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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) The Army’s current early work on designing a new Optionally Manned Tank for the future may bring implications for the services’ long-term plans for the Abrams tank, all while also introducing the possibility that a new, lightweight, potentially unmanned high-tech armored vehicle could complement and fight alongside the Army Abrams for decades into the future.

While any prototypes or actual bending of metal is still likely years away, Army war planners and weapons developers have launched a full-scale exploration into possibilities for a future tank to include armor, weapons, tactics and anticipated future threat scenarios. At the moment, the work is largely conceptual and also being done through design renderings, digital engineering and computer simulations. The Army plans to decide upon a plan within the next several years.

What might progress with a new robotic Abrams replacement mean for the combat-tested Abrams? Will it live to fight decades into the future or possible face full replacement? The answer may be a bit of both, given the success of the Abrams and the ongoing extent to which it continues to be modernized. The Army is already moving out vigorously on a new v4 variant of the Abrams to emerge in coming years, a plan which will bring a much more lethal tank to the force with new multi-purpose ammunition, next-generation infrared sensors, armor composites, on board computing and manned-unmanned teaming technologies.

There is also considerable consensus that the Abrams has not only proven effective in warfare over a number of years, but is also an almost entirely new tank when compared with its 1980s birth. In short, it appears heavy armor may be here to stay, at least for a number of years to come. At some point, likely not too far off, it will be accompanied, and quite possibly ultimately replaced, by a new platform.

“We are very happy with where the M1 tank is today. Part of our job is to look into the future and determine if there is an emerging requirement. We may just keep the Abrams forever. We are looking at the capabilities of our adversaries and technologies based on advancements from our industry partners. Right now we need to lay out all the desired capabilities and lay out options for our senior leaders and communicate with our industry and Congressional partners,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Army Futures Comman told Warrior in an interview.

Heavy tracked vehicles, such as the Abrams, bring substantial off-road advantages as well certain limitations, presenting an interesting balance of variables informing current plans for future armored vehicles. As the Army seeks to maximize its expeditionary warfare capacity and emphasize rapid deployability, weapons developers are searching for that optimal blend of attributes best suited to bring the Army forward into future warfare.

“We have to fight in places that don't have the infrastructure with roads and bridges and often in places with rolling terrain,” Coffman said.

All of these dynamics point to the central predicament, challenge or paradoxical balance unique to designing an armored vehicle for future war. Weight and speed, attributes which may seem at odds with one another, must be reconciled or balanced in an optimal way.

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“We have to transit the local roads and infrastructure, but you can’t sacrifice speed and mobility for weight. There is a sweet spot that every Army on earth looks for. Let’s not make this so heavy that it loses mobility. Let’s not make it so lethal that now you sacrifice mobility,” Coffman said.

The Army plans to present senior service leaders with a series of specific “options” to pursue to engineer a new generation of main battle tanks to fight well into the coming decades, a move destined to incorporate key technical and tactical parameters including new paradigms for sensing, weapons attack and warfare maneuver. The Army is preparing to choose a path forward in 2023 as a first step toward building prototypes of the new tank, called the Optionally Manned Tank.

“We want to generate as many options as possible, so that leaders can make informed decisions when we talk about modernization. I believe we cannot modernize to parity, we must modernize to overmatch,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, told Warrior in an interview.

Given that future battlefields are expected to be more diverse and will include new elements of multi-domain threats from sophisticated enemies armed with long-range precision weapons, it is not at all surprising that Army plans for its new tank are heavily focused upon new generations of “sensing” technologies and long-range attack weapons.

“We will need to increase situational awareness to fight a future vehicle in China or Russia.We must look at what our potential adversaries are investing in and what our capabilities will be. When you talk lethally, you have to have the ability to engage and destroy your adversaries at a range that is beyond what they are able to engage and destroy you,” Coffman said.

Maneuvering quickly, remaining undetected, sensing and attacking enemy targets across multiple domains at long distances, Coffman said, are all some of the necessary ingredients to surviving modern war.

“If you dissect the concept of survivability, it includes signature management and it includes height and mobility. How fast can this transition from movement to maneuver. Survive in the nastiest places in the world and fight and win. We will fight outnumbered, so you must possess the capability to fight outnumbered and achieve victory leveraging all domains,” he explained.

Weapons themselves are also naturally fundamental to survivability; they rely heavily upon accurate, high-resolution sensing, data aggregation and analysis for targeting and, as Coffman described it, having enough ammunition.

“We desire a platform with sufficient magazine depth that allows us to fight through enemy security zones and close with the enemy, while maintaining enough residual protection for the crew,” he explained.

The Optionally Manned Tank may likely be faster, more agile and maneuverable than the existing Abrams, a scenario which will require advanced active protection systems to find, detect, track and intercept or destroy incoming enemy fire. While stopping short of suggesting a specific technical solution or detailed approach, Coffman did say the OMT will likely need to incorporate residual armor, EW and both hard and soft-kill active protection systems to defeat RPGs, long-rod penetrators and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles.

-- 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.