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The Army is fast-tracking Robotic Combat Vehicles to face enemy fire, conduct forward surveillance, carry ammunition and even destroy tanks when directed by soldiers as part of its fast-moving modernization strategy.
The U.S. Army plans to “field” military robots in 2022 with units and put them in the hands of soldiers to assess their effectiveness, refine requirements and technologies and prepare them for possible warfare operations.
Prototypes of the Army’s Robotic Combat Vehicle Program - Medium (RCV-M) will be sent forward to units for in-depth, hands-on soldier assessments called “touchpoints,” service officials tell The National Interest. The concept behind soldier touchpoints is clear, as it is based upon the realization that experienced soldiers themselves are best positioned to know how best to use them and discern what works and does not work with the platform.
“Soldier engagements can help pinpoint end-user issues that may otherwise be overlooked and confirm or dispel the need for development teams to address real or perceived technological challenges.” Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley, Modernization Team Lead, Army Public Affairs, told Warrior.
The program has now been underway for several years, given that the Army awarded developmental deals to Textron, General Dynamics Land Systems and QinetiQ to build and test initial prototypes. Testing the various offerings in an operational setting replicating anticipated combat circumstances is designed to help weapons developers make technological adjustments, refine requirements and concepts of operation and move the platforms closer to operational service and combat at war. The intent, one Army official told me, is to essentially engineer the robotic vehicles around and for “soldiers.”
“Soldier-centered design brings Soldiers into the development process in regular and meaningful ways to provide valuable input to industry representatives, testers, researchers and acquisition experts on the capabilities they will need to fight and win,” Kelley said. “Soldier touchpoints facilitate more rapid iteration of prototypes, help define and drive requirements and ensure the Army is meeting Soldiers’ tactical and operational needs.”
Army plans for the vehicle are both ambitious and realistic as they incorporate the use of lasers, tank-destroying missiles, 30mm cannons and an ability to network with other air and ground drones and combat platforms. Some of the Prototyping for the RCV-M will include the use of Javelin anti-tank missiles and the XM 813 Bushmaster chain gun, an interesting July 2021 Congressional Research Service report on the RCV program explains.
“FY22 plans call for integrating a variety of RCV modules on prototype Light and Medium RCVs. These modules include the Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station (CROWS) with a Javelin anti-tank missile. Other modules to be integrated are the XM813 Bushmaster chain gun, as well as smoke obscuration measures, amphibious kits, electronic warfare (EW) modules, counter Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)systems, and nuclear, radiological, biological, and chemical sensors,” the report states.
The exact locations of where these robotics will be fielded has yet to be announced, however given the current great environment and the Army’s push into transformational modernization, they are expected to arrive as soon as next year.
“The Army is delivering results that have reduced a seven year requirements generation process to 18 months or less, placing systems in the hands of our Soldiers sooner.” Kelley said.
As the Army prepares to “field” prototype robotic combat vehicles to operational units next year, it is no surprise that service officials say the fast-evolving program is intended to support deterrence and combat operations in Europe and the Pacific.
At some point next year, the Army will send prototypes of its Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium to operational units for soldier-centric “touchpoint” assessments, war preparation drills and evaluations in combat scenarios. The Army’s RCV-M is a roughly 15-ton tracked, armored vehicle armed with cannons, anti-tank weapons and advanced sensors to test enemy defenses, move to contact, attack mechanized formations and engage in “multi-domain” networked warfare.
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While Army weapons developers are of course exploring and preparing for the full range of combat contingencies, the service clearly seems to see multi-domain advantages in both Europe and the Pacific.
“Continuing to Modernize the Army will enable American land power dominance to meet the demands of strategic competition and great power conflict presented by threats in the Indo-Pacific and European Theaters.” Kelley said.
Closing to contact with an enemy across the European continent would of course benefit greatly from forward operating armed robotic platforms. Naturally, given the carefully upheld doctrine that humans must be “in the loop” regarding and possible use of “lethal” force, the robots would not fire upon enemy targets autonomously but when directed by humans performing command and control. The impact of these robotic vehicles will be optimized by the Army’s manned-unmanned teaming technologies which enable manned platforms to operate at safer standoff ranges while forward-operating robotic weapons and sensors attack at the edge of combat.
Unmanned armed robotic vehicles could breach, test or attack the perimeter of an approaching enemy mechanized formation to send back reconnaissance footage, operate aerial drones over enemy territory, fire weapons against enemy tanks and even control other air and ground drones.
One of the largest elements of this may fall into the area of the much-emphasized “multi-domain” concept, as the robots could greatly optimize their combat utility by sharing information in real time with drones in the air. They could send ground-target specifics to armed aerial drones in position to strike or conversely receive target coordinates from an overhead drone in position to see advancing enemy troops.
Being unmanned, the RCVs will not need a lot of heavy armor can therefore be configured at a lighter weight to enable fast-moving, expeditionary operations able to carry a large payload of weapons, ammunition and supplies to forward units under fire.
“The Army remains focused on building a multi-domain force by divesting legacy equipment that does not support future warfighting, to fund modernization of our land force capabilities.” Kelley said.
The Army’s Pacific-theater multi-domain land-air-sea task force seeks to refine technologies and concepts of operation able to conduct joint operations with breakthrough levels of connectivity, high-speed data-sharing and cross-service attack formations. The Army is also preparing to send new Robotic Combat Vehicle prototypes to operational units for assessments and evaluations in combat scenarios. Considering these things, wouldn’t it make sense for them to integrate?
The Army’s multi-domain task forces in the Pacific are specifically formed to address anticipated threats in the region with a mind to connecting ships, helicopters, ground soldiers and even armored vehicles to one another amid changing combat circumstances. Why not add 15-ton robots to the equation. If lethal force is managed by humans performing in a command and control capacity . This kind of networking can introduce an entirely new sphere of potential combat tactics in an island-hopping, coastal land-sea type of combat environment such as in the Pacific. Perhaps an exchange of gunfire on the surface of the ocean is fortified by suppressive fires, rockets or even artillery from an island within range of fire. Perhaps an island-based “firebase” of some kind has been set up to attack ships at sea? Why not use multi-domain capable platforms to send armed robots in to destroy the firebase?
Thinking of this very scenario, there seems to be no reason why 15-ton armed Robotic Combat Vehicles could not travel on a U.S. Navy Amphibious Assault ship in support of a ship-to-shore attack mission. While not built to swim like an amphibious assault vehicle, 15-ton tracked robots could operate as deployable, unmanned mini robot-tanks able to reinforce an amphibious landing into hostile territory with supportive fires, ammunition delivery and reconnaissance support for attacking Marines.
Thinking in terms of logistics, there are several key reasons why this is possible. The Navy’s new Ship-to-Shore connectors are engineered to carry a 70-ton Abrams tank from ship to shore, so there is no reason why they could not transport several 15-to-20 ton armed Robotic Combat Vehicles to follow on and support an amphibious landing. They could certainly transport on an amphibious assault ship and potentially deploy alongside Marines in a ship-to-shore attack.
There do not seem to be any logistical barriers to this type of equation, particularly given that the Pentagon continues to make rapid progress with its Joint All Domain Command and Control program which is establishing common technical standards and IP protocol such that air-sea-land platforms from different services can share data with one another in real-time across the force.
Such an approach would likely prove to be of great consequence in a Pacific war scenario such as in the South China Sea or areas around the Taiwanese or Japanese coastline. Part of the advantage of these RCVs is that they are armed, equipped with advanced computing and sensor technology while also lighter weight and more expeditionary than a manned combat vehicle.
With this in mind, isn’t the Marine Corps/Navy Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) program being designed for this kind of specific scenario? The new LAW is being built to “island hop” and deliver Marines and weapons platforms from land to sea and back to land quickly as combat conditions require. Amphibious assault vehicles, ship-to-shore landing craft and the LAW are now being integrated to one another as connected combat platforms able to support these kinds of multi-domain missions.
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.