The Army is working on a future Bradley Fighting Vehicle variant possibly armed with lasers, counter-drone missiles, active protection systems, vastly improved targeting sights and increased on-board power to accommodate next-generation weapons and technologies.
Also designed to be lighter weight, more mobile and much better protected, the emerging Bradley A5 lethality upgrade is already underway - as the Army works vigorously to ensure it is fully prepared if it is called upon to engage in major mechanized, force-on-force land war against a technically advanced near-peer rival.
As the Army pursues a more advanced A5, engineered to succeed the current upgraded A4, it is integrating 3rd Generation Forward Looking Infrared sensors for Commanders and Gunners sights, spot trackers for dismounted soldiers to identify targets and an upgraded chassis with increased underbelly protections and a new ammunition storage configuration, Col. James, Schirmer Project Manager Armored Fighting Vehicles, said earlier this Fall at AUSA. (Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium).
BAE Systems, maker of the Bradley, told Warrior the platform's modernization effort is designed in three specific stages. The first stage in the modernization process was the Bradley Track & Suspension to address suspension upgrades, BAE statements said. The subsequent Bradley A4 Engineering Change Proposal, soon to enter production, improves mobility and increases electrical power generation. More on-board power can bring the technical means to greatly support advanced electronics, command and control systems, computing power, sensors, networks and even electronic warfare technologies.
An M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle crew with Chaos Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Scott Walters, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division)
Maj. Gen. David Bassett, former Program Executive Officer for Ground Combat Systems, described the upgrades in terms of A3 and A4 focusing upon the Bradley from the turret ring down – leading the A5 effort to more heavily modernize Bradley systems from the turret up. This includes weapons sights, guns, optics, next-generation signals intelligence and even early iterations of artificial intelligence and increased computer automation.
During several previous interviews with Warrior, Bassett has explained that computer-enabled autonomous drones will likely be operated by nearby armored combat vehicles, using fast emerging iterations of artificial intelligence. These unmanned systems, operated by human crews performing command and control from nearby vehicles, could carry ammunition, conduct reconnaissance missions, test enemy defenses or even fire weapons – all while allowing manned crews to remain at a safer stand-off distance. At one point, Bassett told Warrior that, in the future, virtually all armored vehicles will have an ability to be tele-operated, if necessary.
Also, while Army Bradley developers did not specifically say they planned to arm Bradleys with laser weapons, such innovation is well within the realm of the possible. Working with industry, the Army has already shot down drone targets with Stryker-fired laser weapons, and the service currently has several laser weapons programs at various stages of development. This includes ground-fired Forward Operating Base protection laser weapons as well as vehicle-mounted lasers. A key focus for this effort, which involves a move to engineer a much stronger 100-kilowatt vehicle-fired laser, is heavily reliant upon an ability to integrate substantial amounts of mobile electrical power into armored vehicles.
Space, Weight and Power considerations, as Army developers describe it, are an indispensable element of the calculus information Bradley modernization; this means managing things like weight, mobility, ammunition storage space and electromagnetic signatures as they pertains to vehicle protection and firepower.
"If you emit a signal, you can be hit," a senior Army weapons developer said.
Finding ways to lower vehicle weight, while simultaneously increasing protection and adding new systems such as Active Protection Systems technology, presents a particular challenge for developers. BAE has developed lighter-weight more mobile "band-tracks" for the Bradley as a way to help address this challenge, company and Army officials said.
Schirmer said equipping the Bradley with new suspension, reactive armor tiles and APS can increase the vehicle by as much as 3,000-pounds.
"We are working closely with the Army to understand the capability requirements they require, and develop solutions that address the current gaps and allow room for future growth," Deepak Bazaz, vice president, Combat Vehicles programs, BAE Systems, told Warrior in a written statement.
As part of this strategic approach, BAE has already configured Bradleys with Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD) weaponry designed to attack enemy drones, low flying aircraft or even incoming missile attacks. The Army is already testing and developing Stryker-fired Hellfire missiles and other SHORAD weapons as a way to meet the near-term threat gap introduced by the rapid proliferation of enemy drones and possible air attacks upon armored vehicle formations. BAE has independently configured a Bradley with SHORAD weapons ability and is in the process of presenting it to the Army for consideration.
APS technology, now being accelerated for multiple Army combat vehicles, uses sensors and radar, computer processing, fire control technology and interceptors to find, target and knock down or intercept incoming enemy fire such as RPGs and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, or ATGMs. Systems of this kind have been in development for many years, however the rapid technological progress of enemy tank rounds, missiles and RPGs is leading the Army to more rapidly test and develop APS for its fleet of Bradleys.
The Army is now testing the Bradley with an Israeli-manufactured IMISystems' Iron Fist APS, a technology which uses a multi-sensor early warning system with both infrared and radar sensors.
An M2A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicle crew with Chaos Company, 1st Battalion, 68th Armor Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, engages a target during a platoon live-fire exercise at the Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany, July 28, 2017. 1st Bn., 68th Armor Regt. is testing company readiness while training toward the battalion's participation in 3/4 ABCT's live-fire exercise during Combined Resolve IX in August. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Scott Walters, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division)
"Electro-optical jammers, Instantaneous smoke screens and, if necessary, an interceptor-based hard kill Active Protection System," IMISystems officials state.
IRON FIST capability demonstrators underwent full end-to-end interception tests, against all threat types, operating on the move and in urban scenarios. These tests included both heavy and lightly armored vehicles.
"In these installations, IRON FIST proved highly effective, with its wide-angle protection, minimal weight penalty and modest integration requirements," company officials said.
Merging APS & SHORAD
As part of these ongoing efforts to develop enhanced ground combat lethality, such as the emerging Stryker-fired 30mm cannon along with SHORAD possibilities and APS vehicle weapons technology, Army program managers are beginning to consider the possibility of merging APS sensors and fire control with some of these larger vehicle-integrated weapons.
"There is not a specific program, but we are evaluating the technology to see if the sensors we use for active protection could be married with the lethality from a Stryker-fired 30mm air burst round," Col. Glenn Dean, Project Manager, Stryker Brigade Combat Team, told Warrior in an interview during AUSA this past October.
In this conceivable scenario, APS could in theory vastly expand its target envelope beyond merely intercepting things like RPGs or ATGMs and function in a fast-moving counter drone or counter aircraft defensive capacity.
"In the future, we could use directed energy, traditional missiles or a direct-fire cannon to shoot out countermeasures," Dean added.
Overall, despite the promise of increasingly innovative offensive and defensive weaponry for ground combat vehicles, service leaders often reflect upon the unpredictability and wide-ranging nature of enemy threats.
"There are rounds like sabo rounds which will go through reactive armor. There is no silver bullet when it comes to protection," the senior Army weapons developer said.
Land War vs. Russian & Chinese Armored Vehicles
The Army is accelerating these kinds of armored vehicle weapons systems and countermeasures, in part because of an unambiguous recognition that, whoever the US Army fights, it is quite likely to encounter Russian or Chinese-built armored vehicles and advanced weaponry.
As part of this equation, recognizing that Army warfighters are often understandably reluctant to articulate war plans or threat assessments, it is indeed reasonable and relevant to posit that service war planners are looking at the full-range of contingencies – to include ground war with North Korea, Russian forces in Europe, Iranian armies in the Middle East or even Chinese armored vehicles on the Asian continent.
Citing Russian-built T-72 and T-90 tanks, Army senior officials seem acutely aware that the US will likely confront near-peer armored vehicles, weapons systems and technologies.
"If the Army goes into ground combat in the Middle East, we will face equipment from Russia, Iran and in some cases China," a senior Army official told Warrior. "The threat is not just combat vehicles but UAVs (drones), MANPADs and other weapons."
Bradley upgrades are also serving as a component to early conceptual work on the Army's Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, an entirely new platform or fleet of vehicles slated to emerge in the 2030s.
Bassett said the Army has set up cross-functional teams to explore early concepts for requirements for the new vehicles; although the service has not yet decided upon a particular chassis or vehicle, the Army is looking at Abrams, Bradley and Howitzer-type configurations as experimental platforms.
"We may want to use Bradleys as surrogate vehicles to try out some of the technologies available in the marketplace," Schirmer said.
"We are leveraging new and emerging technology, with an eye towards commonality across many of the BAE Systems built vehicles in the formation, to provide superior capabilities for our troops," Bazaz said.
Soldiers from Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 150th Cavalry Regiment, West Virginia National Guard, perform preventative maintenance checks and service on their M121 120 mm mortar system at the Hobet reclaimed mine site Jan. 12, 2018 in Southern West Virginia. The Soldiers conducted maneuver and armored reconnaissance training during their three day drill period. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Capt. Holli Nelson)
Next Generation vehicles, for the 2030s and beyond, Army developers say, will be necessary because their are limits to how far an existing armored vehicle can be upgraded. This requires a delicate balancing act between the short term operational merits of upgrades vs. a longer-term, multi-year developmental approach. Each has its place, Army acquisition leaders emphasize.
The emergence of these weapons, and the fast-changing threat calculus is also, quite naturally, impacting what Army developers call CONOPS, or Concepts of Operations. Longer range sensors and weaponry, of course, can translate into a more dispersed combat area – thus underscoring the importance of command and control systems and weapons with sufficient reach to outrange attacking forces. The idea of bringing more lethality to the Bradley is not only based upon needing to directly destroy enemy targets but also fundamental to the importance of laying down suppressive fire, enabling forces to maneuver in combat.
As part of these preparations for future ground warfare, Army concept developers and war veterans are quick to point out that armored vehicles, such as a Bradley or even an Abrams tank, have also been impactful in certain counterinsurgency engagements as well. Accordingly, the term "full-spectrum" often receives much attention among Army leaders, given that the service prides itself on "expecting the unexpected" or being properly suited in the event of any combat circumstance. The Army has now evolved to a new Doctrinal "Operations" approach which places an even greater premium upon winning major power land wars.
"We need to be ready to face near-peers or regional actors with nuclear weapons. It is the risk of not being ready that is too great," a senior Army official said.