Why the Army's powerful new tanks might be drones

Next Generation Combat Vehicle

The Army is now seeking to finesse a careful and combat-relevant balance between upgrading the current Abrams and Bradley to the maximum degree while also recognizing limitations and beginning conceptual work on a new platform called Next-Generation Combat Vehicle.

While the Army is only now in the early stages of concept development for this technology, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, told Scout Warrior that it may indeed evolve into a family of vehicles.

A fleet of similarly engineered vehicles would be designed to allow each vehicle to be tailored and distinct, while simultaneously improving maintenance, logistics, and sustainment by using many common parts; the objective would, of course, be to lower long-term lifecycle costs and extend the service life of the vehicles. However, of potentially much greater significance, similar engineering, vehicle structures, and configurations could definitely expedite upgrades across the fleet as enabled by new technology. This could include new sensors, sights, electronics, force tracking systems, and a range of C4ISR technology.

M1A1

M1A1 Abrams firing its massive main cannon. (Photo from USMC)

Many Army comments have indicated that the configuration of the new vehicles may resemble hull forms of an Abrams, Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, Bradley, or even elements of a Stryker vehicle. However, it is without question that, whatever NGCV evolves into, it will be built to consistently accommodate the best emerging technologies available.

For instance, Army developers explained that some early developmental work inolved assessing lighter weight armor and hull materials able to provide the same protection as the current vehicle at a much lower weight.

“We could look at some novel material, such as lightweight tracks or a hull replacement,” Lt. Col. Justin Shell, the Army’s product manager for Abrams, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

Key parameters for the NGCV will, among other things, include building a lighter-weight, more mobile and deployable vehicle. Weight, speed, and mobility characteristics are deemed essential for a tank’s ability to support infantry units, mechanized armored units, and dismounted soldiers by virtue of being able to cross bridges, rigorous terrain, and other combat areas less accessible to existing 70-ton Abrams tanks.

Bassett explained that specific cross-functional team leads have begun to explore concepts and early requirements for the NGCV effort to, among other things, look for common, cross-fleet technologies and build in flexibility.

“Cross functional teams are defining the art of the possible as we look at what technologies are available,” Bassett said in an interview with Scout Warrior. “We could change some assumptions. We want to give the Army some flexibility.”

M2 Bradley, bfv, army

The M2 Bradley has seen a lot of desert miles. (National War College Military Image Collection)

One possibility now receiving some attention, Army senior leaders say, is that the NGCV may implement a lightweight 120mm cannon previously developed for one of the Manned-Ground Vehicles developed for the now-cancelled Future Combat Systems program. The vehicle, called the Mounted Combat System, was built with a two-ton 120mm cannon roughly one-half the weight of the current Abrams cannon.

The Army’s MCS program developed and test-fired a super lightweight 120mm cannon, called the XM360, able to fire existing and emerging next-generation tank rounds.

The MCS was to have had a crew of two, a .50 caliber machine gun, and a 40mm automatic grenade launcher.

The Army’s recent Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy specifically mentions the value of adapting the XM360 for future use.

“Next-Generation Large Caliber Cannon Technology. The XM360 next-generation 120mm tank cannon integrated with the AAHS will provide the M1 Abrams a capability to fire the next generation of high-energy and smart-tank ammunition at beyond line-of-sight (LOS) ranges. The XM360 could also incorporate remote control operation technologies to allow its integration on autonomous vehicles and vehicles with reduced crew size. For lighter weight vehicles, recoil limitations are overcome by incorporating the larger caliber rarefaction wave gun technology while providing guided, stabilized LOS, course-corrected LOS, and beyond LOS accuracy.”

Special new technology was needed for the XM360 in order to allow a lighter-weight cannon and muzzle to accommodate the blast from a powerful 120mm tank round.

Elements of the XM360 include a combined thermal and environmental shroud, blast deflector, a composite-built overwrapped gun, tube-modular gun-mount, independent recoil brakes, gas-charged recuperators, and a multi-slug slide block breech with an electric actuator, Army MCS developmental documents describe.

Read More: This new, more deadly version of the M1 Abrams tank is on its way to the fight

Abrams & Robotic Wingmen

While not specifically referring to a T-14 Armata’s unmanned turret or Russian plans for an autonomous capability, Basset did say it is conceivable that future armored vehicles may indeed include an unmanned turret as well as various level of autonomy, tele-operation, and manned-unmanned teaming. The prospect of integrating “autonomous vehicles” into future armored platforms is, as noted above, also specified in the Army’s Combat Vehicle Modernization strategy.

Accordingly, Basset also emphasized that the future NGCV vehicles will be designed to incorporate advanced digital signal processing and machine-learning, such as AI technologies.

Computer algorithms enabling autonomous combat functions are progressing at an alarming rate, inspiring Army and General Dynamics Land Systems developers to explore the prospect of future manned-unmanned collaboration with tank platforms. It is certainly within the realm of the technically feasible for a future tank to simultaneously control a small fleet of unmanned robotic “wing man” vehicles designed to penetrate enemy lines while minimizing risk to soldiers, transporting ammunition, or performing long-range reconnaissance and scout missions.

CINCU, Romania – Tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles from 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment, Montana Army National Guard, take up defensive while participating in Exercise Saber Guardian 16 at the Romanian Land Force Combat Training Center. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Baltos, 24th Press Camp Headquarters).

“The Chief has stated that all future vehicles will be tele-operated. We take those things into account and we’re are going to get some great experimentation in this area,” Bassett said. “There are things you can do in a next-gen vehicle which you cannot do in a current vehicle due to physical requirements.”

Levels of autonomy for air vehicles, in particular, have progressed to a very advanced degree – in part because there are, quite naturally, fewer obstacles in the air precluding autonomous navigation. GPS-enabled waypoint technology already facilitates both ground and air autonomous movement; however, developing algorithms for land-based autonomous navigation is far more challenging given that a vehicle will need to quickly adjust to a fast-moving, dynamic, and quickly-changing ground combat environment.

“There is a dramatic difference in size, weight, and power performance if you make something tele-operated,” Bassett said.

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