The U.S. Army will soon operate robots able to destroy enemy armored vehicles with anti-tank missiles, surveil warzones under heavy enemy fire and beam back identified targeting details in seconds due to rapid progress with several new armed robot programs.
Several of the new platforms now operate with a Kongsberg-built first-of-its-kind wireless fire control architecture for a robotic armored turret with machine guns, Javelin Anti-Tank Missiles and robot-mounted 30mm cannon selected by the Army to arm its fast-emerging Robotic Combat Vehicles. These now-in-development robotic systems intended to network with manned vehicles in high-risk combat operations.
The fast-evolving concept is to optimize state-of-the-art networking between manned armored vehicles operating in a command and control capacity and forward-positioned armed robots capable of testing enemy defenses, performing surveillance under enemy fire or simply firing upon and destroying enemy targets when directed by humans.
Made by Kongsberg, the MCT-30 turret is the first remotely-operated turret to be qualified and fielded in the United States, and a wireless fire-control has been demonstrated in ongoing testing. The system recently demonstrated “secure transmissions of video and fire-control data including command signals over radio from the weapon station and the missile,” a Kongsberg statement says. A similar demo for the RCV-Medium is slated for next year.
In addition to the fire control architectures for both RCV-Light and RCV-Medium, Kongsberg weapon stations—CROWS J and MCT-30 respectively—have been selected as Government Furnished Equipment for the Army’s RCV phase 2 experimentation.
Kongsberg developers explain that the wireless turret technology, built with open architecture to allow for rapid technical upgrades, is well suited to incorporate advanced, AI-enabled algorithms able to massively shorten sensor-to-shooter times and target identification.
“The wireless fire control architecture fire control provides key building blocks to facilitate an AI capability. We are working on how AI will be employed within OMFV and RCV,” Scott Burk, vice president, Kongsberg Defense, told The National Interest in an interview.
Otherwise disparate pools of sensor and targeting data can be gathered, analyzed and transmitted to human decision makers at lightning speeds, given the processing speeds enabled by AI and vast database. A sensor could not only identify a target, but instantly bounce incoming data against a threat library database and make instant determinations about range, navigational details, surrounding terrain and which weapons are best suited for that particular threat.
As is often the case with emerging combat platforms, specific requirements for the RCV-L and RCV-M are still likely being refined, however the Army has outlined certain key specifics, which appear aligned with Kongsberg’s weapons applications.
A 2019 Congressional Research Service report, citing an Army Robotic Combat Vehicle Campaign plan, says the service requires the RCV-Light to be “less than 10 tons, with a single vehicle capable of being transported by rotary wing assets. It should be able to accommodate an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) or a recoilless weapon.” RCV-Medium, by extension, can be as heavy as 20-tons and must travel on a C-130 armed with sensors and an ability to fire ATGMs and a medium cannon. Finally, the RCV-Heavy must be a “non-expendable” armed robotic platform transportable by a C-17 and have an ability to destroy enemy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. While these vehicles can be remotely tele-operated, in the future a single operator will potentially be able to control a small fleet of robotic vehicles using AI.
The Army and industry have been working for many years to evolve the kinds of manned-unmanned networking necessary to bring this RCV vision to fruition, as it depends upon hardened networks, common data link standards and technical interoperability. Prior to the recent demonstrations with RCVs themselves, the Army has been testing unmanned vehicle weaponry and sensor technology to perform high-risk missions while soldiers maneuver at safer stand-off ranges. Several infantry vehicles were used in a previous experiment to further refine the technical infrastructure needed to arm and navigate new robotic vehicles.
“We had four robot vehicles conduct a tactical mission while humans were safe in defilade. We built four robots that are refurbished M113 tracked vehicles and we’ve taken two Bradleys—gutted them—and turned them into two control vehicles with all kinds of sensors on them,” Jeff Langhout, Director, Ground Vehicle Systems Center, told reporters last year at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium, Washington, D.C.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.