HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – After years of searching for the Holy Grail of combat vehicles and failing to the right mix of technologies at an affordable price, the Army is within reach of a plan to develop a pair of manned and unmanned fighting vehicles with revolutionary capabilities over legacy fleets, according to Gen. Robert Abrams, chief of Army Forces Command (FORSCOM).
“We have been in this long pursuit of the Holy Grail of combat vehicles, like Indiana Jones,” Abrams said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual Global Force Symposium here last week. “We need a vehicle with precision, extreme range lethality, weight reduction, maneuverability, survivability coupled with … exponential reduction in sustainment requirements. That’s the Holy Grail. We think it’s possible.”
The current fleet of M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles is not optimized for future combat, especially in urban terrain, he said.
“We’ve got some great enhancement we’ve been doing all along and we have some additional plans for execution with our current fleet, but the next-generation combat vehicle needs to be revolutionary or 10X, as we call it inside CFT world. It’s got to be 10X better than our current fleet and guarantee our overmatch in the future.”
Maneuver robotics and autonomous systems, power generation and advanced materials, integrated active and passive vehicle protection suite and directed energy.
“All of those, we believe are in the art of the possible,” but the current armored vehicle designs cannot accept those technologies, he said. “We’re looking for exponential reduction in sustainment requirements with component readiness, speed of diagnostics, reduced fuel consumption if we use fuel at all and common repair parts.”
The Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) will actually be two platforms types, one optionally manned and one unmanned, both of which will be developed and optimized for operation in dense urban terrain, said Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, director of the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team.
“It’s from the beginning designed to be an unmanned close-combat platform … that ultimately will deliver decisive lethality and overmatch in future operational environments,” Lesperance said. “The second capability is a manned [capability set] that is optionally manned from the beginning … that maneuver soldiers deploy to engage in close combat as well as simultaneously delivering decisive lethality.”
“So we’ll have a mix of platforms that control other robots and those that just conduct close-combat and maneuver soldiers to positions of advantages,” Lesperance added. “Through our experimentation pathway, we’ll get that mix right.”
The two vehicles will be developed in parallel but will not be “inextricably linked” and thus may progress at different schedules. Both lines of effort will progress through three experimentation phases between fiscal years 2018 and 2023, each feeding into development of prototype vehicles that will be used in the next phase of testing, Lesperance said.
In the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019, the Army will deliver two sets of each NGCV variant that will go through Army Test and Evaluation Command (ATEC) testing and then through a six- to nine-month extended experimentation with an operational unit at FORSCOM, Lesperance said.
“That will be both maneuver and live-fire experimentation that will allow us to then feed back into the second phase of the program, a purpose-built robotic combat vehicle and a purpose-built manned fighting vehicle,” Lesperance said.
Two robotic variants and four manned versions will be built and delivered back to ATEC for a second experimentation “window” beginning in fiscal 2021 and then to FORSCOM in fiscal 2022.
In late fiscal 2023, the Army should deliver a mix of seven robotic prototypes and 14 optionally manned variants for a final round of experimentation in fiscal 2024 “that allow us to begin to look at a company level what manned-unmanned teaming could be,” Lesperance said.
“To us, the game changer is manned-unmanned teaming,” he said. “Imagine making contact with the enemy with an unmanned robot and allowing a decision-maker to understand quicker and to make a better decision … and move to a position of advantage to deliver decisive lethality in a way that we do not do now on 100-percent manned platforms.”