The U.S. Army's Future: Tanks with No Soldiers Required?

M1 Abrams Tank

The U.S. Army's Future: Tanks with No Soldiers Required?

A drone vehicle or tank platform could be lighter in weight and armor, allowing it to move faster and attack with less risk to the lives of American warfighters.

Deliberations about how to somehow reconcile a specific paradox fundamental to future armored vehicles have continued for as long as several decades. The problem at hand involves vehicle weight, technology, and survivability. Futurists and weapons developers exploring how to engineer a light-weight, deployable and highly lethal armored platform with the levels of survivability needed to withstand heavy incoming enemy fire and prevail in major armored warfare. The question is whether that can actually be done as every new system adds weight, which makes armored vehicles slower and less mobile.

A vehicle that is too heavy might lack the mobility to cross bridges, keep up with fast moving tactical vehicles or deploy quickly as part of some kind of rapid response attack. However, a vehicle too lightly armored and protected, no matter how lethal its weapons, might massively imperil the lives of soldiers operating the platform. This fundamental quandary persists, leading some to argue that a platform like a heavily armored, 70-ton Abrams tank should remain in the service for decades into the future, while others point to the need for speed and improved expeditionary warfare capabilities. While much has yet to be determined, the answer may well involve both.

Is the answer lightweight armor composites? A new, impenetrable Active Protection System? Or, perhaps the optimal solution lies in the new phenomenon of manned-unmanned teaming.

One simple way to engineer an ultra-lightweight, super-fast, yet heavily armed future combat vehicle is to simply make it a drone.

“If we ever get to the point where we say… ‘this is autonomous,’ you can build a lightweight vehicle because you don’t have to provide the protection to the soldiers who are in it. We’re not there yet, but we are doing a lot of modeling and simulation to work through prototyping,” Gen. John Murray, Commander, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview.

Much of this kind of experimentation is making rapid progress, yet Murray also emphasizes the significance of attributes unique to human cognition and decision-making which simply cannot be replicated by mathematically-oriented algorithms, even ones enabled by artificial intelligence. This recognized circumstance is part of why many Senior Army weapons developers emphasize that an optimal solution may be to combine, integrate and call upon both autonomy and human cognitive capacities into a broader tactical picture.

This approach may enable a particularly lethal and survivable solution, meaning that a deployable, lightweight yet highly lethal tank-like platform can “close with an enemy” while still benefiting from human command and control operating from a manned platform networked to the robotic attack vehicle. The precise balance of these variables, and deliberations regarding how to best execute them, forms the primary inspirational basis for the Army’s now under consideration Optionally Manned Tank program. The intention is to architect a future tank-like platform which, if needed, can function as a purely robotic platform. The Army plans to make key determinations regarding a specific path forward by 2023 to at least advance the developmental trajectory and chart a course of sorts into future armored warfare. Some of the effort with the Army’s ongoing Light, Medium and Heavy Robotic Combat Vehicle development are informing the process, as the “heavy” variant could conceivably evolve into a tank or tank-like platform. Murray explained that several more years of robotic vehicle development would be crucial and needed to make a properly informed decision about how to balance these variables in relation to fast-changing technological progress.

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 Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.