Key point: Tanks are heavy and expensive to produce, but a lighter vehicle with long-range fire would be easier to transport and build.
The US Army is taking a substantial next step in the accelerated development of a new Mobile Protected Firepower lightweight armored vehicle - designed to support infantry combat teams in fast-moving combat situations.
The service, which plans to build prototypes in the next several years, is now beginning to evaluate industry proposals for the new vehicle which seeks to combine rapid deployability, maneuverability and maximum survivability for crew members in combat.
Army developers tell Warrior Maven the new armored vehicle is expected to change land war by outmatching Russian equivalents and bringing a new dimension to advancing infantry as it maneuvers toward enemy attack.
Senior developers with the Army Research Laboratory have told Warrior Maven about cutting edge efforts to both lighten weight of combat vehicles while simultaneously emphasizing mobility. In fact, as part of this effort, two MPFs are being built to fit on an Air Force C-17 aircraft.
"Making a vehicle lighter weight and more capable requires a multi-function effort. For instance, you can integrate an antenna into the armor protection," Karl Kappra, Chief of the Office of Strategy Management for the Army Research Lab, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
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Long-range precision fire, coordinated air-ground assault, mechanized force-on-force armored vehicle attacks and drone threats are all changing so quickly that maneuvering US Army infantry now needs improved firepower to advance on major adversaries in war, Army leaders explain.
“Mobile Protected Firepower helps you because you can get off road. Mobility can help with lethality and protection because you can hit the adversary before they can disrupt your ability to move,” Rickey Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-9, TRADOC, told Warrior Maven in an prior interview on the subject..
BAE Systems is a major player among a handful of industry developers submitting proposals; BAE tells Warrior Maven they have succeeded in submitting a proposal for consideration by the Army.
General Dynamics Land Systems and SAIC are also among major vehicle manufacturers planning to compete to build the vehicle.
BAE has developed and built a vehicle that is currently going through internal testing. The company will submit the vehicle to the Army on April 2 to undergo additional U.S. government testing as a part of the bid assessment process, company developers said.
“We worked closely with our manufacturing and supply network to identify modern technology that has already been fielded or has been through qualification testing,” said Jim Miller, director of Business Development at BAE Systems’ Combat Vehicles business, told Warrior Maven. “This allows us to integrate new technology into a proven design to help meet the Army’s capability and schedule requirements.”
Specifically, BAE developers have explained a few detailed elements of their proposal, to include modifications to a type-classified M8 Armored Gun Systems. The effort, company officials describe, seeks to build upon prior investments in the weapon.
Army plans for the vehicle emphasize expeditionary warfare as part of the services' broader pivot to ongoing preparations for major power, large scale mechanized force on force warfare. While this type of training and preparation has always been a key part of the Army calculus, major land war against a near peer adversary is taking on newer urgency in light of today's threat environment. This includes efforts to update traditional Combined Arms Maneuver tactics in response to rapid Russian and Chinese military modernization.
As part of this, the Army is now putting a much higher premium on rapid deployability as both a deterrent and modern combat tactic, should the service need to quickly mobilize to address threats. Countering Russian aggression on the European continent, for instance, is a primary example of current Army efforts to strengthen its force posture and train with allies in the region.
With this in mind, the vehicle is intended to be lighter weight and therefore able to keep pace with advancing infantry units. This reality underscores the reason infantry needs tank-like firepower to cross bridges, travel off-road and keep pace with advancing forces.
Smith did not elaborate on any precise weight, but did stress that the effort intends to find the optimal blend of lethality, mobility and survivability. Senior Army leaders, however, do say that the new MPF will be more survivable and superior than its Russian equivalent.
The Russian 2S25 Sprut-SD air transportable light tank, according to Russian news reports, weighs roughly 20 tons and fires a 125mm smoothbore gun. It is designed to attack tanks and support amphibious, air or ground operations. The vehicle has been in service since 2005.
In recent years, lighter weight armor composites have been a central focus of Army developers, at places such as the Army Research Laboratory, for instance. While naturally many details of the vehicle configurations are not available, these kinds of initiatives are indeed likely to figure prominently. In addition, speed and increased mobility are also a major survivability enhancing developmental tactics, Army developers have explained to Warrior Maven.
“It (US Army MPF)is a light vehicle but not at the expense of the protection that the Russians accept. The level of protection on the vehicle they (the Russians) airdrop is not even close to what we are talking about,” Maj. Gen. David Bassett, former Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, said last Fall at the Association of the United States Army annual symposium.
In light of these kinds of near-peer adversaries with longer-range sensors, more accurate precision fires and air support for mechanized ground assault, the Army is acutely aware that its maneuvering infantry stands in need of armored, mobile firepower.
Current Abrams tanks, while armed with 120mm cannons and fortified by heavy armor, are challenged to support infantry in some scenarios due to weight and mobility constraints.
Accordingly, Smith explained that Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs), expected to operate in a more expansive battlespace, will require deployable, fast-moving close-to-contact direct fire support. This fast-changing calculus, based on knowledge of emerging threats and enemy weapons, informs an Army need to close the threat gap by engineering the MPF vehicle.
Tactically speaking, given that IBCTs are likely to face drones armed with precision weapons, armored vehicle columns advancing with long-range targeting technology and artillery, infantry on-the-move needs to have firepower and sensors sufficient to outmatch an advanced enemy.
The service expects to award two Engineering Manufacturing and Development (EMD) deals by 2019 as part of an initial step to building prototypes from multiple vendors, service officials said. Army statement said initial prototypes are expected within 14 months of a contract award.
While requirements and particular material solutions are expected to adjust as the programs move forward, there are some initial sketches of the capabilities the Army seeks for the vehicle.
According to a report from Globalsecurity.org, “the main gun has to be stabilized for on-the-move firing, while the optics and fire control system should support operations at all weather conditions including night operations.”
For the Army, the effort involves what could be described as a dual-pronged acquisition strategy in that it seeks to leverage currently available or fast emerging technology while engineered the vehicle with an architecture such that it can integrate new weapons and systems as they emerge over time.
An estimation of technologies likely to figure prominently in the MPF developmental process leads towards the use of lightweight armor composites, active protection systems and a new generation of higher-resolution targeting sensors. Smith explained how this initiative is already gaining considerable traction.
“The science is how do I fuse them together? How do I take multiple optical, infrared, and electromagnetic sensors and use them all at once in real-time ” Smith said.
This includes the rapid incorporation of greater computer automation and AI, designed to enable one sensor to perform the functions of many sensors in real-time, Kappra said. For instance, it’s by no means beyond the imagination to envision high-resolution forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, electromagnetic weapons and EO-IR cameras operating through a single sensor.
“If you are out in the desert in an operational setting, infrared alone may be constrained heat so you need all types of sensors together and machines can help us sift through information,” added Smith.
In fact, the Army’s Communications Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is already building prototype sensors - with this in mind. In particular, this early work is part of a longer-range effort to inform the Army’s emerging Next-Generation Comat Vehicle (NGCV). The NGCV, expected to become an entire fleet of armored vehicles, is now being explored as something to emerge in the late 2020s or early 2030s.One of the key technical challenges when it comes to engineering a mobile, yet lethal, weapon is to build a cannon both powerful and lightweight enough to meet speed, lethality and deployability requirements.
U.S. Army’s Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy specifically cites the need to bring large caliber cannon technology to lightweight vehicles. Among other things, the strategy cites a lightweight 120mm gun called the XM360 – built for the now-cancelled Future Combat Systems Mounted Combat System. While the weapon is now being thought of as something for NGCV or a future tank variant, its technology bears great relevance to the MPF effort – which seeks to maximize lightweight, mobile firepower.