The Army is prototyping new weapons for its next combat vehicle
The Army is accelerating plans to build early prototype components for its futuristic Next-Generation Combat Vehicle for the 2030s and beyond – a lighter weight, deployable high-tech armored vehicle platform to control nearby robots, fire new weapons, and outmatch future Russian and Chinese tanks.
While the particular configuration and technology woven into the new combat vehicle is in the early phases of conceptual exploration, there is widespread consensus that the future armored platforms will be able to sense and destroy enemy vehicles and drones at much further ranges, make use of active protection systems, leverage emerging artificial intelligence and command and control systems, use more automation and – perhaps of greatest significance – fire lasers and the most advanced precision weaponry available.
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Senior Army leaders tell Warrior Maven that the NGCV program – is being massively sped up. The acceleration of NGCV prototyping is strongly supported in the new 2019 budget request which seeks $119 million for the program.
The revved-up effort is likely to evolve into a family of vehicles to fight alongside or succeed the Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and Stryker among other armored platforms.
Development of the new armored vehicles is being pursued in alignment with the Army's shifting modernization strategy, an effort which places a higher premium on more rapidly prototyping and testing platforms, weapons, and technologies; the idea is to access the best of the "realm of the possible" when it comes to weapons and technology and circumvent some of the bureaucratic challenges known to encumber traditional Army acquisition approaches.
Army Abrams tank. (Photo by US Marine Corps)
"In the past, we would have spent many years and hours toiling away trying to write down requirements for the system and then fight over the fine points of that system. Then we pour a lot of money in shaping those requirements and then you become bound by them," Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, Director, Program Analysis and Evaluation, G-8, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Ferarri explained that specific cross-functional team leads have begun to explore concepts, technologies and early possibilities for the NGCV effort to, among other things, look for common, cross-fleet technologies, integrate weapons and build in flexibility.
"We are taking time to hone in on what is possible by building prototypes, not the final system. You start tweaking the variables in the near term rather than waiting," Ferarri said.
Engineering methods now being explored for the vehicle reflect a growing recognition that rapid development, while still measured and intended to ensure the highest quality, is necessary to keep pace with rapid global technological change. More specifically, adaptation of new technologies as they become available is increasingly taking on new urgency in light of current Russian and Chinese armored vehicle modernization efforts.
The Army's 2015 Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy specifically cites concerns about Russia's use of advanced weapons and armored vehicles in Ukraine.
"The Russians are using their most advanced tanks in the Ukraine, including the T-72B3, T-80, and T-90. All of these tanks have 125mm guns capable of firing a wide range of ammunition, including antitank/anti-helicopter missiles with a six-kilometer range, and advanced armor protection, including active protection on some models," the strategy writes.
A Russian T-72B3. (Photo by Vitaly Kuzmin.)
In essence, early exploratory efforts seek to engineer a technical foundation sufficient to accommodate future technologies – and maximize weapons, sensors, and computers likely to be available for combat in the 2030s. This could include new sensors, sights, electronics, force tracking systems, a range of C4ISR technology and a special emphasis on computer processing, automation, and AI.
"We are taking a different approach, much more like silicon valley. We will start with assumptions, then we will prototype and experiment to validate and test the assumption or hypothesis," Ferarri explained.
This rapid-prototyping Army approach exemplifies the strategic epicenter of the now emerging Army Futures Command.
"We are trying to have a command focused upon what the future might hold and driving technology and concepts. We are having sessions with outside experts and inside leadership," Ferarri told Warrior Maven.
Ferarri specified that some of the early NGCV prototyping will look at ways to adapt or improve upon existing upgraded armored vehicle platforms. In fact, Army developers 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.
The Army's "Far-Term" strategic emphasis, aimed at the 2031 to 2046 timeframe according to Army strategy papers, heavily depends upon an Armored Brigade Combat Team's "ability to ability to deploy rapidly while improving the formation's mobility, protection, and lethality. As the ABCT fields new systems, it will replace main battle tanks, howitzers and mortar indirect fire platforms."
A fleet of similarly engineered vehicles would be designed to both allow for 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 life-cycle costs and extend the service life of the vehicles.
Army developers also explained that the service is doing some early developmental work 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 Warrior Maven in an interview.
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.
"The vehicle needs to have physical adaptability and change and growth ability for alterations as one of its premises - so it can learn things about energy and power and armor. The Army really needs to think about growth as an operational need," Rickey Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9, Training and Doctrine Command told Warrior Maven in an interview.
Abrams & robotic wingmen
Army senior developers also tell Warrior Maven that it is conceivable future armored vehicles may indeed include an unmanned turret as well as various level of autonomy, teleoperation and manned-unmanned teaming.
Accordingly, 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 "wingman" vehicles designed to penetrate enemy lines while minimizing risk to soldiers, transport ammunition or perform long-range reconnaissance and scout missions.
In fact, Army modernization strategy documents specifically cite autonomy enabled platforms, speed, and maneuverability as fundamental to future armored warfare.
"As the armored BCT fields new systems, it will replace main battle tanks, howitzers, and mortar indirect fire platforms. Far-term initiatives aim to solve the absence of the armored BCT's ability to deploy rapidly. The Army assesses the feasibility and application of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-systems, manned and unmanned teaming, and autonomy enabled combat platforms," the Army documents read.
2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzer.
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 way-point technology already facilitates both ground and air autonomous movement; however, developing algorithms for land-based autonomous navigation is by all means far more challenging given that a vehicle will need to quickly adjust to a fast-moving, dynamic, and quickly-changing ground combat environment.
"Ground combat autonomy is the hardest level of autonomy possible – you are talking about a terrain that is shifting all the time," Ferarri told Warrior Maven.
Weapons for the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle
The Army canceled its plans for a future Ground Combat Vehicle, largely for budget reasons, however, some of its innovations, technologies, and weapons systems are informing this effort to engineer a new tank for the future.
Design specs, engineering, weapons and other innovations envisioned for the GCV are now being analyzed for application in future armored vehicles. In particular, the new tank may use an emerging 30mm cannon weapon planned for the GCV – the ATK-built XM813.
The XM813, according to Army developmental papers, is able to fire both armor-piercing rounds and air-burst rounds which detonate in the air in proximity to an enemy in defilade, hiding behind a rock or tree, for example.
The computer-controlled and electronically driven weapon can fire up to 200 rounds per minute and uses a dual-recoil firing system and a semi-closed bolt firing mode, Army information says.
Greater automation, when it comes to sensor data organization, ammunition loading, and even some weapons functions, can reduce the hardware footprint, lower weight, and improve crew survivability.
The new vehicles will emerge after the Army first fields its M1A2 SEP v4 upgraded Abrams tank in the 2020s, a more lethal Abrams variant with 3rd Generation Forward Looking Infrared Sensors for greater targeting range and resolution and more lethal Advanced Multi-Purpose, or AMP ammunition combining many rounds into a single 120mm round.'
The AMP round will replace four tank rounds now in use. The first two are the M830, High Explosive Anti-Tank, or HEAT, round and the M830A1, Multi-Purpose Anti -Tank, or MPAT, round.
View from an Abrams tank of its 120mm main gun firing. (Photo by US Army)
Another 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-canceled Future Combat Systems program. The vehicle, called the Mounted Combat System (MCS), was built with a two-ton 120mm cannon roughly one-half the weight of the current Abrams cannon.
There is a certain irony built into what was the Future Combat Systems effort because, while it was canceled in part for not being survivable enough, many of its concepts and technologies continue to both inform and integrate with modern Army platforms.
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 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.