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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) It will likely fire lasers, control drones, move at high speeds, destroy enemy helicopters, penetrate hostile armored formations and perform highly-lethal robotic operations while facing enemy fire. The Army’s new and now underway Optionally Manned Tank, a nascent project intended to propel the Army into a new generation of Combined Arms warfare.

The Army has begun work on a new “tank” to fight alongside and ultimately replace the Abrams tank, as part of an integrated effort to prepare the service for comat into the 2040s and beyond.

“In the year 2023 we will lay out options for Army senior leaders for what directions we can go. They will make a decision on what path to go down toward the next decisive lethality Optionally Manned Tank. Then there will be decisions on prototyping. This does not mean the first vehicle will be out in ‘24 or ‘25, as we are gathering information,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, told Warrior in an interview.

When it comes to the kinds of platforms, technologies and capabilities now being assessed by Army thinkers, the focus is primarily upon capabilities and what particular attributes, parameters and technical characteristics might be needed to achieve “overmatch” in land forward for decades into the future. Coffman explained that there are technical studies now underway at the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center and with the Army Science Board.

“We are gathering information in the form of studies, maturing technologies and doing deep dives into what will be required from a decisive platform in the future. We are in the exploratory phases and do not want to take anything off the table when it comes to the best thing for our soldiers in the future. We are exploring characteristics and not requirements and looking at broad solutions to known problems,” Coffman said.

One idea which already has considerable traction is a plan to ensure the vehicle is engineered with robotic capabilities and a measure of autonomy as may be required for a particular mission. For instance, Coffman explained that part of the rationale in engineering this vehicle rests upon a broad realization that the Army will need to fight “outnumbered” and therefore achieve combat superiority with a smaller number of vehicles. This is part of why unmanned capability is likely to figure prominently, as there may be threat scenarios where manned crews need to stay at safer standoff ranges while making decisions.

The Army is also making rapid progress with unmanned-unmanned teaming, meaning robotic systems will increasingly be able to operate with greater levels of autonomy while still being operated by human decision makers performing command and control. Forward operating robotic vehicles can directly attack mechanized formations of enemy vehicles in close proximity, fire weapons, perform high-risk surveillance missions and deliver ammunition as needed.

Much of the ongoing experimentation and technological exploration is taking place in a virtual environment, service weapons developers explain. Steve Pinter, Program Manager for Warfighter Experimentation at GVSC, said “Upcoming experiments will provide further insights into the development of the OMT based upon refined learning objectives and lessons learned from previous experiments. The experiments will also be conducted against a simulated near-peer adversary in an operational environment to better understand and develop future vehicle requirements.”

“It will be manned or unmanned as required by the commander,” Coffman said.

As part of the OMT developmental process, the Army is closely monitoring the threat environment with a specific mind to great power rival nations.

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“As we look at China and Russia, we look at their capabilities as a pacing threat,” Coffman said.

Tank to Use AI

When confronted with a large group of fast-approaching, unidentified enemy armored vehicles on attack, future Army tanks will need an ability to receive and organize incoming surveillance data, identify an enemy target and take the necessary defensive measures to include maneuver or counterattack. Perhaps a forward-operating drone captures surveillance videos of the approaching attackers, transmits the images directly to a tank engineered with AI-enabled computing able to instantly find moments of tactical relevance in the video, identify the threat and present organized information to human decision-makers in position to counterattack.

These types of anticipated future warfare scenarios are precisely the reason why the Army expects AI to be heavily incorporated into engineering designs for its emerging new Abrams replacement, the Optionally Manned Tank. Prototyping options or design configuration options will be presented to Army decision-makers in 2023, following several years of ongoing design study, virtual assessments, simulation and conceptual exploration into what the Army’s future tank should be.

The success of a mission of this kind naturally hinges upon speed .. the speed of data collection, analysis and transmission to truncate the time necessary to complete the sensor-to-shooter cycle. Maximizing the speed of coordinated, informed attack could clearly be identified as a major objective with the effort. Perhaps a machine, programmed to instantly bounce incoming information off of a vast existing database including a threat library, could for instance instantly identify that approaching armored vehicles are Russian tanks and therefore operate with an immediate understanding of the kinds of weapons, sensors and threats the approaching enemy platform might present. This computer-generated information including the results of nearly instant analysis can inform human decision makers in position to draw upon attributes unique to human decision-making and cognition to determine an optimal response.

“We will use AI to reduce the cognitive burden, but we allow human reason and decision making to assess those items not exactly tangible where there is not a ‘1s and Os’ solution,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, told Warrior in an interview.

Coffman’s reference to 1s and 0s seems particularly relevant, as it pertains to the reality that there are clearly certain factors less calculable by advanced computer algorithms, and therefore reliant upon human cognition. Coffman further specified certain more subjective cognitive phenomena unique to human decision-making and not calculable by mathematically engineered computer algorithms. Elements of human experience and less calculable variables such as intuition, emotion, intention or anticipation all represent characteristics which cannot be fully replicated, captured or analyzed by machines. Machines are nonetheless much faster when it comes to data aggregation, data analysis and data transmission, yet there are clear limits when it comes to the analysis of less quantifiable phenomena.

“Humans are better at game theory than machines,” Coffman said.

All of these advances in autonomy and AI pertain to longstanding ethical and doctrinal questions increasingly gaining attention at the Pentagon as technology changes quickly. While there is some ongoing discussion about the possible use of AI-capable autonomous weapons destroying targets without human intervention for purely defensive purposes, the existing DoD doctrine that humans must be “in-the-loop” when it comes to the use of lethal force.

“Our enemies shoot on ‘detect.’ We shoot on ‘identify.’ We must get our sensors to the point where we can identify as they detect, particularly with non line-of-sight factors, air-ground coordination, manned-unmanned teaming and shared situational awareness between platforms,” Coffman said.

Given the respective advantages known to both man and machines, many weapons developers and warfare futurists believe the optimal approach is to leverage and combine the best of both machines and humans, merging them together into an ideal, sought after blend. This concept provides the fundamental rationale for the Army’s pursuit of new levels of “manned-unmanned” teaming.

-- 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.