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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington, D.C.) The Army is preparing to fire Javelin Anti-Tank missiles from 7-ton robots able to surveil forward, high-threat areas, find and track enemy targets such as tanks and heavy armored vehicles and fire weapons when directed by a human.

In a recent Army demonstration at Fort Hood, Texas, soldiers tested the technology to eventually fire Javelins and .50-cal machine guns from robotic vehicle prototypes during a series of war preparation and weapons development exercises.

“We just finished our second large scale operational soldier evaluation done at Fort Hood, Texas, we had 12 robotic platforms with six control vehicles. It's a culmination of about four years of activity. This really, really is a huge learning opportunity for the Army to understand how combat robotics can inform future decisions on how we buy material and how we fight,” Kevin Mills, Deputy Executive Director, Ground Vehicle Intelligent Systems, Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told Warrior in an interview.

As part of the evaluation, Army weapons developers placed armed robots in the hands of soldiers to assess weapons, refine tactics and help fast-track a new class of Robotic Combat Vehicles to war. The service is moving forward with three variants, a RCV-Light, RCV-Medium and RCV-Heavy, and each robotic vehicle variant is being developed for a complex, interwoven set of unmanned missions. These include manned-unmanned teaming efforts wherein forward ground drones or robotic vehicles perform reconnaissance and scout missions, deliver supplies and ammo or actually track and destroy targets themselves when directed by a human.

“The RCV-Light is about a seven ton vehicle and carries a 50 .cal machine gun and a Javelin and several other weapon systems. It is built for modular payloads. The RCV-Medium fires a 30mm cannon from a turret. The lights and mediums were purpose built prototypes for the soldier operational experiment,” Mills said.

Robotic Combat Vehicle

The Robotic Combat Vehicle - Heavy is earlier on in the developmental program but was used in the experiment with an M113 personnel carrier as a surrogate for a future heavy robot armed with a 120mm cannon. Mills explained that robotic vehicles armed with larger caliber systems will emerge more fully in coming years.

“One of the unique features of robotic platforms is that, once you take the human out, they're purposely built to be robotic platforms, so they can be much smaller and still carry significant payloads and have significant middle mobility characteristics. So the RCV lights, for example, are very hard to detect, so that right there gives you the operational advantage of being able to push them forward,” Mills said.

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The Army’s development of these robots involves testing for future war by placing them in the hands of soldiers in specific tactical situations replicating combat operations against an opposing force.

During a recent Operational Soldier Evaluation at Fort Hood, Texas, Army units assessed the performance of new Robotic Combat Vehicle prototypes intended to extend the battlefield, greatly improve survivability and introduce a new range of tactical possibilities for ground forces preparing for future war.

“As you move towards an autonomous system or an unmanned system, a lot of the capability is software defined. It's no longer just hardware defined, but it creates a new set of challenges, as you have to manage a very complicated software system,” Mills said.

The Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicles, Light, Medium and Heavy, are now emerging as prototype weapons platforms being further developed for operational use. A key part of the Army’s development of new technologies involves testing them with soldiers in combat circumstances to see how they best operate.

“You're going to put a robotic combat vehicle in a formation, and we think we know how you're going to use it. But we're not right. Ultimately, the soldiers are going to help shape how it's used. That's really what AFC (Army Futures Command) is pushing for, to get technology in the dirt and allow soldiers to write those requirements, not come up with some exquisite end state threshold objective, and then 15 years from now we're going to achieve it. How do we iterate the requirements process as quickly as we can iterate software,” Mills told Warrior in an interview. “By giving us, you know, honest feedback, they (soldiers) definitely didn't hold back when things didn't work, or what they wanted to see improve. I think that's really the whole point of doing this is getting that feedback that allows me to go back to my engineers and say, okay, these are the things we have to fix.”

The developmental process, Mills explained, is intended to be incremental and progressive, involving ongoing collaboration between engineers and soldiers analyzing how new systems can best be leveraged in combat. There is a complex and extremely critical synergy between the emergence of new technologies and evolving concepts of Combined Arms Maneuver, and exercises such as the one at Fort Hood are designed to explore that intersection.

“It's really a chicken and egg thing because you're giving soldiers a new capability. And the worst thing you could probably do is say, hey, fight the exact same way with this new technology. What AFC (Army Futures Command) is really pushing for us to get technology in soldiers hands and let them innovate on the tactics and operations,” Mills said.

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.