AUSA 2023: Are Robotics the Future of Army Combat Vehicles?

The Hanwha Aerospace K9 Self-Propelled Howitzer was one of the combat vehicles on display at AUSA 2023 this year.

In the near future, ground combat vehicles operated by U.S. Army warfighters could feature robotics, autonomy and human-robot teaming, according to comments shared by several Army program officials during an Oct. 11 panel discussion at the 2023 Association of the United States Army (AUSA).

Future applications being examined by the Army for the use of robotics in combat vehicles include transporting fuel, working in tandem with a control vehicle as well as scouting or gathering surveillance. The Army already has several research and development programs looking at the future adoption of robot combat vehicles, including exercises and demonstrations where soldiers are operating vehicles that control the robots in attack and defense scenarios.

"Robotics is probably the most promising area that we have in the armored vehicle portfolio to fundamentally change how we fight," Brig. Gen. Michael Simmering, Commandant of the United States Armor School said during the "Accelerating Combat Vehicle Transformation for the Army of 2030" session.

Several weeks ahead of the annual gathering at AUSA, the Army showed its commitment to leveraging robotics as a transformative technology in the future of its ground combat vehicles. On Sept. 20, the Army announced agreements with four companies — General Dynamics, MCQ, Inc., Oshkosh Defense and Textron — to build Robotic Combat Vehicle (RCV) prototypes at a combined base award value of $24 million. All four companies have been tasked with building two prototype RCVs by August 2024 for mobility testing and a "Soldier touchpoint," according to an Army press release.

The prototype award is part of the Army's "RCV-Light Middle Tier Acquisition - Rapid Prototyping" program that "could be transitioned to production and fielding to support the Army of 2030," according to the Army.

On the exhibit floor at AUSA 2023, several companies had new prototypes for future combat vehicles on display, including Textron's unmanned ground vehicle prototype, the RIPSAW M5. American Rheinmetall's Skyranger30 system — a 30 mm cannon capable of firing 1,250 airburst rounds per minute — was also unveiled for the first time attached to the top of the RIPSAW M5.

Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, Director of the Army’s Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, discussed some of the goals of the RCV prototyping efforts being led by the four recently selected companies during the AUSA combat vehicles panel. Norman outlined four key components that he sees as enabling the use of robotics in combat vehicles of the future.

The first component, according to Norman, is the vehicle chassis or the actual frame of future combat tanks or vehicles that use robotics. "The second component, is the network that connects that that robotic combat vehicle to a control vehicle," Norman said.

"The third component is that control vehicle, and the interfaces within it. It's the components that make that control vehicle able to host soldiers who can control robots at distance, several terrain features away, beyond line of sight," he added. "And importantly, the fourth components are the modular payloads that we mount on those robotic combat vehicles to give them different capabilities than we have on our manned platforms….the ability to cover more terrain or do things that we couldn't do without the robotic combat vehicles."

Software that can connect all four of those components is another enabling element that needs to be further refined to make RCVs a reality for the Army in the future, according to Norman. The Army has been making progress on the development of that type of software as well. In May, under a partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the Army's "Ground Vehicle Autonomous Pathways" project selected five companies — Applied Intuition Inc., Kodiak Robotics, Neya Systems, Robotic Research Autonomous Industries and Scale AI — to develop software capable of fusing data from multiple sensors to allow for "teleoperation of unmanned ground vehicles (UGV)," according to a DIU press release about the selection. The project will also provide a technical pipeline to continue rapid development and deployment of autonomous features as they become commercially-available, according to DIU.

Since 2021, the RCV program has conducted two soldier operational experiments where technology demonstrations evaluated the use of RCVs for "reconnaissance and security missions," Norman said. Each experiment and demonstration has featured an increase in the number of robots involved. The second of the two experiments conducted at Fort Cavazos, Texas, in August 2022 included surrogates for RCV light, medium and heavy control vehicles that were based on a modified Bradley armored vehicle and connected via a local network.

There has also been more recent experimentation with RCVs at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.

"We've had robotic combat vehicle platoons operating with the opposing force in the offense, in the defense doing security, and reconnaissance missions. So we continue to increase the scope and scale of those experiments and we'll continue to push the envelope moving forward," Norman said.

"General Rainey's given us a pretty clear task. Let's get minimum viable products, a minimum viable capability that we can put in the hands of soldiers in short order," he added.

While Norman would not disclose a specific year or timeline for having RCVs ready to be deployed into service, the Army has a "very aggressive and ambitious goal" for making robotic combat vehicles a reality. Upon selecting the four companies for the RCV prototype development program, the Army said it expects to make a down selection to a single awardee for the program in fiscal year 2025 to finalize system designs as well as build and deliver up to nine full-system prototypes in the following fiscal year. A follow on production decision is anticipated in fiscal year 2027 and the "first unit fielding is anticipated for fiscal year 2028."

Norman said the next major program milestone for the RCV program will be the Project Convergence Capstone exercise occurring at Fort Irwin in spring 2024.