By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
Controlling ground robots, unmanned platforms and attack drones, networking target data with stealth fighter jets and forward troops, destroying enemy vehicles with precision-guided, course-correcting ammunition and processing massive amounts of otherwise disparate streams of incoming data in seconds … are all things the Army’s future main battle tank will need to do against advanced enemies.
A new, 60-ton, AI-enabled, fuel efficient hybrid electric main battle tank armed with dual 360-degree thermal sights, next-generation ammunition and a lethal, unmanned turret has blasted onto the scene as a “demonstrator” offering for the US Army…just as the service surges forward with technological, conceptual and tactical analysis regarding the future of heavy armor.
The new AbramsX, recently unveiled by General Dynamics Land Systems at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium, blends key elements of combat-tested heavy armor with new, potentially paradigm-changing innovations designed to propel tactical and combat capabilities for the Abrams tank decades into the future.
The emergence of the new GDLS Abrams variant aligns closely with ongoing Army analysis and experimentation regarding how best to adapt technology, unmanned systems, maneuver formations and highly survivable heavy mechanized platforms such as the AbramsX to a new threat environment. While many questions, one clear thing the Army welcomes with great enthusiasm and resolve … is innovation.
“It's too early to say what the future of the Army's battle tank is going to be. What I can tell you is that, you know, we are looking down the road, you know, what, what are the investments that we need to make, you know, what is currently the art of the possible and I think, as AFC continues to do experimentation through the Next Generation Combat Vehicle CFT, and we will begin to extract some lessons learned,” Under Secretary of the Army Gabe Camarillo, told Warrior in an interview.
While the Army is often careful not to take a specific position on a particular industry offering such as the AbramsX, the service is intensely committed to the kinds of innovation presented by the AbramsX.
Part of the goal, and conceptual focus is centered upon what could be described as a need to find an optimal balance between survivability in heavy combat and the kinds of mobility, expeditionary maneuvers, speed and lethality a main tank platform can provide. Where is this optimal blend which both captures the best available protections for heavy enemy attacks while simultaneously leveraging a host of new paradigm-changing technologies in the areas of lightweight armor composites, Active Protection Systems, AI-enabled computing, electronics, sensing and long-range lethality?
GDLS’ AbramsX is an effort to offer breakthrough pathways and answers to these questions, as it weaves critical heavy armor technologies into a new tank design built with a new generation of GDLS-driven innovations. As an open architecture platform built with a technical configuration using common standards and IP Protocol which GDLS calls “Katalyst”, the AbramsX is intended as a platform for continuous modernization in coming years, yet also engineered to bring paradigm-changing lethality to the current fight. This way, the AbramsX could address near term questions regarding the best technological mix for heavy armored platforms while also being positioned to evolve, mature and upgrade in coming years to adjust to a fast-changing threat environment.
While known for decades for building major combat platforms such as an Abrams or Stryker, GDLS has also, especially in recent years, stepped up its focus on innovation and internally-funded research, experimentation and analysis of “disruptive” or “breakthrough” technologies. Many of these are built into the AbramsX, senior GDLS weapons developers say, introducing new generations of combat possibilities. The same is true for the StrykerX tech demonstrator which GDLS also unveiled at the AUSA show.
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“It’s lower weight, has a much more efficient hybrid electric power pack so you don’t burn as much fuel and it has an advanced electronic architecture that uses AI and machine learning regarding how the vehicles subsystems function together,” Tim Reese, Director, US Business Development, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior in an interview. “This is our internal investment and that of our partners; it is not an Army program of record yet. It is a technology demonstrator. We are demonstrating technologies to the Army that we think solve a problem that we have now or provide them with new capability that they don’t have now.”
While many of the specifics regarding some technologies built into the AbramsX are likely not available for security reasons, Reese’s comment about lighter-weight is quite significant, as the AbramsX has an ability to function at 60-tons, roughly 12-tons less than an existing 72-ton upgraded Abrams. This massively increases mobility, deployability and speed for combat maneuvers, yet the AbramsX architecture also allows for additional add-on heavy armor protection if a given threat circumstance requires it.
“We think right now we will reduce the fuel consumption by about 50-percent,” Reese said.
A future battlefield is expected to operate at much faster speeds and across more dispersed, varied formations, circumstances which would require a heavily armored vehicle to improve maneuverability, speed, fuel efficiency and the ability to deploy across vast distances. Modular weight adjustability able to tailor protection to a threat, therefore, could prove extremely critical for a combat force needing to cross bridges, keep pace with tactical vehicles, require less fuel and a smaller logistical footprint.
“We think we can keep it at 60-tons with a certain level of armor or go higher if the Army wants. When you take the crew out of the turret and put it in the hull, you have this heavily armored turret without any people in it. That may be a place to save weight. What we are telling the Army is you let us know what level of protection you desire in an unmanned turret, and we will let you know what that weighs,” Reese said.
As part of this equation, it is certainly possible that next-generation innovations in the area of lightweight composites might enable extremely high levels of protection at lighter weights than may currently be possible. This kind of question, consistently being analyzed by Army scientists, may pertain to the promise or success of the AbramsX, yet senior officials understandably do not discuss technical specifics regarding the maturation or readiness of new, lighter-weight armor composites. Also, on the question of any use of breakthrough armor composites, something which has long been an ongoing focus for the Army Research Laboratory, the AbramsX does operate with an ability to “upscale” or “increase” its armor configuration as well as needed. The AbramsX is also built with an unmanned turret and only a three-man crew, a circumstance which Reese says could enable optimal functionality and survivability at a lighter weight.
“We have an unmanned turret so the crew is all down in the hull and they share a cockpit style arrangement of control screens which allow them to do that manned unmanned teaming with a ground vehicle or an aerial vehicle with that architecture that underlies all the electronics inside the tank.. The other innovation is an autoloader for the 120mm cannon. The hybrid electric power pack gives you a pretty good extended period of silent watch capability where the engine is not running and a little bit of silent mobility,” Reese.
Sensing and AI are also critical to the AbramsX, Reese added, because the vehicle is built with two independent thermal viewers on top of the tank so both the commander and the gunner have near a 360-degree camera with which to gather incoming targeting data which can then be analyzed and transmitted by an AI-enabled Katalyst vehicle electronic architecture.
“There are two independent day/night viewers on top of turret instead of one so now both the commander and the gunner each have their own 360 degree camera that they can scan the battlefield from and the turret does not have to move until they want to engage the enemy and then they can engage the turret controls so they are using a lot less of the battery power
As part of an effort to sustain and increase survivability and enable heavy protection on a lighter-weight vehicle, GDLS is working with partners to built a “hemispheric” Active Protection System able to sense, track and intercept incoming enemy RPGs and anti-tank missiles. Interestingly, the GDLS APS is built with an ability to protect the tank from top-down anti-armor attacks. While hemispheric APS has always been an ongoing goal for armored vehicles, events in Ukraine undoubtedly influenced or informed GDLS APS, as Ukrainians had great success destroying Russian tanks by firing top-down missile attacks at the more vulnerable “top” part of a tank.
“We are learning from operations around the world that the threat to anything on the ground increases every day, so we have collaborated with one of our partners to demonstrate how a current APS system can be used to provide coverage on the top of the donut by orienting its radar and launcher system skyword for defense against that top attack threat,” Reese said.