In "Defense Speak," RCV does not stand for ranked-choice voting, a remote control vehicle, a riot control vehicle, or a refuse collection vehicle, although the second one is close; it stands for a remote combat vehicle. The concept of letting electromechanical weapons fight wars has been idealized as a way to take human beings out of danger. Long a theme of science fiction and blockbuster movies like “Star Wars,” this concept is rapidly being explored by all three defense service branches. It’s no wonder that the concepts of camera-carrying drones, autonomous automobiles, and radio-controlled airplanes make an easy visualization of this “remote weapons” concept. The U.S. developed and demonstrated the Mars Rover controlled from millions of miles away, and electronics make this possible!
There are two concepts for remote weaponry: the more familiar one using human guidance/decision making, and the evolving concept allowing AI to make instant decisions about detonations. My last column titled “Why Is Defense Hyper about Hypersonics” explored the advantage of the most sophisticated hypersonics: AI-guided decisions about evasive maneuvers and targeting at tremendous forward speeds up to Mach 25. And some of the Defense weapons systems today are being built as optionally manned fighting vehicles (OMFV), meaning that human interaction may or may not be used in the same platform.
The U.S. Army received the most publicity for its RCV work because most civilians think only combat soldiers are to be excluded from the battlefield. The Army has several specialized programs to develop various “fighting vehicle” weapons, all with the firepower traditionally associated with tanks or artillery. If there is no allotted vehicle space for a human crew, a different approach to shape, armor, and propulsion can be taken.
One very recent Congressionally authorized update concerns “The Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” which was updated on April 16, 2020 . This report details the programs, some with varying degrees of success, to replace the Bradley M-2 vehicle used in various versions since 1981 (almost 40 years). In fact, two significant modernization programs have been canceled since 2000 with this same assigned task.
The current effort is driven by the Army Futures Command, established at Austin Texas in June 2018 and fully functional by the end of July 2019. The “Next Generation Combat Vehicle—NGCV” work has been headquartered at Detroit Arsenal in Michigan. The Army will be using cross-functional teams (CFTs) to speed the development of this new weapon system. Much of the background can be obtained from the aforementioned report .
The original plan for the OMFV was to take nine years to field the vehicle. Initially, under the Futures Command, this was cut to seven years with a target date of 2026. New electronics are a key feature of the upgrade, hopefully using existing Army propulsion and weapons for the OMFV. As technology and logistics concerns have changed, the Army just rereleased the OMFV specification with a new development program and a target date of 2028.
To speed the development, the Army will be using a new contract concept—Middle-Tier Acquisition (MTA)—a rapid acquisition interim approach that focuses on delivering capability in a period of two to five years. The interim approach was granted by Congress in the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act. (NDAA) Section 804. The approach consists of utilizing two acquisition pathways: Rapid prototyping and rapid fielding. It does this by streamlining the testing and deployment of prototypes or upgrading existing systems with already-proven technology .
If the Army program for medium-size combat vehicles develops fast enough with improved “energetics” (firepower), the traditional tank may never go un-manned. The conventional M1A2C Abrams tank now boasts new active and passive protection that could help to protect it from the latest enemy weaponry (released in February of 2019). A proposed new manned M1A2D tank is in the plans, with a new infrared sensor and a new laser range-finder, and it will be compatible with AI .
The Marine Corps has announced that it is moving away from using “tanks.” They have sufficient evidence to conclude that this capability, despite its long and honorable Marine history, is operationally unsuitable for the highest-priority challenges in the future. Heavy ground armor capability will continue to be provided by the U.S. Army. The Marines are bulking up on a High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). HIMARS is a six-tube rocket launcher mounted on the back of an armored truck .
Also, the Marines are moving to autonomous helicopters, including a venerable Huey that can fly itself. The Marines and Air Force are moving to “kits” that allow most any helicopter or airplane to fly itself to perform repetitive or boring missions. The unmanned concept was demonstrated in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 using tablet or laptop computer controllers .
Probably the best known remote combat weapon for 20 years is not really a vehicle; it is the Air Force drone program that has been weaponized as the “Predator” and “Reaper.” This stealth weapon has changed the face of war in the Middle East and Africa. Today, 30 countries have weaponized drones .
Two new Air Force programs are in testing. The first is a platform to demonstrate the limits of AI in unmanned flight. This first program will examine simple take-offs and landings and extend to more complicated tasks like gathering intelligence. It is possible the concept will evolve to “swarms” as the cost target per unit is in the low millions of dollars. One article speculates that in the future, 20 unmanned planes might be fielded for every manned aircraft .
The second program in the article is more directed at “wingman drones” . Many of us can visualize a robot wingman taking the place of Goose in the 35-year-old movie “Top Gun.” The Air Force effort is trying to multiply the effectiveness of a fighter pilot by accompanying him with a robotic plane, taking higher G forces, being lighter, and having no human sustainment issues like oxygen. I-Connect007 recently reported on a joint Boeing/Royal Australian Air Force “loyal wingman” effort . Using extensive AI and new fabrication techniques, this prototype is going into ground testing with the first actual flight expected before the year-end.
The U.S. Navy has two unique environments for robotic combat weapons—the ocean surface and undersea—but these are not exactly “vehicles” either. This strategy is contained in the 2020 report to Congress . There, two sizes of unmanned surface ships and one unmanned undersea vessel are planned. With an extensive fleet of aircraft carriers, why is the Navy hedging its bets with unmanned vessels? Being fixated on defending the carrier fleets, the Navy feels stretched thin in the vast Pacific Ocean. The concept of smaller, robotic vessels was initiated as the “Sea Hunter” program at DARPA. These smaller, much more numerous weapons could be characterized as “sensors and shooters” .
The undersea robotic ship size is reflected in the launch capability. Smaller unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) could be launched from torpedo tubes or submarine missile silos. However, the larger UUVs would have to be transported to the general area of deployment. Much more detail is available in the previously mentioned report to Congress .
The advance of AI electronics allows a discussion of human control or complete autonomy of these robotic weapons. Very serious moral debates now rage over the use and control of remote vehicles. So far, international law has promoted four concepts for warfare :
- Military necessity
- The distinction between military and civilian objects
- The prohibition of unnecessary suffering
But in this age of irregular war, sometimes called asymmetric warfare, do the provisions of international law hold? That becomes a political topic beyond the scope of “Defense Speak Interpreted.”
- Congressional Research Service, “The Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” April 16, 2020.
- AcqNotes, “Acquisition Process: Middle Tier Acquisition (Section 804),” December 31, 2019.
- D. Axe, “Meet the M1A2C Abrams: The U.S. Army's New Tank,” The National Interest, February 24, 2019.
- K. Mizokami, “After Nearly a Century, the U.S. Marine Corps Is Ditching Its Tanks,” Popular Mechanics, March 24, 2020.
- K. Mizokami, “The Marine Corps Is Testing a Fully Autonomous Huey Helicopter,” Popular Mechanics, December 14, 2017.
- Wikipedia, “Unmanned combat aerial vehicle.”
- R.S. Cohen, “Meet the Future Unmanned Force,” Air Force Magazine, April 4, 2019.
- Boeing, “Boeing Rolls Out First Loyal Wingman Unmanned Aircraft,” I-Connect007, May 5, 2020.
- Congressional Research Service, “Navy Large Unmanned Surface and Undersea Vehicles: Background and Issues for Congress,” March 30, 2020.
- D.B. Larter, “U.S. Navy moves toward unleashing killer robot ships on the world’s oceans,” Defense News, January 15, 2019.
Dennis Fritz was a 20-year direct employee of MacDermid Inc. and has just retired after 12 years as a senior engineer at (SAIC) supporting the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. He was elected to the IPC Hall of Fame in 2012.