The U.S. Army has begun shopping around for a robotic armored vehicle that can replace some of the branch's old M-2 Bradley manned fighting vehicles.
The Optionally-Manned Fighting Vehicle could operate with or without a human crew, allowing commanders to deploy the vehicles on missions that are too risky for human beings.
"The next generation of combat vehicles will close the last tactical mile, giving our soldiers a position of advantage," said Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, who oversees one of the Army's development teams for robotic vehicles.
"Our combat vehicles will have the ability to transition through those disruption zones with lethality and survivability ... [and] mobility, to be able to fight the enemy on our terms and become victorious."
"The OMFV must exceed current capabilities while overmatching similar threat class systems," Coffman told Defense News. "It must be optimized for dense urban areas while also defeating pacing threats on rural terrain."
The Russian army is developing its own robotic vehicles and running experiments in order to develop tactics for deploying the unmanned systems. The new tactics point to Russia's growing determination to field, on the ground and in the air, meaningful numbers of armed robots.
The Kremlin is using the tracked, tank-size Marker ground robot for these tactical experiments. A video the Russian government released in March 2019 depicts a mixed crew of human and robot scouts feeding information to a main force of large, tank-like drones.
Coffman told Defense News the U.S. Army’s "threshold requirement" is for a robotic vehicle with a 30-millimeter gun. The "objective requirement" is a 50-millimeter gun. "We want the 50-millimeter," Coffman said, adding that it was more realistic to ask for a 30-millimeter gun.
Two of the unmanned vehicles should fit in one U.S. Air Force C-17 airlifter, the Army stated.
The new vehicles should include only "attainable" technologies, Coffman said. The Army wants to avoid the spiraling costs and repeated delays that have doomed previous efforts to develop new manned and unmanned fighting vehicles.
Most famously, the service's Future Combat Systems -- a network of lightweight, manned and unmanned vehicles -- burned through billions of dollars before then-defense secretary Robert Gates in 2009 canceled it.
Likewise, the Army in 2014 canceled a program to replace the 1980s-vintage M-2 after the new vehicle's design grew too big, heavy and expensive.
The service's March 2019 request for proposals from industry formally begins a competition for prototype designs. The Army expects in mid-2020 to choose up to two industry teams to build 14 prototypes.
To pay for the robotic vehicle and other new equipment, in its 2020 budget proposal the Army asked Congress for permission to slow, shrink or cancel hundreds of other programs. The Army's $190-billion budget request, which represents an $8-billion boost compared to the branch's 2019 budget, channels $9 billion into six main development efforts, including new vehicles.
The Army in 2020 plans to test experimental robots in order to gather data that could inform the wider program to acquire unmanned vehicles. "We're doing these experiments to test a series of hypotheses," Coffman said.
Some initial testing took place as early as 2017. An armed, robotic M-113 tracked armored vehicle provided covering fire for soldiers during a summer 2017 war game in Michigan.
For the exercise, engineers added a remotely-controlled machine gun to a remotely-controlled M-113. The operators of the M-113 and its machine gun followed behind the drone in an M-577 command vehicle, issuing commands via radio.
The 2017 test represented a turning point for the U.S. Army. "We’re at the point of heightened expectations and we’re at the trough of disillusionment," Paul Rodgers, director of the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center, said of the war game.
Coffman said the first 2020 trial would involve soldiers in two "surrogate vehicles" remotely controlling a set of robots that "bear a resemblance to the M-113 armored personnel carrier," according to Defense News.
The second experiment, in 2021, would involve three times as many robots and control vehicles, Coffman said.