By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
AI-enabled target recognition, multi-domain autonomy and information processing, software-enabled weapons upgrades, paradigm-changing command and control, breakthrough robotics and next-generation, fuel-efficient vehicle engines, batteries and propulsion systems … are all things one might not instantly associate with General Dynamics Land Systems, the classic, large defense firm known for making the Army’s Abrams tank and Stryker infantry vehicle.
General Dynamics Land Systems is working to change this perception and highlight the firm’s long standing efforts with research, engineering, paradigm-changing technologies and innovation. While of course GDLS welcomes its association with classic, combat-tested platforms such as the Abrams and Stryker, beneath the visible surface of the power and combat contribution of these vehicle, the firm has spent years working with small innovators and funding its own research into identifying and integrating new, “disruptive” paradigm-changing technologies. This has been evidenced over the years to a large extent through the firm's well-known, massive upgrades to both the Abrams and Stryker. Modern variants of these vehicles are so thoroughly revamped and upgraded that they are almost entirely new vehicles when compared with their original state.
“The Abrams tank has been around for a long time. The Stryker has been around for half as long but still a long time. Those are the two things we're known for most. But we're, we're an Air Defense System provider. Now, we're a ground vehicle robotic provider, and we have figured out a way to use artificial intelligence and ground combat vehicles together. And those are innovations that don't get as much connection to our company name as we would like them to get,” Keith Barclay, Director of US Strategy and Growth, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior in an interview.
AbramsX & StrykerX
GDLS is making a visible effort to take this emphasis upon innovation to an entirely new level, and unveiling new, upgraded, high-tech “demonstrator” StrykerX and AbramsX platforms at the 2022 Association of the United States Army, Annual Symposium
“These are actual full up vehicles. These are not mock ups, or models, or that kind of thing. These are real vehicles.They're all tech demonstrators, as we call them. And the intention collectively is for us to be able to show our customers, primarily the Army, but others, the latest of our technological innovation, and the innovation that we have brought on to combat vehicles from our partners across the defense industry. We're targeting these in pursuit of what we think anyway are the Army's modernization and battlefield strategies and requirements in the near term,” Barclay said.
Each of the “X” variants of these platforms contains unprecedented levels of high-tech innovation in the areas of propulsion, manned-unmanned teaming, targeting, command and control, sensing and weapons.
“Unlike a prototype vehicle, or a bid sample, or something that's built for a particular competition or program of record, these are tech demonstrators, they are built for us to do just what the name says, just to demonstrate a bunch of technologies that we think are ready today are very near to being ready today,” Barclay said.
For instance, GDLS has integrated new weapons, computing, fire control and sensing into its Stryker vehicle through its Short Range Air Defense program in which the vehicle fires Stinger, Javelin and Hellfire missiles to counter drones, helicopters and other enemy air attacks. This upgrade incorporates a number of new innovations in the areas of air defense, and GDLS has also long been immersed in developing and advancing robotic systems as well. Additional innovations pursued by GDLS in close coordination with the Army also include breakthroughs in autonomy, vehicle-launched drones and multi-domain manned, unmanned teaming.
In a broad conceptual, strategic and developmental sense, GDLS is fundamentally seeking to align with, anticipate and support the Army’s modernization strategy and vision, something which senior leaders say relies heavily upon continued innovation, experimentation and the rapid harvesting of technologies. GDLS focus on innovation, development and experimentation aligns with comments spoken to Warrior by Under Secretary of the Army Mr. Gabe Camarillo in an interview.
Video Above: Warrior Maven Exclusive Pentagon Interview: Hon. Gabe Camarillo, US Army Under Secretary
“I think what we need to focus on at this point is continued experimentation, continued assessment of where the state of technology might be. And then I think we need to think through as we design, you know, look ahead beyond the Army of 2030. How can we incorporate those technologies and those capabilities into the formations of the future, to enable us to be prepared to do what we've always done, which is to dominate the battlefield?” Camarillo said.
The idea, Camarillo said, is to not only find or uncover new technologies, but “transition” them such that they quickly support the war effort. This kind of sensibility, wherein new paradigm-changing technologies are integrated into both existing and new platforms, is what GDLS strikes to align with.
As part of this, GDLS is aligning with Army efforts to build AI into its new generation of Robotic Combat Vehicles to process data, organize incoming sensor information from otherwise disparate pools of information and distribute crucial targeting information across the force in real time.
For instance, the Army is now moving forward quickly with its 10-ton Robotic Combat Vehicle - Medium, a platform development effort intended to leverage manned-unmanned teaming to reshape modern Combined Arms Maneuver.
The Army has identified the growing technological synergy as “Warfighter-Machine interface,” meaning machines can leverage procedural speed to distill, organize, analyze and then transmit crucial data of great significance to human decision makers pressed to make fast decisions under enemy fire.
At AUSA 2021, GDLS unveiled its TRX series of robot prototypes a new 10-ton configurable tracked robotic platform engineered for a range of different hardware configurations and mission sets.
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“We took sensor packages and integrated them onto the robot. made it architecturally capable of incorporating a variety of mission packages and data processing capability to allow input from sensors to be redistributed as necessary,” Don Kotchman, Vice President, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior in an interview last year.
AI enabled computer systems can bounce incoming sensor data off of an existing database to draw comparisons, solve problems and analyze a host of variables all in relation to one another for human decision makers to process. Advanced algorithms can sift through limitless volumes of data and find key moments or objects of great combat relevance in milliseconds, easing the cognitive burden and time constraints placed on human decision makers.
Video Above: What comes after the Abrams? Assistant Secretary of Army Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Talks Future of Tanks
“We're applying these different technologies, either to what the Army calls enduring fleets that are going to be around a while, like the Abrams in the Stryker, and to emerging requirements such as robotics, and air defense that we know the army is really focused on right now and is about to begin to make formal programs,” Barclay explained.
“The reason we bring all these technologies together is we want to get feedback from the Army about what they see that is most promising or useful, relevant, etc, and the opposite, to help us understand where to focus our R&D efforts going forward, and help us figure out what technologies we should be bringing in from outside companies,”
In many cases, setting the conditions for continued modernization through common protocol, IP standards and interfaces are a key focus of GDLS as it seeks to anticipate and respond to Army requirements. For instance, GDLS’ approach to Active Protection Systems is based upon engineering an open system able to function as an integrated part of a vehicle as opposed to being a “bolt-on” or applique kind of systems. The effectors and technology being used for its APS, for example, can vary depending upon tactical requirements and integrate cutting edge non-kinetic defenses such as EW or High Powered microwave.
Reese explained that GDLS APS technology can use “a high powered microwave. It's a soft kill system that doesn't have a kinetic defeat. So it's limited only by the amount of fuel that you have on the vehicle, it runs off of electrical power. The other unique thing about it is that it can defeat swarms of drones. It's not just for singular point target engagements, although it can do that. But it can also steer the beam of microwaves to a larger area and any drone which is inside that beam will be affected in the same way,” Reese said. These kinds of “jammers,” “interceptors” or “effectors” could potentially derail an attacking small fleet of enemy kamikaze drones by using hemispheric “effectors” and technologies.
Commonality across platforms is yet another way to drive innovation able to streamline sustainment and maintenance, improve the logistical supply chain and ensure performance reliability. This is one of the key reasons GDLS developers looked across a range of platforms and technologies to build in continued upgradeability and reliability.
“Three of the four vehicles have some things in common .. and they're the AbramsX, the StrykerX, and the TRX. Notice the commonality there. And that is, they're all powered by hybrid electric engines, which is kind of unique,” Barclay said.
AI-enabled on-board sensing, coupled with computer processing, can help dramatically improve the life span of many vehicles.
“On the sustainment and logistics side, we call it autonomous vehicle sustainment. You can run algorithms on the vehicle that monitor the key systems, and the engine and the electronic components and compare it to residual life models that we have developed based on decades of data. We can then predict when a system is going to be failing or begin to reduce its capability and provide that alert to the crew and provide that information to the maintenance officers and to the commander so they can make judgments about how to react to the future readiness status of their formation,” Reese said.
AI-enabled automatic target recognition is something GDLS weapons developers point to as another key innovation reshaping ground combat. An AI-capable system can collect and organize incoming sensor data, bounce it off of an existing database and solve problems, find patterns and identify targets. This is something GDLS is building into its Abrams and Stryker, among others.
“The AI bot on the vehicle can alert the crew to something that is not natural in the terrain, and even provide the crew an estimate of how confident it is in what it is seeing. You can say, for example, that's a Russian T 72 with 80% confidence, or that is a civilian carrying some logs on his shoulder, out in the forest, not a soldier with a corner anti tank guided missile on it,” Reese said.
In a previous discussion about the advent of Aided Target Recognition between Warrior and former Army Futures Command Commanding General Gen. John Murray, Murray explained that tank gunners used to be show flash cards showing enemy targets. The soldiers who quickly and correctly identified the best targets through rapid visual identification were often chosen to be a “gunner” in a tank. Now however, Murray explained, AI-enabled automatic aided target recognition can draw upon advanced algorithms to make those instant distinctions and identify threat details with high confidence in milliseconds. While there is a critical and longstanding place for the continued use of those decision-making faculties unique to human observation and cognition, this kind of AI-enabled targeting and processing speed can ease the burden upon human decision-makers and give them a much wider and more integrated threat picture than may have ever previously been possible.
The entire approach, GD weapons developers said, is to fully align with and support the Army.
“Hopefully, the Army will be stimulated enough by something, we see that they'll move it forward in the next stage of their modernization strategy, whether that's a whole brand new program, in some cases, or whether it's an incremental increase in capability to an existing fleet,” Barclay said.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.