Fort Benning Public Affairs
FORT BENNING, Ga. – It was another hot day about a year ago here when an Army team that runs battlefield experiments using computer simulation took seats at a long brown conference table and got filled in on a high-priority futuristic experiment they'd have to set up.
The experiment's findings would help the Army's ongoing effort to develop unmanned, robotic combat vehicles, or RCVs, for eventual use on the battlefield.
Eventual RCVs could be similar in appearance, role and capability to normal tanks and other armored vehicles, but with a major difference: there'd be no human crew, and instead they'd be operated with minimal control by humans elsewhere on the battlefield.
"We're in the experimentation phase to figure out are robots impactful on the modern battlefield?" said Marty Barr, a capability developer with the U.S. Army Futures Command's Next Generation Combat Vehicle-Cross Functional Team, or NGCV-CFT. "And we're doing that through a series of simulations, studies and live experiments.
"So it's a very deliberate campaign of learning," said Barr, "to make sure that we can answer that primary, first order question, which is: Are they impactful to the Army on the modern battlefield?"
Once that's answered, Barr said, "you ask the second question, which is: How can they be impactful?"
The core concept is RCVs can make first contact with the enemy, and do many tasks Soldiers would otherwise do, while reducing the need to put Soldiers in danger from the start.
Design concepts call for RCVs to come replete with high-tech gear like sensors that can see, hear, and feel what's going on in the battle space – spot enemy troops in motion, hear enemy tanks moving up, feel rumblings in the ground made by enemy activity, for example – and send that information to the human operators. Some RCVs would also have weaponry that could be aimed and fired remotely by the human operators.
The project aims at developing three types of RCV, light, medium, and heavy, and they'd be put into three types of fighting organizations, known as brigade combat teams, or BCTs: Infantry BCTs, Armored BCTs, and Stryker BCTs.
For development of the light and medium variants, that meant a role for the Modeling Simulation Branch, or MSB, of Fort Benning's Maneuver Battle Lab. The MSB specializes in building experiments that use computer simulations to test equipment and other concepts for potential use on what is often called "the battlefield of the future," said its chief, Chris Willis.
So at the table that day last year were 10 from the MSB, including Willis, who led the meeting. Also present were other Soldiers and civilians involved in developing weapons and concepts related to the future battlefield.
The team's task was to construct an experiment in which a group of Soldiers would be seated at computers that simulate a tactical operations center of an Infantry brigade combat team, on a battlefield. There'd be two main situations tested: combat engagements in which that notional brigade has no RCVS, and those in which they do.
"So," said Willis, "we build models into the simulation that replicate how it would sense and how it would shoot – inside the simulation – to give the role-players the feel for 'OK, this is what a robot can do for me.'"
For example, in a scenario that uses RCVs in the battle, an RCV's optical and other sensors might detect enemy troops dashing across a field, or enemy tanks rumbling into position.
In actual battle, the RCV would transmit that battlefield data to the commander and battle staff electronically, with text messages, imagery and other electronic means, and they in turn would take the needed actions.
They might then, for instance, call in artillery on the enemy. If they had air support, they might call in an air strike. Or, if their RCVs were the type equipped with weapons, they might use the RCV to take the enemy under fire.
With their task spelled out during last year's meeting, the MSB team got to work.
Over the next period of weeks they sat down with their notepads, white boards, phones, overhead projectors and other tools of their craft, and drew up analytic plans, an experimentation timeline, an experimentation scenario, and also programmed computer software for the simulations they'd be using.
By early July it was time to run the test. Eight Soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, arrived here to spend three weeks taking part, along with several other Soldiers from Fort Benning who also served as role-players.
The Fort Hood group consisted of a major, two captains, three lieutenants and two sergeants first class, whose professional backgrounds were, variously, Infantry, Armor, Field Artillery, and Military Intelligence.
Some were given the roles of a tactical operations center battle staff, as well as those of company commanders and platoon leaders. The role of battalion commander for the experiment was assigned to Maj. Tommy Sacchieri, battalion executive officer with the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade.
To be selected for the experiment, the Soldiers had to serve in real life in the same roles they would play during testing, said Sacchieri.
"I had to be a current battalion operations officer or battalion executive officer," said Sacchieri. "The company commander had to be a current company commander. Same with all the positions. The battalion fire support officer, platoon leaders. So it wasn't just like random Soldiers. They were Soldiers taken from the formation, serving in those current roles that they would be operating in the test."
The experiment tested dozens of mock battle sessions over the three weeks, said Willis.
The Soldiers receive the same data in the simulation they'd be getting in combat.
"So, a company commander could be controlling RCVs in a simulation," said Willis. "They're reporting to the major: 'This is what I'm seeing. This is what I'm doing.' 'I have enemy contact.' 'Here's a spot report.'
"And then the only difference is, all of that information is generated from a simulation instead of generated by real combat vehicles and robots in the field," said Willis.
"Then," he said, "we asked them questions. 'OK, were you more effective with robots than without, and why?' And, 'OK, how many robots do you think we should have? Were you more effective with two robots or with four robots, and why?'"
The simulation collects data on the performance of the RCVs and the Soldiers in the scenarios, said Willis.
"So we can get all that data," said Willis. "So that's what we call the quantitative objective data. Who fought? How many of the enemy were killed? How many of us were killed? All that's hard data we can get from the computer.
"So we have a whole lot of computer data and then we have plenty of human feedback as well," he said. "So what we'll do, now we've done one of each type, we'll do the analysis and determine, 'OK, where are we? What have we learned?' Just like any experiment, it'll answer some questions but it'll create new questions.
"I think it'll help tremendously," said Sacchieri. "Because we were able to offer up ideas and considerations to" those managing RCV development, "of things they probably haven't considered yet, or things that we need to tweak in the concept of the design," as well as other RCV-related matters like maintenance and sustainment, he said.
Now, the MSB staff is analyzing the data.
"It's still a little early for this experiment, but it was very successful," Willis said. "We got a lot of good data. We learned what we need to learn and it will help us going forward in our future experiments. The main stakeholder, the CFT, will be the final arbiter of that, but I think that we answered the mail on this and as we go forward it will inform us."