Jake Obradovich understands the importance and the urgency of modernizing the Army’s go-to combat vehicles.
A mechanical engineer and test officer with U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command who has worked with the U.S. military for more than 12 years, Obradovich’s experience includes working on the Bradley Fighting Vehicle – a workhorse of a machine that has served the Army well but will one day transition to the role of predecessor.
The Bradley “was designed 40-plus years ago,” Obradovich said. “The battlefield of then versus the battlefield of now – it’s completely changed.”
Thanks to years of concerted U.S. military research and investment, however, the path forward is a promising one.
The Army is currently testing a fleet of Next Generation Combat Vehicles (NGCVs) at Project Convergence 2021 (PC21), a large-scale modernization experiment and cornerstone effort of U.S. Army Futures Command.
As part of the experiment, which is taking place at Army installations in Arizona and New Mexico, teams of Soldiers, civilians, contractors and industry experts are testing the newest advances in modern warfare, including in the realm of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled ground combat vehicles.
The new vehicles undergoing testing include the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle, Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle and Next Generation Tank.
Obradovich, who is serving as an NGCV Cross-Functional Team (CFT) integrator at PC21, emphasized the importance of rolling out new ground combat options ahead of future land warfare scenarios.
“The past 15–20 years, we’ve been fighting a very irregular war, and so we’ve been focused on kind of a different type of adversary,” Obradovich said. “While we’ve done that, our adversaries have continued to develop their core capabilities, and one of the most basic elements of the battle is having that ground, direct combat.”
The vehicles, which can function with or without a physical driver, offer greater adaptability on the battlefield – adaptability that the Army is demonstrating through a synchronized, live-fire reconnaissance and attack experiment at PC21.
Enabling the interconnectedness of the NGCV experiment is an aided threat recognition system, supported by Third-Generation Forward-Looking Infrared, which can scan for and identify enemy targets.
The system is able to rapidly relay images of detected targets to a human-led command center, which can then decide on an appropriate course of action.
The AI advances also assist with informing engagement of targets, including by utilizing unmanned aerial systems to send information to shooters.
Applying such advances to future warfighting operations could enhance the speed and accuracy of tactical movements while minimizing the need to mobilize scout troops.
Part of the uniqueness of the NGCV experiment is how advanced the prototypes for the new combat vehicle systems are, meaning that when one is observing operational scenarios, “it’s not a huge mental leap to see the technologies of the future battlefield and how they’ll be employed,” said Ben Rosen, Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C5ISR) integration lead for the NGCV team and a site lead at PC21.
Rosen added that at PC21, the Army is able to replicate a “holistic operating environment” to assess how updated vehicles and cutting-edge communication networks “interact and play and feed off of each other, and how we can use these technologies to create that overmatch that we’re looking for.”
Multiple Army research and development labs, including the Army Artificial Intelligence Integration Center and the Combat Capabilities and Development Command’s Armaments, C5ISR and Ground Vehicle Systems centers, are involved in the experiment, illustrating the dynamism – as well as adept coordination – of the exercise.
“Not often do you see all of the centers within the [Army] science and technology community get together to develop systems in the dirt,” said Jeremiah Bryant, an NGCV project manager with the Ground Vehicle Systems Center and an operations lead for PC21 NGCV testing.
The gathering presents a valuable opportunity for collaborative learning and ongoing systems development. “As we continue to learn and progress, we take those lessons learned and apply it to the next iteration of this, and we continue to build on that momentum in developing these systems for the future warfighter,” Bryant said.
Whitley Bowman, an operations and safety lead for NGCV testing at PC21, described the experiment as helping the Army to explore the important modernization question of “How are we able to protect our Soldiers more and send robots instead?”
“There’s other mini experiments that have been done, but not to this caliber,” she said.
Bowman explained that “with all the sensors that are on the platforms, we’re able to pick up things faster and communicate things faster and make those decisions faster.”
The result is a highly responsive and adaptive weaponized fighting vehicle and communication network, which the Army hopes will provide future commanders with improved reconnaissance and target engagement options.
“It’s an effort to support the future warfighter but also to protect our Soldiers,” Bowman said. “Rather than sending them on the first line, we’re able to keep them further back.”
Soldier integration into the exercise is also yielding significant dividends for the Army.
“We’re seeing a lot more early involvement from Soldiers at operationally relevant test events, which is providing value added for the Army, for the government as a whole,” Obradovich said.
“They’re getting these things in Soldiers’ hands years and years, sometimes even a decade, before they would normally do so, and that feedback is so critical.”