Video Above: Army Explores Futuristic Drone-Launching StrykerX
By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) What would it mean for future combat if an armed robotic vehicle could launch a mini attack drone into the air to destroy an approaching aircraft or ground vehicle? What if an unmanned ground vehicle were able to breach a tank ditch, clearing an assault path for an armored formation? How about having a forward “reconnaissance” node able to identify targets and instantly network details to air platforms, manned armored vehicles and even drones for unmanned-unmanned teaming? What about the ability to track, identify, target and then destroy an enemy tank with a Javelin anti-tank missile?
Robotic Combat Vehicle
These kinds of missions would open up and improve ground combat lethality and effectiveness in potentially paradigm-changing ways, and it is happening now. All of these operational possibilities are indeed approaching reality if not already here due to fast-tracked Army modernization efforts with its Robotic Combat Vehicle program. The multi-pronged initiative includes Light, Medium and Heavy combat robots to support infantry, ground maneuver formations, targeting, weapons integration and multi-domain networking.
With these goals in mind, the Army is planning to arm its new 10-ton Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium with heavy 30mm chain gun cannons, anti-tank missiles and remotely operated guns as a way to enable forward direct attack missions without placing soldiers in the line of enemy fire. Naturally with manned-unmanned teaming, Army and industry developers emphasize that humans will remain in control when it comes to decisions about the use of lethal force, per Pentagon doctrine. However, this doctrinal framework does not restrict areas of innovation capable of pushing the envelope of autonomy and potentially enabling unmanned systems to process greater volumes of information, make discernments and perform a wider range of functions without needing human intervention.
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The Army is currently evaluating and testing prototypes for its Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium, a 7 to 10 ton unmanned war vehicle intended to test enemy defenses, breach obstacles, conduct forward surveillance, control other unmanned systems and even fire weapons and launch attacks when directed by a human. Army Futures Command and the services’ acquisition community are now evaluating robots from Textron, QinetiQ and General Dynamics Land systems as part of a key effort to fast-track a new generation of armed autonomous and semi-autonomy robots. The tactical advantages are seemingly limitless as robots such as this can attack or surveil enemy formations leaving manned platforms at a safe distance, carry ammunition or supplies and operate as a forward “node” amid dispersed multi-domain formations.
The Army, 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 as critical to the future of ground war. For instance, the Army is now firing Javelin Anti-Tank missiles from 7-ton robots able to operate in forward, high-threat areas, find and track enemy targets such as tanks and heavy armored vehicles and fire weapons when directed by a human.
“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,” Kevin Mills, Deputy Executive Director, Ground Vehicle Intelligent Systems, Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told Warrior in an interview.
The engineering for these vehicles is intended to enable the potential use of a wide range of weapons, sensors and combat technologies. Prototyping for the RCV-M includes 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
Video Above: Lieutenant General, Thomas Todd - Chief Innovation Officer of Army Futures Command sits down for an exclusive interview with Kris Osborn.
Lethal direct fire missions, such as using a Javelin or Bushmaster Chain Gun, will be closely monitored by humans acting in a decision maker, command and control capacity. At the same time, there will still be a fast-expanding wide scope of independent operations well suited for robots. This could include non-lethal defensive interceptors being fired at incoming munitions, autonomous launch and recovery of surveillance drones, ammunition and resupply missions and obstacle breach operations.
General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) is offering the TRX robotic ground vehicle, an armed unmanned vehicle able to perform reconnaissance missions, breach enemy defenses, conduct attacks and even launch drones. The TRX is also able to breach obstacles using a plow blade and clear mines with a manipulating arm.
After being unveiled last year, the TRX was on display at the 2022 Association of the United States Army Symposium
“The TRX ……… is outfitted with an obstacle breaching payload – instead of having engineers soldiers in a breach trying to effect the breach of an obstacle where they are being shot at by an enemy with direct or indirect fire from an enemy, I now have a robot doing that for them,” Steve Rash, Maneuver Center of Excellence, Business Development Manager, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior at the symposium.
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The use of lightweight materials for the TRX, 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.
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.
Earlier this year the TRX was demonstrated to the Army as an autonomous resupply vehicle using standard military cargo containers, but 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 that can be used as a surveillance node or itself become a munition able to descend upon and explode a target. 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 ones as they become available. GDLS developers seek to align with the Army’s evolving requirements and offer an adaptable platform.
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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 this year. 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 (Army Brigade Combat Teams) and SBCTs (Stryker Brigade Combat Teams).
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. Another possibility, as described by GDLS innovators, involves 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. Earlier this year the TRX was demonstrated to the Army as an autonomous resupply vehicle using standard military cargo containers.
Designed in a modular fashion, the Army’s RCV-M is being engineered to accommodate a wide range of payloads and potential hardware configurations. This can include cargo-carrying configurations, weapons integration or robotic obstacle breach engineering. Army Futures Command, for instance, has been experimenting for several years with having robotic vehicles clear minefields or breach obstacles such as a tank ditch so armored columns can proceed on a move-to-contact mission with the enemy. The idea is to enable soldiers to operate at a safe standoff distance while robotic vehicles perform high-risk missions which would otherwise put humans at great risk.
Video Above:The Center for Military Modernization sits down for an exclusive interview at the Pentagon with Hon. Gabe Camarillo, Under Secretary of the US Army
The introduction of these kinds of robotic, AI-enabled armed platforms into combat formations is leading the Army to develop new Concepts of Operation to support evolving understandings of fast-changing, modern Combined Arms Maneuver. New missions and operational possibilities are brought to life through a technological synergy referred to as “Warfighter-Machine interface.” Machines can leverage procedural speed to distill, organize, analyze and then transmit crucial data of great significance to human decision makers pressed to make fast decisions under enemy fire.
AI enabled computer systems can bounce incoming sensor data off of an existing database to draw comparisons, solve problems and analyze a host of variables all in relation to one another for human decision makers to process. Advanced algorithms can sift through limitless volumes of data and find key moments or objects of great combat relevance in milliseconds, easing the cognitive burden and time constraints placed on human decision makers. Once correct information is identified through instant, yet rigorous analysis, it needs to be securely transmitted across the force.
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 developmental process of these robots, 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.
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.