By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization
(Washington D.C.) Stryker-mounted drone and helicopter-destroying HELLFIRE missiles, lasers to incinerate enemy air and ground targets, airburst and proximity rounds blasted out of a new high-powered 30mm cannon and now ... silent watch attack, 360-degree sensing and drone swarm defeating High Powered Microwave weapons are being added to the classic Army vehicle. Breakthrough levels of autonomy, manned-unmanned teaming, multi-domain connectivity and paradigm-changing networking technologies are also informing critical modernization strategies for the multi-variant, combat-tested Stryker family of vehicles.
As a way to anticipate emerging Army requirements and offer solutions for consideration, General Dynamics Land Systems has built a new “StrykerX” demonstrator vehicle for the service to evaluate. Major industry contributors, such as GDLS, often invest their own dollars to anticipate Army needs or solve key problems for the Army of relevance to future threats and new applications of Combined Arms Maneuver.
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“We have added a lot of power that was not there before, and we have given the soldier a silent mobility and silent watch. We’ve added 360 SA like we have not done in the past. We’ve given them the ability to have see-through armor. There is a digital windshield so to speak,” Tim Frostick, Product Manager StrykerX, General Dynamics Land Systems. “We’ve increased the overall crew compartment in the back by 36 inches. This has allowed us to put more seating in, and we’ve increased the communications ability between the driver and the commander.”
These innovations, both individually and collectively operating in coordination with one another, introduce new tactical possibilities previously unavailable for soldiers operating in a Stryker. A “digital windshield” enabling “see-through” armor enables infantry and crew to operate with an entirely new level of access to time-sensitive threat data, target identification and intelligence information during combat. Perhaps enemy attackers emerging from obscured positions on one side of the vehicle, they could much more easily be identified by soldiers in position to respond or counterattack more safely.
As part of this, AI-enabled computing is increasingly able to organize and analyze incoming sensor data at the point of collection, saving time, increasing efficiency and offering counterattack options in seconds. Perhaps video data is arriving through a data link from an overhead drone, or satellite-collected force location information is collected through GPS all while communications and time-sensitive data is sent from a RF signal in the form of a radio or mobile ground-radar system? Common technical standards, relying in part on on-board gateways able to essentially “translate” or “convert” data from one transport layer format to another, allows a modern Stryker to operate as a massive weapons system as well as a critical mobile “node” within a broader, multi-domain combat network.
This kind of high-speed intelligence collection and data processing also greatly supports the StrykerX’s intent to enable real-time, multi-domain networking with robotic vehicles, attack drones, nearby armored vehicles, dismounted forces and even fighter jets and helicopters.
“We have really increased the manned-unmanned teaming element. Not just from the drones but also robotic elements around the unit itself. With the increase in power and computing we have been able to really increase our ability to do things like that,” Frostick said.
Specifically, the StrykerX is being offered with an ability to launch up to four Switchblade 300s from the back, mini-surveillance drones which can gather intelligence and also function themselves as explosives to attack and destroy enemy targets. This is the kind of technology which, it seems entirely possible, might someday be able to launch course-correcting or self-guided explosive mini-drones able to steer themselves to a moving target with some measure of autonomy. Added to this, the StrykerX also has an ability to launch a well-known and combat proven small drone called the Puma.
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The Puma can even be launched by hand by dismounted soldiers, so an ability to operate the drone from a moving vehicle introduces a new sphere of tactical advantages as well. Moving Stryker Infantry Brigade Combat Teams, for example, will operate with an ability to search for enemy targets on the other side of a mountain or in an urban area where threats might otherwise be obscured from view. Earlier Stryker variants operated with an ability to launch and recover “Shrike 2” Hunter-Killer drones.
As a small, vertical take-off surveillance drone, the Shrike 2 launches from the turret of the vehicle to sense, find and track enemy targets. Then, using a standard video data link, it can work in tandem with an attack missile to destroy the targets it finds. The technology is intended to expedite the sensor-to-shooter loop and function as its own “hunter-killer” system.
While the Army is often reluctant to take a position or make an official comment on a specific industry offering, it is likely the StrykerX will be looked at closely by the Army. The service does talk often and at great length about the growing merits of autonomy, AI, data networking and manned-unmanned teaming. The Army seeks to not only network aerial drones with major manned, armed combat platforms but also operate unmanned robotic vehicles as well.
“Robotic technology really depends on the ability to do computational algorithms and process data very, very quickly and effectively on the battlefield. That's going to require us to have some foundational things in the future, such as high-power computing capabilities that are at the tactical edge. I think. Secondly, it's ensuring that the integration of those autonomous systems is done in a way that's effective onto the platforms of the future, whether it's UAVs, or air launched effects off of our rotary wing aircraft, or an autonomous combat vehicle,” Gabe Camarillo, Under Secretary of the Army, told Warrior in an interview.
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These kinds of manned-unmanned teaming possibilities are given additional tactical relevance through the use of the hybrid-electric propulsion system GDLS engineers built into the StrykerX. Silent watch technology, enabled by this hybrid-electric propulsion system, means Stryker crews can quietly conduct scouting and surveillance missions without emitting a thermal or acoustic signature, a circumstance which introduces the possibility for high-risk forward surveillance or ambush and surprise attack.
Drone operations of this kind can greatly complement or fortify the Strykers’ existing Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD), a technical system bringing counter-drone and helicopter weapons to the Stryker platform by integrating an ability to fire HELLFIRE interceptors and even Javelin anti-tank weapons. Short-to-mid-range air defense is particularly critical for Stryker formations which might otherwise be vulnerable to enemy drone and helicopter attacks. With this in mind, GDLS has partnered with a small firm called Epirus which has developed a Stryker-integrated, counter-drone High Powered Microwave variant able to “disable,” “jam,” or “destroy” attacking enemy drones, including swarms. The Epirus-GDLS vehicle is called the Leonidas Stryker.
“This sends a high-powered microwave energy out from the panel vehicle and destroys the sensitive electronics in the vehicle system it runs into, either airborne, or ground or in the water. It is configured here on the Stryker. We designed it to primarily go after unmanned aerial vehicles as part of our air defense portfolio on Stryker Vehicles,” Tim Reese, General Dynamics Land Systems, US Business Development, told Warrior in an interview.
All of these innovations contribute to a larger, integrated suite of Stryker technologies which, in the realm of countering drones, includes the addition of laser weapons. The Army is fast-progressing with Increment 2 of its M-SHORAD program, an ongoing initiative to arm Strykers with 50kw laser weapons. This not only introduces new prospects for precision attack upon enemy drones, but also introduces an ability to attack and defend at the speed of light. Lasers, if properly and fully integrated with the requisite mobile electrical power, are inherently scalable, meaning they can be adjusted to fully incinerate and destroy enemy targets or merely disable functionality. The Army has been working with several vendors to refine and strengthen its Stryker-fired laser and expects to have it operational within just the next few years.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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.