Army Abrams Tank & Future Robot Tank Could Fight Together for Decades

“We may keep the Abrams forever,” Army Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman
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Robots, Optionally-Manned Tanks, highly networked lightweight armored vehicles and armed reconnaissance ground drones are all capturing massive amounts of attention from Army futurists and weapons developers .. for understandable and appropriate reasons.

Yet meanwhile, an interesting and often under-recognized fact is concurrently operating beneath the radar, the apparent reality that the Abrams tank is going nowhere. Instead, the much upgraded and changed 1980s-era platform is powering along with an ambitious and long-term modernization plan, an approach which routinely focuses upon the Abrams as a key platform for continued innovation and technological breakthrough in the areas of command and control, AI, manned-unmanned teaming and heavy weapons attack.

The Army continues to test weapons systems, refine tactics, explore new technologies and transit rigorous terrain with the Abrams tank to prepare the platform for major mechanized great power warfare. As part of this ongoing process, the Abrams recently drove more than 2,000 miles in “rugged conditions across three seasons of sub-Arctic weather” in Alaska, according to an Army report. As part of the exercises, the Abrams fired hundreds of ammo rounds in extreme cold circumstances, while also testing its auxiliary power unit.

There are several key variables which likely continue to inform Army plans to preserve its heavy Abrams for decades into the future, including AI-enabled computing and sensing, manned-unmanned teaming and long-range, multi-domain connectivity. For example, when confronted with a large group of fast-approaching, unidentified enemy armored vehicles on attack, future Army tanks will need an ability to receive and organize incoming surveillance data, identify an enemy target and take the necessary defensive measures to include maneuver or counterattack. Perhaps a forward-operating drone captures surveillance videos of the approaching attackers, transmits the images directly to a tank engineered with AI-enabled computing able to instantly find moments of tactical relevance in the video, identify the threat and present organized information to human decision-makers in position to counterattack.

These kinds of nuanced and highly complex combat circumstances pertain to ongoing Army and industry efforts to strike an optimal balance between AI-enabled autonomous systems and irreplaceable human decision-making. This kind of strategic synergy, which draws upon the unparalleled advantages offered by both AI-empowered computing and human thought, may be one reason why the Army may ultimately both keep an upgraded platform like the heavily armed Abrams tank for many years longer than anticipated while concurrently developing future, potentially unmanned, armored combat vehicles.

Deliberations about how to somehow reconcile a specific paradox fundamental to future armored vehicles have continued for as long as several decades. The problem at hand involves vehicle weight, technology, and survivability. Futurists and weapons developers are exploring how to engineer a light-weight, deployable and highly lethal armored vehicle with the levels of survivability needed to withstand heavy incoming enemy fire and prevail in major armored warfare. The question is whether that can actually be done as there may be little or no substitute for the protection and firepower of heavily armed manned platforms like an Abrams. At the same time, keeping the Abrams does not preclude or diminish the possibilities for engineering faster, lighter weight and potentially unmanned vehicles to operate alongside a heavy tank. The Army seems to be pursuing both. Why not?

“We may keep the Abrams forever,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, told Warrior.

A vehicle that is too heavy might lack the mobility to cross bridges, keep up with fast moving tactical vehicles or deploy quickly as part of some kind of rapid response attack does introduce some limitations. However, a vehicle too lightly armored and protected, no matter how lethal its weapons, might massively imperil the lives of soldiers operating the platform. This fundamental quandary persists, leading some to argue that a platform like a heavily armored, 70-ton Abrams tank should remain in the service for decades into the future, while others point to the need for speed and improved expeditionary warfare capabilities. While much has yet to be determined, the answer may well involve both.

Much of this leads to a lingering question with no real answer … at least not an answer at the moment. Will there be a replacement for the Army’s upgraded Abrams main battle tank? Should there be? Ultimately an entirely new platform may arise, but many questions remain open, such as how long until that happens? Will there still need to be a vehicle built with heavy armor to withstand heavy enemy mechanized attacks? Perhaps a new Abrams-like platform, should it come to fruition, will be a large, heavy vehicle with Abrams-like armor protection. At the moment, there simply may not be anything with comparable protective performance which can replace it.

Is the answer lightweight armor composites? A new, impenetrable Active Protection System? Or, perhaps the optimal solution lies in the fast-emerging phenomenon of manned-unmanned teaming.

One simple way to engineer an ultra-lightweight, super-fast, yet heavily armed future combat vehicle is to simply make it a drone that is controlled or operated by a heavier manned vehicle such as an Abrams. An Abrams can adjust tactics and be used specifically for certain missions only it is able to perform successfully, all while drawing upon human decision-making faculties to drive operations, while informed by ultra high-speed, AI-enabled computing and data processing.

“If we ever get to the point where we say… ‘this is autonomous,’ you can build a lightweight vehicle because you don’t have to provide the protection to the soldiers who are in it. We’re not there yet, but we are doing a lot of modeling and simulation to work through prototyping,” Gen. John Murray, Commander, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview earlier this year.

Much of this kind of experimentation is making rapid progress, yet Murray also emphasizes the significance of attributes unique to human cognition and decision-making which simply cannot be replicated by mathematically-oriented algorithms, even ones enabled by artificial intelligence.

This recognized circumstance is part of why many Senior Army weapons developers emphasize that an optimal solution may be to combine, integrate and call upon both autonomy and human cognitive capacities into a broader tactical picture. This means heavily protected manned vehicles may well be here to stay … for years. This circumstance could carve out an operational niche for the upgraded Abrams to serve years longer than may have been anticipated, given that today’s Abrams is essentially an entirely new vehicle given the nature and extent of upgrades performed on the platform.

This approach may enable a particularly lethal and survivable solution, meaning that a deployable, lightweight yet highly lethal tank-like platform can “close with an enemy” while still benefiting from human command and control operating from a manned platform networked to the robotic attack vehicle. The precise balance of these variables, and deliberations regarding how to best execute them, forms the primary inspirational basis for the Army’s now under consideration Optionally Manned Tank program. The intention is to architect a future tank-like platform which, if needed, can function as a purely robotic platform.

“It will be manned or unmanned as required by the commander,” Coffman said.

A manned, heavy Abrams could both close with the enemy yet also rely upon human decision-making faculties to oversee operations of many unmanned systems at one time, something which can preserve the irreplaceable role of human cognition yet also leverage the promise of AI-enabled robot drones and unmanned systems. This kind of thinking, allowing for a space for both the Abrams and a new, lightweight Optionally Manned Tank to operate together, may ultimately offer the optimal solution. With the advent of advanced sensing, for example, an Abrams could operate as a command and control “anchor” in a relay or meshed system of networked air and ground drones. Perhaps this could reach beyond the horizon and enable an Abrams to maintain its lead role, even if smaller, lighter unmanned and more mobile platforms advance further forward over great distances.

The Army plans to make key determinations regarding a specific path forward by 2023 to at least advance the developmental trajectory and chart a course of sorts into future armored warfare. Some of the effort with the Army’s ongoing Light, Medium and Heavy Robotic Combat Vehicle development are informing the process, as the “heavy” variant could conceivably evolve into a tank or tank-like platform. Murray explained that several more years of robotic vehicle development would be crucial and needed to make a properly informed decision about how to balance these variables in relation to fast-changing technological progress.

As part of the OMT and Abrams tank developmental process, the Army is closely monitoring the threat environment with a specific mind to great power rival nations.

“As we look at China and Russia, we look at their capabilities as a pacing threat,” Coffman said.

Therefore, when it comes to the future of mechanized armored warfare and combat vehicles, there are likely more questions than answers at the moment. Will there be a future tank platform to replace the Abrams? What will it look like? Or perhaps the Abrams will simply continue adding new innovations and upgrading to the point where it is essentially a new vehicle? Or both. Amid all of these unanswered questions, there are a few certainties … one of which is the widely recognized reality that any future armored warfare attack platform … will incorporate AI.

The Army expects AI to be heavily incorporated into engineering designs for its emerging new variants of Abrams tanks, likely to fight alongside the Army’s now evolving Optionally Manned Tank program. Prototyping options or design configurations for an OMT will be presented to Army decision-makers in 2023, following several years of ongoing design study, virtual assessments, simulation and conceptual exploration into what the Army’s future tank should be. Interestingly, there also appears to be continued confidence in the fast-evolving modernized variants of the Abrams tank, a concurrent effort which closely aligns in many respects with the OMT program. Upgrades, new innovations and adaptations fundamental to new variants of the Abrams tank have transformed the platform into a system the Army plans to operate for decades into the future.

This is most likely due to a number of essential variables informing current thinking about the future of the Abrams tank. Key innovations in the areas of sensing, AI, ammunition, armor composites, weapons applications and on-board computing have generated an entirely new sphere of mission possibilities and combat functions for the Abrams, developments which seem to further solidify the expect role of heavily armored manned systems like the Abrams for decades into the future. The now-in-development Abrams M1A2SEP v4, for example, includes new computing applications, a new generation of Forward Looking Infrared sensors, multi-function programmable ammunition, meteorological sensing, advanced protections and emerging AI-enabled drone connectivity, among other things.

The success of future Abrams and OMT missions naturally hinges upon speed .. the speed of data collection, analysis and transmission to truncate the time necessary to complete the sensor-to-shooter cycle. Maximizing the speed of coordinated, informed attack could clearly be identified as a major objective with the effort. Perhaps a machine, programmed to instantly bounce incoming information off of a vast existing database including a threat library, could for instance instantly identify that approaching armored vehicles are Russian tanks and therefore operate with an immediate understanding of the kinds of weapons, sensors and threats the approaching enemy platform might present. This computer-generated information including the results of nearly instant analysis can inform human decision makers in position to draw upon attributes unique to human decision-making and cognition to determine an optimal response.

“We will use AI to reduce the cognitive burden, but we allow human reason and decision making to assess those items not exactly tangible where there is not a ‘1s and Os’ solution,” Coffman said.

Coffman’s reference to 1s and 0s seems particularly relevant, as it pertains to the reality that there are clearly certain factors less calculable by advanced computer algorithms, and therefore reliant upon human cognition. Coffman further specified certain more subjective cognitive phenomena unique to human decision-making and not calculable by mathematically engineered computer algorithms. Elements of human experience and less calculable variables such as intuition, emotion, intention or anticipation all represent characteristics which cannot be fully replicated, captured or analyzed by machines.

Machines are nonetheless much faster when it comes to data aggregation, data analysis and data transmission, there are clear limits when it comes to the analysis of less quantifiable phenomena.

These variables likely inform part of the rationale why Army thinkers and planners seem to envision a continued crucial role for manned vehicles such as an Abrams to guide decision-making amid fast-changing combat circumstances in ways a computer could not.

“Humans are better at game theory than machines,” Coffman said.

So what kinds of missions will the OMT and Abrams take up moving into the future?

They must be able to penetrate hostile armored formations and perform highly-lethal robotic operations while facing enemy fire.The new tank is expected to fight alongside an upgraded Abrams tank, as part of an integrated effort to prepare the service for combat into the 2040s and beyond.

“In the year 2023 we will lay out options for Army senior leaders for what directions we can go. They will make a decision on what path to go down toward the next decisive lethality platform..an Optionally Manned Tank. Then there will be decisions on prototyping. This does not mean the first vehicle will be out in ‘24 or ‘25, as we are gathering information,” Coffman said.

When it comes to the kinds of platforms, technologies and capabilities now being assessed by Army thinkers, the focus is primarily upon capabilities and what particular attributes, parameters and technical characteristics might be needed to achieve “overmatch” for decades into the future. Coffman explained that there are technical studies now underway at the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center and with the Army Science Board.

“We are gathering information in the form of studies, maturing technologies and doing deep dives into what will be required from a decisive platform in the future. We are in the exploratory phases and do not want to take anything off the table when it comes to the best thing for our soldiers in the future. We are exploring characteristics and not requirements and looking at broad solutions to known problems,” Coffman said.

Much of the ongoing experimentation and technological exploration is taking place in a virtual environment, service weapons developers explain. Steve Pinter, Program Manager for Warfighter Experimentation at GVSC, said “Upcoming experiments will provide further insights into the development of the OMT based upon refined learning objectives and lessons learned from previous experiments. The experiments will also be conducted against a simulated near-peer adversary in an operational environment to better understand and develop future vehicle requirements.”

One idea which already has considerable traction is a plan to ensure the vehicle is engineered with robotic capabilities and a measure of autonomy as may be required for a particular mission. For instance, Coffman explained that part of the rationale in engineering this vehicle rests upon a broad realization that the Army will need to fight while being “outnumbered” and therefore achieve combat superiority with a smaller number of vehicles. This is part of why unmanned capability is likely to figure prominently, as there may be threat scenarios where manned crews need to stay at safer standoff ranges while making decisions. Forward operating robotic vehicles can directly attack mechanized formations of enemy vehicles in close proximity, fire weapons, perform high-risk surveillance missions and deliver ammunition as needed.

All of these advances in the areas of autonomy and AI pertain to longstanding ethical and doctrinal questions increasingly gaining attention at the Pentagon as technology changes quickly. While there is some ongoing discussion about the possible use of AI-capable autonomous weapons destroying incoming attacks in a non-lethal way without human intervention for purely defensive purposes, the existing DoD doctrine that humans must be “in-the-loop” when it comes to the use of lethal force.

“Our enemies shoot on ‘detect.’ We shoot on ‘identify.’ We must get our sensors to the point where we can identify as they detect, particularly with non line-of-sight factors, air-ground coordination, manned-unmanned teaming and shared situational awareness between platforms,” Coffman said.

Given the respective advantages known to both man and machines, many weapons developers and warfare futurists believe the optimal approach is to leverage and combine the best of both machines and humans, merging them together into an ideal, sought after blend. This concept provides the fundamental rationale for the Army’s pursuit of new levels of “manned-unmanned” teaming.

This kind of integrated manned-unmanned teaming, drawing upon both the merits of a heavily armored Abrams and AI-enabled drone technology, seems to inform much of the rationale for the Army’s new Optionally Manned Tank platform, a nascent project intended to propel the U.S. Army into a new generation of Combined Arms warfare. It will likely fire lasers, control drones, move at high speeds, and be able to destroy enemy helicopters. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.