Wingman Robotic Combat Vehicle
The Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) cross-functional team (CFT) is the Army’s No. 2 modernization priority Established in 2017 by Secretary of the Army Mark Esper and Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Mark Milley. The NGCV CFT prioritizes the Army Science and Technology efforts for ground-combat vehicles and works with its acquisition partner to field the Armored Multipurpose Vehicle (AMPV), mobile protected firepower (MPF), Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) and Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCV). Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCV) has two fundamental purposes: deliver decisive lethality on future battlefields and offload the risk associated with extremely dangerous missions from Soldiers to unmanned platforms. RCVs will expand the geometry of the battlefield, rapidly develop a common operating picture and enable commanders to employ external assets before first contact with Soldiers. Instead of a Soldier, RCVs will also enable commanders to place robots in the most dangerous locations of the future battlefield to take on complex breaches, long-duration operations and subterranean space in dense urban environments.
The RCV suite includes three variants: light, medium and heavy. The RCV (L) supports a robust sensor array to enable reconnaissance-focused missions, while the RCV (M) provides a medium-caliber weapon system and antitank guided missiles to augment a unit’s organic direct-firepower capability. These variants can support modular mission payloads such as electronic warfare, counter-unmanned aerial systems and smoke obscuration. The RCV (H) vehicle fights as a decisive-lethality wingman that maneuvers in tandem with its manned-vehicle counterparts or as part of a robotic platoon to destroy all threat targets with its onboard weapon systems.
All RCVs variants must keep pace with their organic units during both movement and maneuver, thus requiring robust semi-autonomous capability and aggressive mobility characteristics. All three variants have the potential of integrating into multiple, if not all, types of BCTs within the Army’s force structure.
To develop RCVs, the NGCV CFT and Combat Capabilities Development Center’s Ground-Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) have conducted multiple live and virtual experiments with Soldiers. GVSC is leading a virtual experimentation effort focused on deriving feedback on proposed capabilities and operating concepts at the company and platoon levels. The CFT is working with the Maneuver Battle Lab at Fort Benning, GA, to conduct more experiments with Soldiers to understand the RCV’s DOTMLPF-P impact at the battalion level and above. These experiments collect Soldier feedback and influence vehicle requirements, thus creating a platform “designed by the Soldier for the Soldier.”
Military ground elements in first contact with the enemy often uncover obstacles, suffer the highest casualties and become decisively engaged, limiting friendly freedom of maneuver. Capable autonomous systems could provide a tactical advantage for these operators. However, aggressive state and nonstate actors are also pursuing the development of armed lethal robotics. As the level of autonomous capability increases, automation will spiral into weaponized systems. Unmanned systems deployed by our adversaries could impact the advantage our current reconnaissance forces have in the fight for information and increase the already high mortality rates of these units.
The Wingman technology demonstration program investigated how to use unmanned assets to project lethality and move effectively with a mounted formation and engage ahead of or along with manned platforms without increasing manpower requirements. The unmanned assets can reduce casualties by extending the reach of the warfighter through unmatched advanced situational awareness, platform autonomy and targeting in a weaponized unmanned ground vehicle (UGV). Wingman will begin to develop the concept of operations and tactics, techniques and procedures to integrate weaponized, unmanned systems into the current force and increase operational standoff.
Initiating contact with UGVs gives commanders flexibility and maneuver space to effectively respond to enemy threats, and eliminates some of the risks of casualty extraction. The Wingman technology would allow friendly commanders the ability to disperse manned systems without creating exploitable gaps and seams in their own formation.
As the Army drives toward a Next-Generation Combat Vehicle capability, leaders have outlined plans to test key features that could one day allow a Soldier to control several robotic fighting vehicles at once. An initial set of six experimental prototypes for the NGCV — two manned and four robotic combat vehicles — is slated to be delivered by the end of fiscal year 2019. That delivery will kick off hands-on testing with Soldiers in early fiscal 2020.
Manned-unmanned teaming will be the major theme in the experiments, according to Col. Gerald Boston, deputy director of the Cross-Functional Team in charge of developing the vehicle. “We believe, in the future operating environment, manned/unmanned teaming at the tactical level is how we are going to retain overmatch and deliver decisive lethality as part of combined arms maneuver. Making contact with the smallest element possible allows the maneuver commander to maintain freedom of action,” he said.
Two more sets of experimental prototypes will then be delivered two years apart and build on previous findings. The process, leaders say, could accelerate the Army’s fielding of a new combat vehicle in fiscal year 2028. That’s something the NGCV CFT’s director, Brig. Gen. David Lesperance, said can’t happen soon enough.
“The character of warfare is changing and driving the need to reassess how the Army delivers, operates, and sustains future combat capabilities,” Lesperance said. “The Army’s current main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are not optimized for future operational environments.” The general said that the vision of combat in the future, against well-equipped peer and near-peer adversaries, will require the U.S. Army to have better systems, with greater capabilities that what is available now.
“Lethality overmatch, vehicle survivability, crew effectiveness, operational and tactical mobility, and reduced logistics burden are more critical than ever before in the future operational environments,” Lesperance said. “NGCV must deliver overmatch and decisive lethality in close combat against peer threats as part of a combined arms team.”
Lesperance led the NGCV CFT, one of eight cross-functional teams that are meant to further the Army’s six modernization priorities, including the Next-Gen Combat Vehicle. The teams are designed to bring end users together with experts from science and technology, acquisition, requirements, test and evaluation, resourcing, and other specialties across the Army to reduce the timeline to procure and field new equipment.
Prototypes for the Next-Gen Combat Vehicle will lean on emerging technology from the Army Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center. One such TARDEC program is the “Wingman” Joint Capability Technology Demonstration. As part of it, a crew in a Humvee has been able to autonomously pilot another specially-configured Humvee and fire its 7.62 mm weapon system at targets.
For the NGCV, initial prototypes will likely have two Soldiers in control of a robotic vehicle — one to remotely drive it and the other to operate its weapon system. “Where we would like to go is get to one Soldier per remote combat vehicle and maybe someday one Soldier controlling multiple,” said Col. Jim Schirmer, project manager for the Army’s armored fighting vehicles.
In doing so, autonomous behaviors will need to be further developed throughout the incremental stages of prototyping. Schirmer, the acquisition lead on the CFT, explained that the aviation industry has worked on this with weaponized unmanned aerial systems. Exercising that same type of control over ground-based vehicles can be harder, however, because there are many more obstacles on the ground than in the air.
In the absence of human experience, robots would need to rely on sensors to detect the same obstacles and navigate to where a Soldier has designated it to go. “We would have to move intelligence onto the platform to free the Soldier up to do other things, and that’s going to take time,” he said. “That’s what we call autonomous behaviors.”
In 2014, the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) and the U.S. Army Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center (ARDEC) teamed up to integrate a remote weapon system on a robotic vehicle to see if that system could become certified on a Scout Gunnery Table VI course, the same course used to train and qualify ground combat vehicle crews.
The vehicle was a High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), and its “brain” was the TARDEC-developed Robotic Technology Kernel. ARDEC contributed the prototype wireless system known as the Picatinny Lightweight Remote Weapon System, which it had developed. The command-and-control HMMWV consists of the Warfighter Machine Interface, developed in-house at TARDEC, which controls and operates the robot and weapon system. Collectively, this Wingman capability allows Soldiers in a command-and-control vehicle to remotely operate an unmanned ground vehicle weapon system.
Initial experiments have met with limited success, but the Wingman program has ignited further investigation into weaponized robotics and how keeping the Soldier-in-the-loop could mitigate many of the gaps seen in today’s autonomous systems.
In 2016, the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) joined the Wingman team with its target acquisition and tracking system, the Autonomous Remote Engagement System. With the addition of the NSWCDD, the Wingman program received three years of funding to demonstrate the technology. The program will culminate in a military utility assessment at an Army national training center or equivalent between 2019 and 2020. TARDEC engineers say Wingman is the research and development (R&D) community’s first step toward weaponized robotics.
Design teams began an effort in 2018 to come up with six different designs for the manned fighting vehicle, one of which will be chosen for the initial set of experimental prototypes. The set will include medium-caliber weapons and light direct and indirect fire capability. The chassis for the surrogate robotic combat vehicles will be based on the M113 armored personnel carrier, while the manned fighting vehicle will be a completely new concept platform, leaders say.
The first experiments, though, will primarily focus on making the vehicles more intuitive for those who will use them. “We don’t really care what kind of engine it has. It just has to move,” Schirmer said. “We’re worried about how do we control it remotely and how do we write the software and what works for the Soldier who’s operating it.”
By late fiscal 2021, additional prototypes using lessons learned are expected to be produced and delivered, followed by experimentation in fiscal 2022. There will be about a platoon-sized set of vehicles available to enhance manned-unmanned capabilities and begin to integrate fire and maneuver tactics. The weapon system and other vehicle requirements, such as armor and sensors, will also be determined during this stage. “The second set is going to be purpose-built,” Boston said. “Both the manned and unmanned vehicles will be built from the ground up and will not use surrogates.”
The final effort is potentially a company-sized set of purpose-built vehicles that will likely be delivered in late fiscal 2023 and experimented on throughout fiscal 2024. Those vehicles would test all elements of manned-unmanned teaming and be integrated into a unit for extensive training at home and during a combat training center rotation. “It’s an ongoing campaign of learning for each set of experimental prototyping,” Boston said. “What we have laid out is a [roadmap] that will give the Army’s strategic leadership a range of capability choices to make in terms of fielding a next generation combat vehicle.”
Still early in the process, the Cross-Functional Team faces several hurdles in developing a new combat vehicle. Deciding on the requirements for a specific program has previously slowed the Army’s ability to rapidly field equipment. The team, as with the other CFTs, looks to prevent delays by sharing input from various stakeholders during the series of prototyping. “By working together in an iterative fashion, the goal is we’re going to ultimately arrive on a set of requirements that makes sense, helps the warfighter do what they need to do, but is also feasible and affordable,” Schirmer said.
On the technology side, leaders foresee challenges to create an intuitive workspace for Soldiers who control the robotic vehicles as well as ways to collect big data in order to improve systems. While initial tests will use a commercial radio, the Army will also need to develop a resilient network connection between the manned and unmanned vehicles. “If you’re the enemy, you want to jam that connection,” Schirmer said. “If you can effectively shut that connection off, then the robots probably stop working and you’ve just disabled a chunk of the formation.”
The NGCV CFT’s three-phased RCV experiment will lead to an Army-level decisions in FY22 and FY23 to field RCVs to the operational force, starting around FY28.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|