File Video Above: Accelerated Army New Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Will Launch Drones
What would it mean for future combat if an armed robotic vehicle could itself launch a mini- attack drone into the air to destroy an approaching aircraft or ground vehicle?
The Army wants to find out, and is working with industry to experiment with and develop a new suite of weapons and sensors for a new generation of ground robots.
Drone Launch: Aerovironment’s Switchblade
One industry innovator now supporting the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle - Medium prototyping and development effort is building a 10-ton armored robotic vehicle designed to launch drones such as Aerovironment’s Switchblade. The Switchblade can operate as a mini-drone explosive able to launch from a host vehicle and descend upon and destroy a target.
General Dynamics Land Systems is now prototyping the TRX robotic ground vehicle able to breach obstacles using a plow blade and clear mines with a manipulating arm. The vehicle can also be armed with a 30mm cannon. While lightweight and robotic, the TRX is engineered with weapons advanced sensors.
Earlier this year the TRX was demonstrated to the Army as an autonomous resupply vehicle using standard military cargo containers, yet it can also be configured for surveillance and attack missions.
Another possibility, as described by GDLS innovators, could involve the use of drones such as Aerovironment’s Switchblade, a small drone which can be used as a surveillance node or itself become a munition able to descend upon and explode a target.
Multi-Mission, Modular Robot
While capable of launching drones, the TRX is being engineered by GDLS as a multi-mission, modular robot intended to integrate a variety of payloads, sensors and weapons. The intent is to build a platform with technical standards and “open architecture” such that it can accommodate a wide sphere of technologies and integrate new technologies, sensors and weapons as they become available. GDLS developers seek to align with the Army’s evolving requirements and offer an adaptable platform.
The Army is now evaluating prototype RCVs from GDLS as well as QinetiQ and Textron Systems. The service of course takes no position on a particular industry offering during a source selection process, but senior service weapons developers do describe the overall vision for the platform.
“RCVs are payload agnostic. We can have counter drone, we can have smoke, sensors and lethality. We can have anything that you can imagine on the battlefield on a robot. That is exciting stuff,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.
GDLS unveiled the TRX family of medium class robots at the 2021 Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium. The 10-ton tracked robotic TRX vehicle leverages capabilities and lessons learned from GDLS program called Multi-Utility Tactical Transport (MUTT), a high tech, innovative robotics program designed to push the envelope of autonomous operations and change or improve paradigms for manned-unmanned warfare.
The GDLS MUTT was selected in 2019 and 2020 by the Army for its Small Multipurpose Equipment Transport program which will be fielded to IBCTs in 2022. TRX, according to GDLS information, is optimized for varying levels of autonomy, direct and indirect fire, autonomous resupply, EW mission and counter-drone operations in support of mobile formations like the ABCTs and SBCTs. TRX can be directly controlled by an operator or remotely operated from semi-autonomous mode to fully autonomous, depending upon Army requirements and mission objectives.As a modular platform, the TRX can be used in a variety of different configurations for unmanned-unmanned teaming.
The TRX is designed to be configured for any combat, combat support or service support mission. Using a turret somewhat similar to a Stryker capable of being armed with a 30m cannon, for example, would enable direct fire lethality.
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Video Above: TRX: Innovative thinking for the Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium (RCV-M) class
The use of lightweight materials, which helps the vehicle keep pace with fast moving Armored Brigade Combat Teams or operate in a high-speed forward capacity, is made possible because the vehicle does not have to be armored to protect soldiers. This affords additional mission versatility and engineering opportunities to optimize the hardware on the vehicle for sensors, weapons, computing, cargo carrying capacity or other kinds of combat support.
Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle
30mm Chain Guns, high-fidelity sensors, attack drones, anti-tank missiles and even smoke obscurants or electronic warfare are all technologies now being evaluated by the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle - Medium, a 15-ton tracked, heavily armed drone being prepared for future warfare.
Attack possibilities and new tactical applications are greatly multiplied in some respects by using an unmanned vehicle, which can integrate many heavy armor technologies into a lighter weight, high-speed, deployable system.
“When you design just to be remote, you can accomplish many of the things of a larger vehicle and a much smaller package, because obviously, you don't have to package people and then you don't have to package protection. And so it's likely that we'll see the kinds of capabilities that historically would track to a larger platform in smaller and lighter platforms,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Directory, Next-Generation Combat Systems Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.
Coffman explained the service is now refining requirements and testing prototype RCV-Ms and plans another intense set of evaluations at Fort Hood, Texas, next year. Some of the Army’s industry partners include Textron Systems, QinetiQ and General Dynamics Land Systems.
“We're gonna do company level operations in Texas, using offensive and defensive scenarios, to really hone the requirements in the lessons of some of the things on future battlefields,” Coffman said.
Without needing to operate with heavy armor to protect a crew, a Robotic armed vehicle can integrate a wide sphere of technologies to include advanced computing, electronics, multi-domain command and control equipment and a wide range of weapons.
“RCVs are payload agnostic. We can have counter drone, we can have smoke, sensors and lethality. We can have anything that you can imagine on the battlefield on a robot. That is exciting stuff,” Coffman said.
RCVs can operate as expeditionary forward attack platforms to test or breach enemy mechanized forces, conduct high risk surveillance missions under enemy fire or network with aircraft or aerial drones to integrate ground-air operations.
Some may fire 30mm or 50mm cannons, javelin anti-tank weapons or find targets for overhead precision air attack. As new technologies are tested, the Army anticipates it will continue to refine concepts of operation. As various innovations are introduced, the Army will make assessments and evaluate what Coffman described ast “trade spaces” with which to evaluate options for the vehicles.
File Video Above: Army's Next-Generation Combat Vehicle
“These cannons (30mm, 50) are providing trade spaces for Army senior leaders to make decisions that will absolutely change the geometry and the lethality of future vehicles,” he added.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. 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.