Army Lays Out Plans for Robotic Combat Vehicles
General Dynamic Land Systems image, Oshkosh Defense image, HDT Global image, Textron Systems image
Washington, D.C. — While the Army has taken a slow, methodical approach to developing what would be its first uncrewed combat vehicle, service leaders recently signaled that they are eager to integrate the technology into formations.
Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said the service is kicking off a new human-machine integrated formations initiative.
“These integrated formations will bring robotic systems into units alongside humans, with the goal of always having robots, not soldiers, make first contact with the enemy,” she said in a keynote speech at the Association of the United States Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.
The Robotic Combat Vehicle is the service’s foremost program to integrate the technology in the battlefield.
The Army initially envisioned three models — light, medium and heavy — and in 2020 contracted with QinetiQ North America to build light surrogates for experimentation and Textron Systems to build medium versions. However, the service recently decided to develop only one model that falls on the lighter side in terms of weight.
In September, the Army chose four contractors to build additional prototypes.
Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, director of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, said at the conference that the Army’s robotic vehicles “really represent opportunities for new ways of fighting, for organizing differently and bringing new capabilities to the battlefield.”
The downselect to four teams will move the program forward to the next phase, he said. The vendors will be producing two vehicles each for subsequent evaluation, he added.
The program has four key components: the chassis, the network that connects the Robotic Combat Vehicle to a control vehicle, the control vehicle and modular payloads, he said.
The light version is envisioned as a hybrid electric-powered vehicle with a gross vehicle weight of no more than 8,500 pounds and a maximum payload of no more than 7,000 pounds, the Army has stated.
The modular payloads mounted on the Robotic Combat Vehicles are what give them different capabilities than manned platforms, Norman said. “Capabilities that allow us to thicken … the functions of our crewed systems and the ability to cover more terrain or do things that we couldn’t do without the Robotic Combat Vehicles.”
The software connects it all, and represents “a great opportunity for continued development, collaboration and integration into this effort,” he said.
As for how they will be employed, officials said they would be in a formation of three, with one crewed control vehicle and two robotic wingmen with a range of possible payloads.
Maj. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, commanding general of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Moore, Georgia, at the conference laid out a vision for future formations where robotic systems are out in front of the main force collecting intelligence, doing surveillance, sniffing for chemical/biological weapons, setting up counter-drone systems and doing breaching missions.
Then, robots would be sent in to “kill and to have an impact lethally on our adversaries,” he said.
Meanwhile, the four Robotic Combat Vehicle prototypes offered by McQ, General Dynamics Land Systems, Oshkosh Defense and Textron Systems vary in capabilities and design, while meeting the Army’s program requirements, executives from the four contractors told National Defense in interviews on the sidelines of the conference.
Team McQ — which comprises McQ Inc., HDT Global and BAE Systems — is the only wheeled RCV offering among the four contractors.
Research and testing found the wheeled solution offers “the best mobility, the best reliability and the easiest maintenance,” as opposed to a tracked vehicle, Tom Van Doren, chief technical officer and vice president of engineering at HDT, said in an interview.
The WOLF-X, a hybrid electric diesel vehicle, was designed by Team McQ to support light infantry and to go where manned vehicles cannot, such as narrow trails, steep slopes and dense jungles, he said. An “extremely rugged” vehicle, the WOLF-X “has the traction and pivot-turn capability of a tracked vehicle,” but it runs on easy-to-maintain airless radial tires.
The WOLF-X recharges on the move using internal fuel and battery power, meaning that it is “never forced to stop for recharging and is always 100 percent mission-ready,” company fact sheets stated.
“The Army gets the benefit of mature technology in a brand-new vehicle that was specifically designed for RCV requirements,” Van Doren said. “We waited until the latest round of RCV requirements came out in November, December 2022 before we actually built this prototype, and by waiting, that allowed us to meet all of those requirements with the vehicle that we were testing at the time,” he said.
“We’re going to be testing prototypes in the middle of the next year, to [meet the] key performance requirements,” Van Doren said. “We’re moving very, very quickly to make sure the technology is exactly what the government wants and what the soldiers need.”
General Dynamics Land Systems’ TRX RCV, or Tracked Robot 10-ton, is being developed and adapted to meet the Army’s RCV requirements off a base platform instead of a clean-sheet design.
“We’ve been developing this base platform to mature it so that it is reliable and robust and safe to operate, with a focus on making it really easy to integrate all these different modular payloads and reconfigure it and adapt it to a different role,” Chad Malec, manager of robotic systems at General Dynamics Land Systems, said.
Along with “AI-enhanced design,” the TRX is also a hybrid electric vehicle. Its “power and size” make it an “ideal platform” for multirole manned-unmanned teaming on the modern battlefield. The TRX provides support for many different battlefield roles, including direct and indirect fire, counter-unmanned aerial systems, electronic warfare and reconnaissance, according to General Dynamics.
Malec said the company’s extensive experience with developing unmanned ground vehicles sets it apart from the other contractors.
“We have a lot of good insight into what provides utility to the soldiers, to the users with unmanned platforms, the technologies that work and don’t,” he said. “I think we’ve found a really sweet spot with the size and capability balance of the platform and positioning it so that as the
Army moves through the RCV program in the future” it will be able to integrate different modular payloads.
Oshkosh Defense, along with partners Pratt Miller Defense and QinetiQ North America, developed its Robotic Combat Vehicle prototype to “provide increased situational awareness, lethality and tactical options in support of multi-domain operations,” according to a company press release.
The three companies were heavily engaged on the RCV-Light surrogate prototype, which the Army has since scrapped. Pratt Miller Defense, which is owned by Oshkosh, and QinetiQ established a partnership to develop an RCV-L prototype in 2019, delivering the vehicle in 2020 for soldier feedback.
The RCV-L further built on Pratt Miller’s Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle, or EMAV, while integrating QinetiQ’s modular open system architecture robotic control systems to make it “highly flexible and payload agnostic,” a QinetiQ release stated.
“We learned a lot from those soldier touchpoints, and that ultimately informed our design,” said Chuck Bunton, director of program management for Oshkosh Defense. “And we’re confident going into this next phase that we’ve addressed any issues and that we’ve met the soldiers’ needs.”
Textron Systems’ RIPSAW M3 RCV is a smaller, modified version of the RIPSAW M5 RCV. Since the M5’s debut in 2019, the RIPSAW family has amassed more than 2,000 miles of durability testing, according to a company release.
Textron, along with partners Howe & Howe and Teledyne FLIR Defense, designed the M3 to be rugged and reliable and to meet Army requirements while focusing on transportability and mission versatility. The M3 features an open architecture design and common chassis, which supports a wide variety of field exchangeable payloads from a basic flat-top deck configuration, a fact sheet said.
David Phillips, senior vice president of land and sea systems at Textron, said: “We wanted to maximize the payload capacity, give the Army the opportunity to put many different things on there, even things [like] payloads that are similar to payloads we were putting in our heavier medium M5.”
They also decided to “right size” the vehicle for easy transportation, he added.
Transportability is not a requirement, but the M3 ideally will be small enough to be internally transported by a CH-47 Chinook helicopter because “the Army’s got tons of them,” Phillips said.
The program calls for the four contractors to deliver their prototypes by August 2024.
Until then, the next “significant event” for the existing prototypes will be the Project Convergence exercise in spring 2024, said Michael Cadieux, director for the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center.
The exercise centers on the Army’s contribution to the Defense Department’s Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept, which calls for sensors and shooters to be connected through a combat cloud for faster decision-making.
The RCV-Light prototypes that took part in the previous Project Convergence exercise in fall 2022 gave the Army insights “not only in reconnaissance and security, but also more expanded offensive operations and some defensive operations,” Cadieux said.
“So, we continue to increase the scope and scale of those experiments. And we’ll continue to push the envelope moving forward,” he said. ND