WASHINGTON -- As the Army drives toward a Next-Generation Combat Vehicle capability, leaders have outlined plans to test key features that could one day allow a Soldier to control several robotic fighting vehicles at once.
An initial set of six experimental prototypes for the NGCV -- two manned and four robotic combat vehicles -- is slated to be delivered by the end of fiscal year 2019. That delivery will kick off hands-on testing with Soldiers in early fiscal 2020.
Manned-unmanned teaming will be the major theme in the experiments, according to Col. Gerald Boston, deputy director of the Cross-Functional Team in charge of developing the vehicle.
"We believe, in the future operating environment, manned/unmanned teaming at the tactical level is how we are going to retain overmatch and deliver decisive lethality as part of combined arms maneuver. Making contact with the smallest element possible allows the maneuver commander to maintain freedom of action," he said.
Two more sets of experimental prototypes will then be delivered two years apart and build on previous findings. The process, leaders say, could accelerate the Army's fielding of a new combat vehicle in fiscal year 2028. That's something the NGCV CFT's director, Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, said can't happen soon enough.
"The character of warfare is changing and driving the need to reassess how the Army delivers, operates, and sustains future combat capabilities," Lesperance said. "The Army's current main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are not optimized for future operational environments."
The general said that the vision of combat in the future, against well-equipped peer and near-peer adversaries, will require the U.S. Army to have better systems, with greater capabilities that what is available now.
"Lethality overmatch, vehicle survivability, crew effectiveness, operational and tactical mobility, and reduced logistics burden are more critical than ever before in the future operational environments," Lesperance said. "NGCV must deliver overmatch and decisive lethality in close combat against peer threats as part of a combined arms team."
Lesperance now leads the NGCV CFT, one of eight cross-functional teams that are meant to further the Army's six modernization priorities, including the Next-Gen Combat Vehicle.
The teams are designed to bring end users together with experts from science and technology, acquisition, requirements, test and evaluation, resourcing, and other specialties across the Army to reduce the timeline to procure and field new equipment.
Prototypes for the Next-Gen Combat Vehicle will lean on emerging technology from the Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center.
One such TARDEC program is the "Wingman" Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. As part of it, a crew in a Humvee has been able to autonomously pilot another specially-configured Humvee and fire its 7.62 mm weapon system at targets.
For the NGCV, initial prototypes will likely have two Soldiers in control of a robotic vehicle -- one to remotely drive it and the other to operate its weapon system.
"Where we would like to go is get to one Soldier per remote combat vehicle and maybe someday one Soldier controlling multiple," said Col. Jim Schirmer, project manager for the Army's armored fighting vehicles.
In doing so, autonomous behaviors will need to be further developed throughout the incremental stages of prototyping.
Schirmer, the acquisition lead on the CFT, explained that the aviation industry has worked on this with weaponized unmanned aerial systems. Exercising that same type of control over ground-based vehicles can be harder, however, because there are many more obstacles on the ground than in the air.
A former tanker, Schirmer said he would often get his tank stuck in the mud as a young lieutenant. Over time, he learned to better identify obstacles and avoid mishaps.
In the absence of human experience, robots would need to rely on sensors to detect the same obstacles and navigate to where a Soldier has designated it to go.
"We would have to move intelligence onto the platform to free the Soldier up to do other things, and that's going to take time," he said. "That's what we call autonomous behaviors."
Design teams recently began an effort to come up with six different designs for the manned fighting vehicle, one of which will be chosen for the initial set of experimental prototypes. The set will include medium-caliber weapons and light direct and indirect fire capability.
The chassis for the surrogate robotic combat vehicles will be based on the M113 armored personnel carrier, while the manned fighting vehicle will be a completely new concept platform, leaders say.
The first experiments, though, will primarily focus on making the vehicles more intuitive for those who will use them.
"We don't really care what kind of engine it has. It just has to move," Schirmer said. "We're worried about how do we control it remotely and how do we write the software and what works for the Soldier who's operating it."
By late fiscal 2021, additional prototypes using lessons learned are expected to be produced and delivered, followed by experimentation in fiscal 2022.
There will be about a platoon-sized set of vehicles available to enhance manned-unmanned capabilities and begin to integrate fire and maneuver tactics. The weapon system and other vehicle requirements, such as armor and sensors, will also be determined during this stage.
"The second set is going to be purpose-built," Boston said. "Both the manned and unmanned vehicles will be built from the ground up and will not use surrogates."
The final effort is potentially a company-sized set of purpose-built vehicles that will likely be delivered in late fiscal 2023 and experimented on throughout fiscal 2024.
Those vehicles would test all elements of manned-unmanned teaming and be integrated into a unit for extensive training at home and during a combat training center rotation.
"It's an ongoing campaign of learning for each set of experimental prototyping," Boston said. "What we have laid out is a [roadmap] that will give the Army's strategic leadership a range of capability choices to make in terms of fielding a next generation combat vehicle."
Still early in the process, the Cross-Functional Team faces several hurdles in developing a new combat vehicle.
Deciding on the requirements for a specific program has previously slowed the Army's ability to rapidly field equipment. The team, as with the other CFTs, looks to prevent delays by sharing input from various stakeholders during the series of prototyping.
"By working together in an iterative fashion, the goal is we're going to ultimately arrive on a set of requirements that makes sense, helps the warfighter do what they need to do, but is also feasible and affordable," Schirmer said.
On the technology side, leaders foresee challenges to create an intuitive workspace for Soldiers who control the robotic vehicles as well as ways to collect big data in order to improve systems.
While initial tests will use a commercial radio, the Army will also need to develop a resilient network connection between the manned and unmanned vehicles.
"If you're the enemy, you want to jam that connection," Schirmer said. "If you can effectively shut that connection off, then the robots probably stop working and you've just disabled a chunk of the formation."
(Editor's note: This is one of six articles covering the Army's six modernization priorities. Those priorities are long-range precision fires, a next-generation combat vehicle, future vertical lift platforms, a mobile and expeditionary Army network, air and missile defense capabilities, and Soldier lethality.)