The next ground combat vehicle

By Mr. Andy Steel, DASA(R&T)January 16, 2018

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The Army is looking to leverage investments in high-energy laser applications to develop vehicle platforms with improved operational capabilities at significantly smaller sizes, offering defense capabilities against unmanned aerial vehicles, rockets... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)
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The next generation of Army combat vehicles will need to include manned, unmanned and optionally manned variants that include the most advanced protection, mobility, lethality and power generation capabilities to ensure that our Soldiers can survive first contact and defeat any adversary.

The modern battlefield has combined the air, land, sea, space, cyber and information battlespace into blended domains as simultaneous operations must be conducted over a dispersed battlefield. This requires the Army to design, equip and train forces capable of defeating adversaries with advanced capabilities to prevail in complex and multi-domain environments. While the Army's current fleet of ground vehicles maintains a tactical overmatch or close parity with our adversaries, additional upgrades are proving challenging to these platforms given their current size, weight and power limitations. The ability to add evolving technologies to existing ground vehicles is rapidly diminishing as the weight-bearing capability, power generation and available footprint to support these technologies has exceeded the original design.

Our adversaries have paid careful attention to the last decade and a half of combat operations conducted by U.S. forces and modified their tactics, techniques and procedures to hide from our strengths and exploit our vulnerabilities. When U.S. forces deploy, the enemy usually is operating from a "home field" advantage or is at least in position and prepared for conflict. Adversaries are well aware of the disadvantages of giving U.S. forces the time to deploy, position and amass firepower in an uncontested environment before any potential engagement. They understand that letting U.S. forces gain superiority in any domain can raise their likelihood of failure immensely.

Survivability in the future battlespace will be challenging. Our near-peer adversaries have combined enhanced long-range sensors with the effects from long-range precision fires. This is forcing a careful review of the requirements for future combat vehicles. Army leadership recognizes that the Army must develop the critical enabling technologies to support the next generation of combat vehicles. Increased capabilities, including advanced mobility, lethality and power generation, are required to operate smartly in the current operational environment.

Additionally, vehicle survivability can be greatly increased with intelligent sensors that are integrated with the hardware, software and effectors to create an overarching, layered system of passive and active self-defense measures. Examples include protective systems that could prevent an adversary weapon system from engaging a U.S. platform or identify an incoming threat and electronically render it ineffective or physically engage to defeat its lethal mechanisms. These overlapping and multi-aspect methodologies would sequentially complement each other to defeat adversarial capabilities and protect friendly forces.

To expand its combat capability, the Army is exploring the use of unmanned vehicles teamed with manned control vehicles to support a yet-to-be defined role in multi-domain operations. Surviving first contact and dominating in the dispersed battlespace will require the integration of a range of ground and air systems: semiautonomous, fully autonomous, optionally manned, tethered and untethered. Autonomous unmanned systems will have the maneuverability to travel over complex terrain and environments with greater capabilities than their manned counterparts. These systems will extend the reach of U.S. forces and will allow them to initiate contact with their adversaries under the most favorable conditions. These platforms will extend the maneuver force's understanding of the combat environment, increase survivability and extend lethality. Autonomous systems also will perform some of the dangerous, physically demanding and mundane tasks required of Soldiers.

Areas of specific focus supporting the Army's next generation ground vehicles include:

Sensors. Improved sensors will provide increased capability to detect, recognize, identify and locate entities rapidly and precisely, at extended distances and with greater image resolution.

Directed energy and energetics. The Army is investing to leverage the effects of directed energy in lethal, nonlethal and protection applications that can lead to reduced logistics and vehicle platforms that have significantly improved operational capabilities at significantly smaller sizes. For example, Army investments in high-energy laser applications are leading to effective defense capabilities against airborne threats, including unmanned aerial vehicles, rockets, artillery and mortars.

Power generation and management. The Army is investing in vehicle platforms that require less fuel yet have greater operational range and generate more power, improving mobility, survivability and lethality.

Advanced armor materiel solutions. Army science and technology is investing in lighter and more capable armors that can, when augmented with other layers of defense capabilities discussed in this article, improve survivability while enhancing operational combat effective range.

Vehicle protection suites. The Army is making investments in active and passive protection systems that allow for reduced armor requirements (weight), enable pre-shot understanding of the threat and post-shot protection from incoming threats. Vehicle protection applications that optimize passive armor and active protection systems allow for a decrease in vehicle size, thus improving de-ployability, mobility and protection.

Maneuver robotics and autonomous systems. Investments in semiautonomous, fully autonomous, optionally manned, tethered and untethered ground and air systems will expand the next generation ground vehicle's understanding of the operational environment, increase survivability and potentially extend lethality.

Army leadership faces profound challenges in developing its next- generation combat vehicle to protect Soldiers on the modern multi-domain battlefield. Soldiers need the capability and skill to deploy rapidly, close with and destroy adversaries throughout the battlespace. The Army's goal is to focus its vehicle technology investments to develop a generation of vehicles that are not only more lethal and survivable than current combat platforms but much smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient and intelligently interconnected for shared battlespace awareness. The following two articles on the Army's development of Robotic Wingman, its first armed and un-manned ground vehicle, and the potential applications of artificial intelligence illustrate the critical enabling technologies the Army is pursuing to increase Soldiers' operational capabilities and survivability. Army leadership is fully engaged to provide Soldiers with the best possible capabilities for future combat operations.

For more information, contact the author at

MR. ANDY STEEL is the deputy director for the Ground Maneuver portfolio in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology. He holds an M.S. in national strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College and a bachelor's degree in medical sciences from The Pennsylvania State University. He is Level I certified in acquisition.

This article is published in the January -- March 2018 Army AL&T magazine

Related Links:

U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center

Army AL&T magazine