Photo: BAE Systems NGCV Prototype Demonstrator
Special Video Analysis Above: Mapping the Army's Future Tank Plans - New Abrams? NGCV?
By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
The Army is vigorously pursuing a new combat vehicle able to launch attack drones, carry next-generation missiles, fire a 50mm cannon and operate “optionally-manned” technology, according to initial Next-Generation Combat Vehicle requirements outlined by service weapons developers.
The service is surging forward with ambitious plans to engineer a mobile infantry carrier able to deploy quickly, traverse rough terrain, keep pace with maneuvering infantry and yet also operate with sufficient protection necessary to thwart the most advanced enemy attacks.
The effort is currently on the fast track; many industry teams are already offering vehicles, and the timeline has been accelerated by nearly a decade. The Army plans to have a combat-ready operational vehicle by 2026.
“Our original vision was 2035. We now have a challenging test schedule, so we can’t afford a clean sheet design. We may need a power train and suspension that is already in use somewhere. We need to bring together mature components, with less risk to the schedule,” NGCV Program Manager Col. Jim Schirmer, said.
This vision, already well underway by Army and industry weapons developers, does appear feasible in many respects, due to fast-emerging new active protection systems, advanced targeting sensors, longer-range weapons and artificial intelligence.
While these requirements are still being refined as the Army works with industry, they do indicate some specifics regarding the service’s approach to the new platform.
For instance, Schirmer told Warrior that the new vehicle will operate with a three-man crew, carry six-soldiers in back and ultimately fire a 50mm cannon.
“Under armor volume is important for the size and weight of the vehicle. We will ultimately go to a 50mm canon, but it may begin as a 35mm,” Schirmer said.
New longer-range "TOW missile-compatible" weapons will arm the new platform, Schirmer said, as a way to destroy enemy armored vehicles at a safer stand-off range. Also, these new missiles are very likely to be configured with newer, more varied explosives able to destroy enemy tanks, armored vehicles and infantry formations to a much greater extent than existing weapons can.
The requirements also include Unmanned technology, such as an ability to launch attack drones, control nearby unmanned vehicles and integrate advanced video surveillance. As part of this, the vehicle will leverage advanced networking, to include new software and sensors to engineer secure communications links to pass high-speed video back to the operator, Schirmer explained.
“The ability to control a small drone will give us eyes down range,” Schirmer explained.
AI-enabled sensors and targeting technology will also be a pivotal technology when it comes to engineering a vehicle that is both highly-mobile and survivable.
When it comes to new sensor technology, there are several pertinent areas of technical exploration. Improved 3rd-Gen Forward Looking Infrared sensors will bring higher-resolution targeting, longer-range technology and massively improved computer technology. Computer-enabled autonomy will help operators organize incoming sensor data from otherwise disparate nodes.
New sensor technology is, naturally, closely aligned with cameras and video surveillance for the vehicle; NGCV requirements call for a 360-degree array of cameras around the vehicle, as a way to alert crews of approaching threats from all directions.
“If no one has their screen turned to that view, threat-related information is not of use to the crew,” Schirmer said.
This kind of camera-sensor synergy, Schirmer explained, can be heavily fortified by AI which can quickly and simultaneously perform a wide range of functions - to reduce what developers call the “cognitive burden” upon the operators.
“AI reduces the amount of work to be done remotely and brings the crew’s attention to threats they might not otherwise see,” he added.
AI is also quite likely to be indispensable to the “optionally-manned” portion of the requirement, as it can draw upon algorithms to function autonomously to test enemy defenses, travel at high speeds, perform advanced ISR functions and even fire weapons. In this kind of scenario, humans would of course operate in a role of command and control, allowing self-driving machines to confront the highest risks.
Raytheon-Rheinmetall NGCV Prototype Demonstrator
Finally, very little of this overall attack and survivability plan would fully come to fruition without advanced Active Protection Systems. These technologies, many of which are already operational, use computer-enabled fire-control, advanced radar and interceptor weapons to identify, track and destroy approaching enemy fire in a matter of seconds, or even milliseconds.
Along these lines, Schirmer has explained that advanced APS able to knock out kinetic-energy penetrator rods will need to emerge so that defenses are not only able to intercept RPGs and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles.
All of these areas of technical focus paint an integrated picture of how the Army plans to achieve what, upon initial examination, might not seem possible. With new APS, advanced longer range sensors and weapons, unmanned systems and fast-evolving iterations of AI - the Army aims to engineer an armored infantry carrier able to combine seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum. Typically, large amounts of heavy armor, which can restrict mobility, are needed to sufficient protect combat vehicles. With this vehicle, the Army hopes to leverage new technology to simultaneously maximize both maneuverability and protection.
In short, the Army seeks to build something which can bring substantial protections, without needing to add tons and tons of mobility-restricting heavy armor. Nonetheless, the Army also plans to build a vehicle which can “add-on” more armor depending upon the threat.
Threat levels are part of the reason many of the industry offerings are building “adjustable” vehicles. This includes building interchangeable turrets, configured with different weapons depending upon the mission, and adding sensors or attack drones as necessary. Air Defense is also a vital element of this, Schirmer said. Should the Army be operating in areas where there are enemy helicopter, overhead artillery, drone or aircraft threats, the vehicles will be equipped with interceptor attack drones or air-defense missiles such as Stingers or Hellfire missiles.
There are at least three major industry teams who have already built demonstrator NGCV vehicles, General Dynamics, Raytheon-Rheinmetall and BAE Systems. (Warrior will be profiling each of these - stay tuned)
Interestingly, some of these areas of innovation may not be restricted to just the NGCV, according Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems.
“Right now we are trying to get the replacement for the Bradley to be the first optionally manned fighting vehicle. As we get that capability we may look at technology that we are getting in the future and insert them into current platforms,” Cummings told Warrior in an interview.
General Dynamics NGCV Prototype Demonstrator
Cummings also said Army developers are working on both near-term and longer term plans; he said it was entirely possible that a future tank or tank-like combat vehicle could emerge out of the NGCV program.
While there are of course many reasons for the massive acceleration of the Army’s new infantry carrier, service developers are not hesitant to cite a Russian threat in Eastern Europe as part of the equation.
“According to the National Defense Strategy, we need to make sure we can provide a deterrent force to Eastern Europe. We have challenges in Eastern Europe,” he said. “Russia’s order of battle has incredible density of artillery pieces.”
At the same time, however, Schirmer did not indicate that the much-discussed new Russian tank, the technological advanced T-14, was a specific concern.
“All these new things are necessary without the T-14 on the battlefield,” he 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.