Soldiers Will Control Robotic Combat Vehicles in Upcoming Test

Bradley fighting vehicle from the 3rd infantry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California in early May 2019. (Matthew Cox/Military.com)
Bradley fighting vehicle from the 3rd infantry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California in early May 2019. (Matthew Cox/Military.com)

Next year, the Army plans to have soldiers fire at targets using remote-controlled robotic vehicles as part of a three-phase effort to learn how autonomous combat vehicles can make small units more effective on the battlefield.

During the operational test scheduled for next March at Fort Carson, Colorado, soldiers will operate from specially modified Bradley fighting vehicles known as Mission Enabler Technologies-Demonstrators, or MET-Ds, according to a recent Army news release. The tricked-out vehicles feature remote turrets for the 25mm main gun, 360-degree situational awareness cameras and enhanced crew stations with touch screens.

The first phase of testing will include two MET-Ds and four robotic combat vehicles on M113 armored personnel carrier surrogate platforms. Each MET-D will have a driver and gunner, as well as four soldiers in its rear, who will conduct platoon-level maneuvers with two surrogate vehicles that fire 7.62mm machine guns, according to the release.

"We've never had soldiers operate MET-Ds before," said David Centeno Jr., chief of the Emerging Capabilities Office at the Combat Capabilities Development Command's Ground Vehicle Systems Center. "We're asking them to utilize the vehicles in a way that's never been done before."

One goal for the autonomous vehicles is to learn how to penetrate an adversary's anti-access/aerial denial capabilities without putting soldiers in danger.

"You're exposing forces to enemy fire, whether that be artillery, direct fire," Centeno said. "So, we have to find ways to penetrate that bubble, attrit their systems and allow for freedom of air and ground maneuver. These platforms buy us some of that, by giving us standoff."

In late fiscal 2021, phase two of the effort will have soldiers conduct experiments at the company level with six MET-Ds and the same M113 surrogates, as well as four light and four medium surrogate robotic combat vehicles (RCVs) provided by industry, the release states.

"The intent of this is to see how an RCV light integrates into a light infantry formation and performs reconnaissance and security tasks, as well as supports dismounted infantry operations," Maj. Cory Wallace, robotic combat vehicle-lead for the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, said in the release.

Phase three is scheduled for fiscal 2023 and will add four medium and four heavy purpose-built RCVs to the mix, the release states.

"This is not how we're used to fighting," Centeno said. "We're asking a lot. We're putting a lot of sensors, putting a lot of data in the hands of soldiers. We want to see how that impacts them. We want to see how it degrades or increases their performance."

The family of RCVs includes three variants. Army officials envision the light version to be transportable by rotary wing. The medium variant would be able to fit onto a C-130 Hercules aircraft, and the heavy variant would fit onto a C-17 Globemaster aircraft, according to the release.

Critics of the effort say it sounds very similar to the Army's failed Future Combat Systems (FCS), an ambitious effort to design a new fleet of lightweight manned and unmanned combat vehicles and other platforms designed to dominate future battlefields.

Army officials have argued that the technology FCS depended on did not exist. The service spent billions on FCS, only to see it fail when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates killed the 27-ton Manned Ground Vehicles portion of FCS in the 2010 budget while criticizing the advanced design as ill-suited to survive current battlefield threats.

Army officials believe that the service's new Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) vehicle could influence the development of the heavy RCV, the release states.

In December, the Army awarded MPF contracts to two firms to build 12 prototypes each and begin delivering them to the service in early 2020. The goal is to down-select to a winner by fiscal 2022 and begin fielding the first of 504 of these lightweight tanks sometime in fiscal 2025, officials say.

The heavy RCV is being designed to provide the enemy-armor killing power of an MPF with even less armor since it doesn't have to protect soldiers, the release states

"An RCV reduces risk," Wallace said. "It does so by expanding the geometry of the battlefield so that, before the threat makes contact with the first human element, it has to make contact with the robots. That, in turn, gives commanders additional space and time to make decisions."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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