SPECIAL Association of the United States Army LAND WAR SERIES:
Warrior Maven Video Above: General Dynamics Land Systems Weapons Developers Discuss Griffin III & Army NGCV
by Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
The Army is accelerating plans to build early prototypes for its futuristic Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) for the 2030s and beyond – a lighter-weight, deployable high-tech armored vehicle platform to control nearby robots, launch attack drones, fire new weapons and outmatch future Russian and Chinese armored vehicles.
Prior thinking had held that the NGCV vehicles, which could likely evolve into a family of future vehicles, would come to fruition in the early 2030s.
Now, Army senior leaders and weapons developers are already looking at industry demonstrator offerings and planning to massively speed up the developmental trajectory for the new vehicle - and possibly have something ready by the early to mid 2020s.
“This is a shift back to great power competition, looking at capabilities we mortgaged over the last few years to do the counterinsurgency fight,” Gen. John Murray, Command of Army Futures Command, told reporters at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium (AUSA) when speaking about the strategic basis for the acceleration.
While the particular configuration and technology woven into the new combat vehicle is still a subject of Army-industry collaboration, there is widespread consensus that the future armored platforms will be able to sense and destroy enemy vehicles and drones at much farther ranges, make use of active protection systems, leverage emerging AI and command and control systems.
Army developers also say the new vehicle will use more automation and – perhaps of greatest significance – fire lasers and the most advanced precision weaponry available.
Three industry teams have already built demonstrator vehicles: General Dynamics Land Systems, BAE Systems and a Rhienemetall-Raytheon team.
General Dynamics Land Systems, which has now unveiled its NGCV Griffin III demonstrator vehicle, intends to work with Army developers on requirements, weapons systems and technologies as they evolve.
Built with a 50mm cannon on a GDLS turret, the Griffin III integrates Active Protection Systems technology, laser warning systems and drone operations.
Michael Peck, GDLS Director of Enterprise Business Development, told Warrior Maven the Griffin III is engineered with advanced AI, automation, 360-degree cameras and consolidated sensor technology.
“We have designed it to be an operating system that accept apps instead of new boxes. It uses AI so it has driver assist, it has gunners assist and it has ‘let’s decide what targets are out there and let’s give you a prioritization,’” Peck told Warrior in an interview.
Peck explained that AI-enabled automation enables a Griffin III to operate successfully with a two-man crew instead of a standard three-man crew.
“They routinely have three-man crews because there are that many tasks. The vehicle can use waypoint navigation, so the vehicle will drive itself and make corrections while two operators are identifying targets,” Peck said.
The 40-ton Griffin III vehicle has a small drone mounted on its chassis for built-on surveillance and attack missions. Working with drone-maker AeroVironment’s Switchblade drone, the Griffin III can launch and recover an attack and ISR drone.
AeroVironment data says the NGCV is receiving “automated drone scout and precision loitering missile engagement technology tightly coupled into the GD armored vehicle electronic architecture to rapidly geolocate and, if necessary, finish targets.”
Built-on drone operations bring substantial tactical combat advantages. In the event that enemy fighters or vehicle formations might be on the other side of a small mountain, a small vehicle-launched drone could both alert vehicle crews and launch an attack. Such a technology would naturally overcome line-of-sight limitations and keep manned crews farther away from enemy fire.
The new vehicles are likely to fight alongside, or succeed, the Abrams tank, Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Stryker among other armored platforms.
Development of the new armored vehicles is being pursued in alignment with the Army’s shifting modernization strategy, an effort which places a higher premium on more rapidly prototyping and testing platforms, weapons and technologies; the idea is to access the best of the “realm of the possible” when it comes to weapons and technology and circumvent some of the bureaucratic challenges known to encumber traditional Army acquisition approaches.
The Army's NGCV strategy is also looking at its longer-term plan, aimed at the 2031 to 2046 timeframe. The current thinking, according to Army strategy papers, heavily depends upon an Armored Brigade Combat Team’s “ability to deploy rapidly while improving the formation's mobility, protection and lethality. As the ABCT fields new systems, it will replace main battle tanks, howitzers and mortar indirect fire platforms.”
A fleet of similarly engineered vehicles would be designed to both allow for each vehicle to be tailored and distinct, while simultaneously improving maintenance, logistics and sustainment by using many common parts; the objective would, of course, be to lower long-term life cycle costs and extend the service life of the vehicles.
Army developers also explained that the service is doing some early developmental work assessing lighter-weight armor and hull materials able to provide the same protection as the current vehicle at a much lower weight.
The ability to enable lighter-weight armored vehicles to address terrain challenges, and off-road mobility aligns with findings from analytical historical research performed years ago by the Dupuy Institute.
The research study, called “The Historical Combat Effectiveness of Lighter-Weight Armored Forces,” examined combat scenarios from Vietnam, The Korean War, the Persian Gulf War - and even WWII.
Commissioned by the US Army Center for Army Analysis, the study concluded that heavily armed, yet lighter-weight, more maneuverable armored combat platforms could provide a substantial advantage to combat infantry in many scenarios.
“Vehicle weight is sometimes a limiting factor in less developed areas. In all cases where this was a problem, there was not a corresponding armor threat. As such, in almost all cases, the missions and tasks of a tank can be fulfilled with other light armor,” the study writes.
Weight, speed and mobility characteristics are deemed essential for a tank’s ability to support infantry units, mechanized armored units and dismounted soldiers by virtue of being able to cross bridges, rigorous terrain and other combat areas less accessible to existing 70-ton Abrams tanks.
Army senior developers also tell Warrior that it is conceivable future armored vehicles may indeed include an unmanned turret as well as various levels of autonomy, tele-operation and manned-unmanned teaming.
It is certainly within the realm of the technically feasible for a future tank or armored vehicle to simultaneously control a small fleet of unmanned robotic “wing man” vehicles designed to penetrate enemy lines while minimizing risk to soldiers, transporting ammunition or performing long-range reconnaissance and scout missions.
In fact, previous Army modernization strategy documents specifically cite autonomy-enabled platforms, speed and maneuverability as fundamental to future armored warfare.
“As the armored BCT fields new systems, it will replace main battle tanks, howitzers, and mortar indirect fire platforms. Far-term initiatives aim to solve the absence of the armored BCT’s ability to deploy rapidly. The Army assesses the feasibility and application of autonomous or semi-autonomous sub-systems, manned and unmanned teaming, and autonomy enabled combat platforms,” the Army documents read.
Levels of autonomy for air vehicles, in particular, have progressed to a very advanced degree – in part because there are, quite naturally, fewer obstacles in the air precluding autonomous navigation.
GPS-enabled waypoint technology already facilitates both ground and air autonomous movement; however, developing algorithms for land-based autonomous navigation is, by all means, far more challenging given that a vehicle will need to quickly adjust to a fast-moving, dynamic and quickly-changing ground combat environment.
Kris Osborn became the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven in August of 2015 . 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 CNN and CNN Headline News.