By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) AI-enabled target data processing, laser-attacks, EW, long-range, high-fidelity targeting, breakthrough command and control systems, manned-unmanned teaming, autonomous navigation and sensing, guided, course-correcting ammunition and paradigm-changing new tactical possibilities are all intended elements of the now unveiled General Dynamics Land Systems AbramsX Main Battle Tank.
Unveiled at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium, the AbramsX demonstrator vehicle represents and effort to integrate a series of breakthrough technologies and enhancements intended to propel the tank platform for decades into the future. Could there be an Abrams in 2050? Or something quite similar as a highly networked and lethal heavy armor platform? Maybe. Such questions are certainly on the Army’s mind as it evaluates its future force and seeks to transition promising new technologies to the operational force.
In a special interview with the Center for Military Modernization, Under Secretary of the Army Mr. Gabe Camarillo explained that critical experimentation and analysis is necessary to navigate a specific path forward, yet he stressed that the Army’s direction needs to prioritize innovation and continued modernization. At the moment, there are far too many evolving variables for a specific determination to be made, Camarillo emphasized. Of course senior Army leaders regularly avoid offering opinions or making any specific comments or assessments related to a particular industry offering or platform, Camarillo did address the critical dynamics of relevance to heavy armor, combat platforms and innovation for the future force.
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“It's too early to say what the future of the Army's battle tank is going to be. But 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(Army Futures Command) continues to do experimentation through the NGCV CFT, will begin to extract some lessons learned,” Camarillo said.
Certainly, some elements of the AbramsX are likely unavailable for security reasons, the General Dynamics Offering does represent an effort to anticipate and address emerging Army requirements for future war. Some specifics include a new generation of autonomy, command and control, AI-enabled data and sensor management, on-board power increase and management and a top-down, hemispheric Active Protection System to stop drones and top-down-fired anti-armor weapons.
“We are very focused on ensuring that we have a top attack counter UAS capable capacity there, whether it's one system or a series of several systems. When the Army makes that decision, we're going to show what some of those capabilities are,” Tim Reese, Director, US Business Development, General Dynamics Land Systems. “Artificial intelligence helps us with reducing the crew's cognitive burden, making them more productive.”
The Army's AbramsX Active Protection System is engineered to accommodate any specific solution requested by the Army, meaning it is built with the technical infrastructure such that the vehicle can integrate any explosive or sensor the Army needs.
"It does have an integrated APS system, we are not presupposing, the Army's decision...rather we're making sure we have all the hooks and the power, that whatever charges or explosive charges they choose, or effectors they choose or whatever radars they choose, it will be an application of them on there not a whole redesign to enable it," Keith Barclay, Director of U.S. Strategy and Growth, told Warrior in an interview. “Hemispheric effectors that could in fact, perhaps impact kamikaze drones or something of that nature."
While GDLS has been working with the Army to develop and deliver several new, high-tech variants of the Abrams tank in recent years such as the v3 and v4 M1A2 SEP tanks, the AbramsX reportedly incorporates massive, new innovations expected to greatly improve the tactical effectivness of the heavily armored platform.
One of the largest and potentially most impactful innovations woven into the AbramsX may be its hybrid electric drive, a propulsion system capable of massively increasing fuel efficiency while improving survivability with lower acoustic and thermal signatures.
GD weapons developers emphasized that, while of course hybrid propulsion can improve the vehicle’s environmental impact, the reason for its existence is largely tactical. Not only will a hybrid system massively reduce the logistics footprint and increase fuel-efficiency, but it will also increase survivability in a number of critical respects. A smaller, leaner logistics and resupply trail creates less targets for an enemy and keeps more soldiers away from enemy fire. Tactically, a hybrid systems enables “silent watch,” meaning an ability to operate with sensors and weapons without needing to emit an acoustic or thermal signature. This improves lethality and survivability for the vehicle and massively expands its operational envelope. These advantages are greatly maximized by 3rd-generation Forward Looking Infrared Sensor targeting systems which bring much longer range and high-resolution targeting to armored offensive attack operations.
“The third generation FLIR would be incorporated into the AbramsX platform so we're using that as you know. That's a remarkable capability step above. Being a tanker, I would say that it is really noticeable what that capability is, that'll be certainly the best in the world,” Reese.
Certainly the v3 and v4 Abrams tanks, when all the upgrades are considered, are essentially entirely new vehicles when compared with the initial 1980s-era platform, as new sensors, weapons, data links, command and control, armor protections and on-board electrical power systems have all been completed revamped as though the platform were new.
The emergence of the AbramsX, and the many innovations it weaves into the platform, may introduce some interesting new questions about the future of the Abrams tank and the continued place for heavy armor in the future. Perhaps heavy platforms, while operating within certain limitations, can operate in coordination with robotic vehicles, unmanned systems and faster-lighter weight attack platforms to provide firepower and heavy formation support to fast-advancing units.
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Optionally Manned Tank
The Army is also working on a program known as the Optionally Manned Tank, a largely conceptual effort to explore the realm of the possible when it comes to some kind of future tank or tank-like platform. Army weapons developers say some kind of initial “step” or direction is expected to emerge next year, but that a wide sphere of options, variables and potential technologies are being closely examined. Unmanned capability, long-range sensing and fidelity, composite armor materials and multi-domain manned-unmanned, air-ground networking are likely figuring prominently. These factors are informing ongoing analysis regarding how the Army plans to address the prospect of future tanks and heavily armed platforms.
There does appear to be a delicate and perhaps necessary balance between a continued place for heavy armor and a need for fast, lighter-weight, deployable, expeditionary yet extremely lethal platforms as well. Perhaps they coexist? Unmanned teaming, AI-enabled computing, multi-domain networking and high-speed, lethal, forward operating anti-armor weapons may all be used in close coordination with some kind of future tank or heavily armored platform as part of a newer, evolving concept of modern Combined Arms Maneuver. Essentially, weapons developers, scientists and futurists are likely weighing the promise of current and emerging future technologies with the kind of protection, informational and mobility requirements necessary to prevail on a current battlefield.
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Camarillo and Warrior discussed the many observations about anti-armor weapons and heavy armor now emerging from the war in Ukraine, with a mind to their potential implication for future combined arms maneuver and heavy armor. Camarillo was clear to emphasize that many lessons from Ukraine are just now being fully learned, therefore war planners and weapons developers would be well served to avoid “snap” decisions on future armored warfare configurations.
“People have spoken a lot, for example, about lessons learned from Ukraine, it's just too early to tell as we're beginning to get those insights. I think it's too early to make any kind of snap decisions about what it means or portends for the future. And then I'd also say the Army is going to have a requirement to be, you know, to potentially operate anywhere in the world. So I think that has to be a factor that we take into account,” Camarillo told Warrior.
Camarillo’s point seems well placed given the nuanced circumstances in Ukraine, because while certainly the effectiveness of dispersed, disaggregated forces armed with cutting edge anti-armor weapons have proven extremely effective as a defensive tactic against invading Russian forces, such dynamics may not preclude a continued need for certain kinds of heavy armor. Thus, Camarillo’s call for continued analysis of lessons learned and ongoing experimentation regarding the desired mix of new tactics and emerging technologies makes sense given the pace of technological advance, breakthrough systems such as long-range sensing and AI-enabled, multi-domain information processing.
For instance, when it comes to a defensive posture, Ukrainian fighters had great success using crossroads, intersections, bridges and narrow passageways to stage successfully hit and run attacks against Russian tanks, however any move to “reclaim” territory such as that which is happening now with Ukraine’s counteroffensive, may require or greatly benefit from certain more linear mechanized formations and heavy armor. This is one reason perhaps while Ukraine continues to try to acquire more tanks. They may be crucial to taking back and “holding” territory. So while Camarillo was clear to not take a specific position on the precise future path of heavy armor, he made the critical point that a host of variables, tactical situations and technologies will need to be carefully analyzed to determine the optimal force mix for the future.
It may be that some combination of both heavily armored tanks and faster, lighter, more expeditionary vehicles such as robotic vehicles or something like the Mobile Protected Firepower platform to support Infantry Brigade Combat Teams on the move.
“I think it's too early to draw conclusions about that piece of it. It is an exciting time to kind of think about those force design elements at this particular juncture, juncture in the army. But 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.
Having built a hybrid-electric, 27-ton armored vehicle years ago for the Army’s Future Combat Systems called the Mounted Combat System, General Dynamics Land Systems leveraged historical expertise to build upon and greatly advance the innovations built into that vehicle with a mind to continuous modernization.
“We're constantly trying to keep up with the state of battery development, and then working with a company like Eaton to adopt a transmission that can take power off a battery and turn itself into a generator hooked to the, to the actual drive line to the vehicle.
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GDLS senior weapons developers, familiar with the company's long history of upgrading the Abrams over the years and applying cutting edge innovations as was the case during FCS with the Mounted Combat Vehicles, explained that what might have been a nascent “hope” or early technical signs new technological breakthroughs have substantially matured in recent years. They have progressed to the point where in certain parts of the conceptual and tactical vision for FCS can arguably now be accomplished, yet with an eye for ongoing modernization in coming decades as well.
“If you think of where we are with integrated starter generators and battery technology, that stuff has really renewed and matured significantly from back in the FCS days. I don't think we could say that was the case then. So I think that the subcomponents of the technology we are putting put together now are a much better place,” Reese said.
GDLS efforts represent an initiative to align with the Army ongoing modernization pursuits. For many years, the service has been balancing a number of interesting and at times competing variables related to the key question of the future of armor and heavy armored vehicles. The inquiries are essentially two-fold. How fast are lightweight composite armor materials evolving? Will there be a near term possibility to engineer an armored vehicle at a much lighter weight than a 72-ton Abrams tank, yet operate with a comparable level of protection and survivability? Certainly many researchers and innovators remained focused on this key question, as it depends upon the pace and timing of innovation and the discovery of “disruptive” technologies. There is a definite and well entrenched, already underway Army effort to construct a future armored vehicle of some kind, although preliminary work of this kind is at the moment primarily conceptual.
“Anything new always has technical challenges with it. One of the things that the engineers are always trying to figure out is, you know, the pace of battery technology is very fast. As soon as we pick a battery or battery provider, you know, eight months, 10 months, a year later, there's a new generation of battery with greater density or greater transit throughput,” Reese said. "Transmission for the Abrams can take dual power inputs off the starter generator battery side and from the internal combustion engine that's pretty unique, as it is something that didn't exist 10 years ago."
The Army has been balancing a number of interesting and at times competing variables related to the key question of the future of armor and heavy armored vehicles. The inquiries are essentially two-fold. How fast are lightweight composite armor materials evolving? Will there be a near term possibility to engineer an armored vehicle at a much lighter weight than a 72-ton Abrams tank, yet operate with a comparable level of protection and survivability? Certainly many researchers and innovators remained focused on this key question, as it depends upon the pace and timing of innovation and the discovery of “disruptive” technologies. There is a definite and well entrenched, already underway Army effort to construct a future armored vehicle of some kind, although preliminary work of this kind is at the moment primarily conceptual.
At the same time, however, there is also consideration being given to the possibility that heavy armor, and the upgraded Abrams tank in particular, may not go anytime soon. Essentially, there is room for heavy platforms such as the 72-ton Abrams tank, despite deployability and mobility challenges, because at the moment there may simply not be anything comparable by way of equivalent protection. This is particularly true in light of the many upgrades the Abrams continues to have over the years such as the now unveiled AbramsX. These innovations include to include active protection, advanced computing, high-fidelity long range Forward Looking Infrared Sensors and multi-purpose ammunition, among other things. Also, the mere “presence” of an Abrams tank can function as a psychological deterrent preventing enemies from considering offensive action.
This clear and somewhat immutable reality is, at least for the next several decades, likely to persist. However there also continue to be enterprising ways both armor and anti-armor weapons can be employed in combat, such as those now being used in Ukraine.
“Armor technology is difficult. It just is. But to think that there's no place for armor on our future battlefield is kind of a misnomer. I think we've, we've seen this disproven quite frankly. We've seen in Eastern Europe today, the misuse of armor, and we've seen the appropriate use of armor. There again, what it gets to is …are there options for human machine teams? I think there are. That might mean a human is not resonant inside any platform, air or ground. We are already experimenting with air and ground robotic vehicles,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd, Chief Innovation Officer, Army Futures Command, told Warrior in an interview.
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.