The Buzz

The Army's Next Super Weapon: Robot Tanks?

Having unmanned assets operating in tandem with manned assets in combat introduces a range of new tactics available to commanders. If robot “scout” vehicles could operate in a forward position to identify enemy threats or test defenses, manned tanks might be able to operate at lighter weights, making them faster and more maneuverable in combat. In fact, senior Army weapons developers have told Warrior Maven that virtually all future combat vehicles now in development will likely be engineered with various new levels of autonomy.

The Army is engineering high-tech autonomy kits designed to give “robot” tanks and other armored combat vehicles an ability to operate with little or no human intervention, bringing new tactical and operational dimensions to the future of ground combat.

Unmanned systems, utilized in a fast-evolving, high-threat ground combat operation, could enable robot vehicles to carry supplies, test enemy defenses and even fire weapons – all while manned vehicles operate at a safer distance.

“A kit of hardware and software can be installed into different ground platforms to increase the level of autonomy,” Osie David, Chief Engineer for Mission Command, Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

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The technology kits, which can integrate on a small unmanned ground vehicle or a wide range of larger combat vehicles, use emerging computer algorithms, on-board processing and artificial intelligence to gather and organize sensor information.

“Ground combat autonomy is the hardest level of autonomy possible. You are talking about shifting terrain and changing enemy movements,” Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, Director, Program Analysis and Evaluation, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Robot vehicles, often referred to by Army weapons developers in the context of “manned-unmanned” teaming, are a fast-growing element of the developmental calculus when it comes to future combat platforms.

Having unmanned assets operating in tandem with manned assets in combat introduces a range of new tactics available to commanders. If robot “scout” vehicles could operate in a forward position to identify enemy threats or test defenses, manned tanks might be able to operate at lighter weights, making them faster and more maneuverable in combat.

In fact, senior Army weapons developers have told Warrior Maven that virtually all future combat vehicles now in development will likely be engineered with various new levels of autonomy.

Using things like embedded infrared optical payloads, unmanned vehicles can use machine-learning technology to process key combat details, independently organize them and then send information to a human in the role of command and control, David explained.

AI enables computers to instantly draw upon vast data-bases with millions of pieces of information to perform real-time data analytics before sending useful information to combat commanders.

The advantage is that combatant commanders can quickly receive integrated intelligence or sensor information from a range of sources, analyzed and condensed to enable faster decision-making.

“Instead of sending bits of information back up to a command post, the autonomy kits can enable sensors to perform detection and object identification in real time…and then push that information up to a human,” David said.

Also, advanced integrated sensors, fortified by AI and greater levels of autonomy, can connect aerial and ground assets to one another – to ID and hand off-targets, send real-time video of nearby enemy activity or pass other intelligence data to vehicle crews.

It is certainly within the realm of the technically feasible for a future tank to simultaneously control a small fleet of unmanned robotic “wing man” vehicles designed to penetrate enemy lines while minimizing risk to soldiers, transport ammunition or perform long-range reconnaissance and scout missions.

In fact, Army modernization strategy documents specifically cite autonomy enabled platforms, speed and maneuverability as fundamental to future armored warfare.

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