconfigurable wheel-track” — a shape-shifting best of both worlds.
As a matter of course, the vehicle integrates the latest active protection, electronic warfare, targeting and battle management systems with a high capacity plug-and-play architecture. For weapons and effectors, a modular turret system can interchange guns, missiles and directed energy systems as they become available. A 360-degree sensor array turns the closed-hatch hull into a glass cockpit from the inside; on the outside, active camouflage tiles blend the vehicle’s visible and thermal signatures into the surroundings. For the most dangerous missions, it has full ghost-ride mode, with the crew dismounted and controlling it with an electronic tether.
When the next-generation combat vehicle program left the gates a couple of years ago, that was the Army’s vision: 2035 was the target for fielding a new-design common platform to replace both the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Abrams main battle tank. The plan was to bridge the gap with upgrades to the legacy platforms.
In late 2018, to the surprise of no one who has ever tracked a major service acquisition, the plan has changed. On the operational side, the intense anti-armor environment on display in Syria plus the reemergence of heavy hitting Russian forces along old Cold War frontiers have pressured the Army to get new capabilities into its armored brigades faster. On the bureaucratic side, the service has a raft of new vehicle initiatives for which the vehicle budget line — the No. 2 priority in the Army modernization plan — offers a protective mantle. The result has been a quiet reformatting of new combat vehicles into a basket of parallel procurements.
The latest entrants to the fold are the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, an M113 replacement which is on the verge of production, and Mobile Protected Firepower, a light tank for the Army’s airborne brigades. They stretch the definition of “next generation” into the prosaic: less aspirational leaps in technology, more “whatever comes next.”
Preserving the original, futuristic vision for the next-generation combat vehicle program is the Robotic Combat Vehicle, which is tasked with the big-gun overmatching firepower role. But it is moving along a slow development track in an experimental prototyping mode — in other words, the Army sees no crushing near-term need to replace the Abrams.
The Bradley is a different story. The effort to recapitalize the aging and overburdened infantry fighting vehicle is the real heart of the new program, because “Bradley specifically is not at all optimized for the future environment and we’re running out of engineering margins to make those improvements,” Col. Andy Boston, deputy director of the Army’s next-generation combat vehicle cross-functional team, said in a June interview. The team is aiming for first unit equipped with the replacement vehicle in 2026, and backwards planning based upon that timeline.
For those with hopes and expectations for a revolutionary leap ahead for Army mounted maneuver, let’s begin with some expectation-grounding for the mounted version: it will not be a radical clean-sheet design. A mid-2020s target to enter service means the Army must get ahead and stay ahead of potential technical, schedule and cost risks. “On this timeline, we’re likely looking at something that is currently in production or is very close to being ready for production,” said Boston.
But this does not have to mean a backslide from the fundamental vision of the next-generation vehicle. First, the fighting vehicle must continue to be some variation of an armored box that can transport, offload and support fully kitted troopers. This imposes a minimum volume-under-armor requirement that limits the scope for radical innovation. The robotic version will not be so constrained in paring away the weight, profile and volume of existing combat vehicles.
Second, for setting a new baseline, today’s best-of-breed armored boxes do provide a generational improvement over the 1980s-era Bradley. This was evident at the Association of the United States Army conference in October, where industry put forward a slate of tracked candidates.
Germany’s Rheinmetall, teamed with Raytheon as its U.S.-based integrator and subsystems provider, unveiled a variant of the new Lynx IFV. At up to 45 tons gross weight, including nine tons of reconfigurable payload, it is modular, extremely well protected and the only competitor that can carry a full nine-person infantry squad in addition to a manned 30 mm turret. Although, Boston admitted that the Army has conceded this once sacrosanct requirement as it optimizes for deployability and urban operations: “We will not be putting the entire squad in one vehicle,” he said.
General Dynamics showcased the Griffin III, a somewhat more compact platform with capacity for six dismounts, armed with a monstrous 50 mm cannon. The Griffin family is itself a derivative of the Ajax IFV vehicle currently in production by the company’s U.K. subsidiary for the British army.
"Just how radically next-gen could one of these vehicles get?"
BAE entered the fray with the latest MkIV version of the popular CV90 from its Swedish Hagglunds subsidiary. Growth-wise, this may be the most constrained of the candidates, maxing out at 35 to 37 tons, but it is also the most mature and combat-proven, in service with six European militaries in a host of models and variants.
Just how radically next-gen could one of these vehicles get? Taking a scan of the technology moving through the pipeline, it’s possible to begin drawing the outline and coloring in the features of a manned fighting vehicle ready for action within the next eight years.
As far as survivability, with no production-ready breakthrough in armor materials science expected in the next decade, the vehicle’s weight-reduction opportunities will be modest. As a benchmark, the Lynx probably hits 42 to 44 tons in its heavy-combat configuration — required for all-around resistance to 14.5 to 30 mm rounds — even with relatively lightweight composite add-on armor. Hans-Joerg List, director of the Research and Technology Center for General Dynamics European Land Systems, estimates that advances in ceramics, nano-ceramics and other composites could drive a five to 15 percent weight reduction in armor in the next few years. This could shave the vehicle down to the upper-30-ton range: twice as heavy as the too ambitious Future Combat Systems vehicles, but less than half the weight of the too massive ground combat vehicle.
Where materials can effectively and economically boost survivability near-term is in threat avoidance, by hiding the platform from enemy targeting systems or causing those systems to slip their fix.
The Griffin III prototype appeared at AUSA swaddled in a signature-reducing camouflage from U.S. protection specialist Armorworks. The nubbly, foam-like hexagonal panels scatter and absorb electro-optical and radar energy. BAE has demonstrated a more hi-tech panel camouflage on the CV90 that can generate a spoofing image, giving the tracked vehicle the IR signature of a low-value target like a truck, for instance.
For the last line of defense against the most lethal anti-armor weapons, like tandem-warhead anti-tank missiles or rocket-propelled grenades, the crew will have to rely on countermeasures that neutralize the threat before it strikes steel. First among them is the active protection system, which Boston deemed “absolutely essential.” The challenge of integrating an APS on the Bradley, with its power and electronic architecture limitations, was one of the precipitating factors in moving up the current acquisition.
Meanwhile, has the long awaited moment arrived for the Army to go electric? Not with this vehicle as a standard bearer. All three of the candidate prototypes are built on proven chassis locomoted by diesel engines and traditional tracked running gear. On this program the Army appears to have no appetite for risk in the mobility domain, and not without reason. While substantial development of an electric-drive transmission took place during the defunct ground combat vehicle program, there is no in-production e-drive for combat vehicles today, with the necessary manufacturing and integration knowledge base, supply chain and support infrastructure for a fleet scheduled to come online in eight years.
But something will have to generate the onboard power for a high-capacity electronic architecture connecting energy-hungry comms, sensors, weapons and defensive systems.
The Army also plans for the vehicle to be a “manned optional” platform right out of the box, able to conduct remote operations while the crew is off-platform, said Boston. This technology is entering the field today through programs like the Army’s Route Clearance Interrogation System, which allows remote operation of an 8.5-ton mine/improvised explosive device excavator vehicle from the standoff safety of a Buffalo mine-resistant ambush protected truck.
Dan DeGuire, vice president of land systems for QinetiQ North America, the prime for the route clearance vehicle, sees technology evolving toward multiple vehicle control by single operator. For the manned version, the applications could cover some straightforward but critical route-running operations — for instance, a remote/autonomous “return to base” mode for a vehicle filled with casualties.
Ultimately, the utility of an unmanned/robotic version will be limited by the vehicle’s core human-carrying mission and the necessary human-in-the-loop decision-making to employ lethal weaponry in a dense urban environment. Where sensors, AI and autonomy may prove most relevant is in a “human-assistance” role, augmenting the ability of the crew to perceive and navigate through a chaotic battlefield from within a buttoned-up metal shell.
Driver situational awareness is one of limiting factors to mobility, said Army Maj. Amber Walker, program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Ground X-Vehicle Technologies. In the past six months the program has conducted limited testing, using surrogate commercial platforms, of three prototype technologies that address this limitation: a 3D “windowless cockpit” using active displays and near-eye goggles to “look through” the vehicle to a high-resolution, full-depth outside view; a virtual 360-degree perspective generator that fuses video and LiDAR to create a 3D model of the vehicle within its surroundings; and an off-road crew augmentation system that layers route planning with an autonomy package to improve speed and limit mishaps in off-road maneuvering — for instance, using “virtual road signs” to provide subconscious cues to the driver.
At first glance, it might appear that the Army’s course adjustment is sacrificing a bold vision for the next-generation combat vehicle to settle for a bigger, better armored box, abandoning a revolution in mounted combat maneuver within the next two decades.
But this would be a short-sighted view.
Big acquisition programs spanning a decade-plus are impressive on paper, but notoriously difficult to keep on track, especially when hoped for innovations don’t arrive according to plan. Placing a marker on 2026 for the manned fighting vehicle is in some ways the bolder move. It turns the pressure on right now. And a clear plan to build engineering margin into the vehicle means that, a few three- to five-year upgrade cycles down the road, something quite close to that original vision could be within sight.
Zachary Lum is the president of Zeta Analytics (www.zetanalytics.com) and editor of the military vehicle-focused Fast Tracks blog. He can be reached at email@example.com.