The Army has plans to team robotic ground vehicles with M1 Abrams tanks in much the same way it has already done with AH-64 Apache helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles.

An experiment is planned for next summer at Fort Benning, Ga., to study the operational utility of an “Abrams Lethality Enabler” that will be controlled by a crew member inside the tank, according to Maj. Gen. Bo Dyess, deputy chief of the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC) at Training and Doctrine Command.

The plan is to install an automatic loader in an Abrams, which will free up the human loader to perform other tasks, Dyess said during a call with reporters on Dec. 16. The loader would then be given a universal control station through which he could operate “wingman” remotely piloted ground or aerial vehicles.

Reassigning one of the four Abrams crew members allows for the introduction of new platforms without placing what Dyess called “a bill on force structure” that would have to be paid by soldiers from another formation or mission.

“If you bring new capabilities into the force, you introduce a bill on force structure,” he said. “Putting an automatic loader into a tank and then having the loader – who is on the M1 Arbams as part of the crew – now be responsible for operations of air and ground combat vehicles. Now you have the ability for somebody to be operating air and ground vehicles as part of the platform without adding a force-structure bill to the Army.”

M1A1 Abrams tank of Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, USMC Reserves, preparing for a live fire exercise at Yakima Training Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (U.S. Army photo by Sidney Lee, Enterprise Multimedia Center, JBLM.)
M1A1 Abrams tank of Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division, USMC Reserves, preparing for a live fire exercise at Yakima Training Center, Joint Base Lewis-McChord. (U.S. Army photo by Sidney Lee, Enterprise Multimedia Center, JBLM.)

Army aviation has already adopted fairly advanced manned-unmanned teaming (MUM-T) capabilities by pairing Apache gunships with the RQ-7 Shadow and MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aerial systems (UAS). Depending on the configuration, an Apache co-pilot can take control of a teamed UAS in flight, its sensor or both and receive full-motion video inside the Apache cockpit.

Dyess said the Army wants to apply the same concept to ground operations by teaming both unmanned air and ground systems with tanks and other armored vehicles. The Army’s Big 6+1 list of modernization goals sets a window from 2023 to 2027 to field a semi-autonomous, remotely operated ground recon vehicle to “provide flexibility and tailorability to the combat vehicle fleet.”

Robotics and autonomy is one of the six pillars supporting the future Army, according to TRADOC’s Big 6+1 plan. The other five are combat vehicles, future vertical lift, cross-domain fires, advanced protection and expeditionary mission command/electronic warfare. The “Plus 1” – soldier and team performance and overmatch – undergirds the other five.

Through 2035, the Army plans to use existing combat vehicles like the retiring M113 armored personnel carrier to perform leader-follower, waypoint navigation and obstacle detection without a driver. The autonomous capability of the systems will be steadily increased until around 2035, when a purpose-built, “autonomous robotic wingman” should enter service.

That robot will carry remote-operated weapons and be capable of fully autonomous navigation, according to Army plans. Challenges to fielding such a system persist, including autonomous offroad mobility and obstacle detection and avoidance. Carrying a lethal payload presents its own set of headaches like the need for external power, to reload or switch ammunition.

For the Abrams enabler to become a reality, the Army must make a material decision to retrofit autoloaders onto some or all of its Abrams tanks, Dyess said. The technology exists and is standard on some other main battle tank designs. The service would then need to budget for both the engineering change proposal work to install the systems, for purchasing the robots and for retraining loaders.

The idea came about while seeking solutions to a series of “warfighting challenges” that ARCIC and TRADOC are crunching as they design a force capable of fighting in complex scenarios beyond 2025. Dyess spoke to reporters following the latest Capabilities Information Exchange held Dec. 15 at which hundreds of industry, and civilian and uniformed government officials met to discuss the Army’s future challenges.  

More than 200 representatives took place in the CIE at Fort Eustis, Va. Of those, 84 were from industry, 34 from the Defense Department and another 90 people participated remotely by livestream. The event is aimed at communicating to industry capability gaps the Army has identified that it needs filled in the near, mid- and long-term.

TRADOC and leadership from elsewhere in the Army established the CIE because of concerns that industry was not aware of the Army’s future needs, that companies had no forum at which to clearly converse with Army leadership on a non-proprietary basis and that small businesses had little access to Army program managers, Dyess said.

“There is an urgency for Army modernization,” Dyess said. “We have been essentially constrained in budgets … so there is some urgency in modernization now for the Army to possess or perhaps to retake overmatch. The future operational environment we see is contested in multiple domains. We want to talk about what the Army and ground forces – including the Marine Corps – what capabilities we need to have in order to win in that future operational environment.”