Related Video Above: Army to Assess Robot-Combat Tactics
Penetrating enemy armored defenses, launching attack drones, firing anti-tank missiles, breaching obstacles, conducting surveillance under enemy fire and delivering ammunition amid intense firefights are all missions anticipated for the Army’s new Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium.
The now underway RCV efforts are fast progressing with Army-industry collaborative initiatives to test, refine requirements and ultimately send armed robotic vehicles to war. The new robots, prototypes of which resemble mini-tanks, strykers or robotic infantry carriers, can be seen as lightweight, all terrain surveillance and attack platforms.
“The idea is that through universal controlling software, we are going to fly UAVs and maneuver unmanned ground vehicles,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters at the 2021 Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium.
TRX by General Dynamics Land Systems
One industry offering now being assessed and explored by the Army for the RCV-M mission is the TRX by General Dynamics Land Systems.
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.
“We are leveraging our next-generation electronic architecture and the work we have done in autonomous systems for 20 years,” Don Kotchman, Vice President, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior in an interview.
Kotchman explained that 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.
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. Earlier this year the TRX was demonstrated to the Army as an autonomous resupply vehicle using standard military cargo containers.
GDLS recently demonstrated the TRX to Army Engineers where it was configured to breach obstacles using a plow/blade, an manipulating arm with a grapple and the Army’s mine-clearing line charge or MICLIC.
General Dynamics developed TRX through its own internal research and development dollars with a specific mind to offer it as a solution capable of meeting Army requirements for its Robotic Combat Vehicle - Medium.
“We used advanced design techniques, lightweight materials and a high payload-to-weight ratio,” Kotchman said. 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.
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.
“We are looking at using unmanned vehicles to expand the network and expand the line-of-sight so we can push these robots out as far as possible so soldiers do not have to do that,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters at the 2021 Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium.
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The engineering for the vehicle is intended to enable the potential use of a wide range of weapons, sensors and combat technologies. 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.
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.
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.
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.
General Dynamics Land Systems recently demonstrated this capability to Army Engineers using its 10t robotic vehicle dubbed the TRX which was as configured to breach obstacles using a plow/blade, an manipulating arm with a grapple and the Army’s mine-clearing line charge or MICLIC,
“What we learned is based on their mobility, their excellent mobility and their autonomous behaviors, we can actually have them move on a separate axis of advance and link up with the humans on the objective. So they can autonomously move without humans, link up with the humans, transfer back control, and then execute the mission. This gives the enemy multiple dilemmas,” Coffman told Warrior in an interview.
The Army is making a specific effort to build AI into its new generation of Robotic Combat Vehicles to process data, organize incoming sensor information from otherwise disparate pools of information and distribute crucial targeting information across the force in real time.
Army 10-ton Robotic Combat Vehicle
The Army is now moving forward quickly with its 10-ton Robotic Combat Vehicle - Medium, a platform development effort intended to leverage manned-unmanned teaming to reshape modern Combined Arms Maneuver.
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.
“We are looking at using unmanned vehicles to expand the network and expand the line-of-sight so we can push these robots out as far as possible so soldiers do not have to do that,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters at the 2021 Association of the United States Army Annual Convention.
One correct information is identified through instant, yet rigorous analysis, it needs to be securely transmitted across the force. While much progress continues to be made in the realm of cross-force, cross-domain information sharing, transmitting data across otherwise disconnected areas remains challenging for Army developers.
“I still think one of the greatest challenges we are going to have is the network. We are trying to pass full motion video in real time,” Coffman said.
Coffman further explained that video and data transmission can be challenged by line-of-sight impediments or other obstacles likely to complicate information sharing.
“When you are on the ground and you have robots talking to other robots talking to ground vehicles, you may go behind a hill, behind a rock, in a gully, or go around the corner of a building,” Coffman added.
The Army has identified the growing technological synergy as “Warfighter-Machine interface,” meaning 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.
Many of the Army’s industry partners, such as General Dynamics Land Systems, are building AI and networking technology into their respective robot prototypes. At AUSA 2021, GDLS unveiled its TRX series of robot prototypes, a new 10-ton configurable tracked robotic platform engineered for a range of different hardware configurations and mission sets.
“We took sensor packages and integrated them onto the robot. made it architecturally capable of incorporating a variety of mission packages and data processing capability to allow input from sensors to be redistributed as necessary,” Don Kotchman, Vice President, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior in an interview.
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