Closing the Capabilities Gap: Seven Things the Army Needs for a Winning Future
An Army that for 15 years has had almost no money to spend on weapons modernization or soldier performance has a lengthy and potentially expensive list of unmet future warfighting requirements.
The National Commission on the Future of the Army warned a year ago that the U.S. in general—and the Army in particular—was “increasingly challenged to maintain a technological advantage” over potential adversaries.
Gen. David G. Perkins, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command commanding general responsible for producing an operating plan for the Army’s future, has described this as not just spending money, but spending it on the right things.
“The Army doesn’t need $1 million solutions to $100 problems,” he has said, adding that the goal is winning. “The Army does not buy things to fight. We develop capabilities to win in a complex world that is ever changing.”
The national commission urged the Army to focus on retaining a competitive advantage by focusing on adopting smaller, flexible and more lethal formations; improving long-strike capabilities; and “investing in potentially game-changing technologies.”
The Army has been trying to do exactly that. In September, Training and Doctrine Command released its Warfighters’ Science and Technology Needs report. It includes a detailed list of seven needed capabilities codified in mid-2016: future vertical lift; combat vehicles; cross-domain fires; advanced protection; expeditionary Mission Command and cyber electromagnetic; robotics and autonomous systems; and soldier and team performance and overmatch.
1 Future Vertical Lift
The future vertical lift concept recognizes current helicopter fleet limitations, with the likelihood they will expand over time. Fulfilling requirements will enable joint force commanders to dictate the terms of operations and take the fight to the enemy at the time and place of the Army’s choosing and with a greater capability to overcome the constraints of complex terrain, higher altitudes, extreme temperatures and extended distances while performing operations throughout the joint operations area.
The initial focus has been on a potential replacement for the UH-60 Black Hawk, and the joint multirole technology demonstrator program is one step that will help to inform future requirements. Teams led by a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp./Boeing Co. and Bell Helicopter are building demonstrator aircraft that are scheduled to fly later this year.
The Lockheed Martin/Boeing model, Defiant, is a high-speed compound helicopter design with counter-rotating rigid rotor blades that draws from experiences with Sikorsky’s X-2 high-speed prototype aircraft (Sikorsky was later bought by Lockheed Martin). It has demonstrated speeds in excess of 250 knots.
Bell’s V-280 Valor is a tilt-rotor design with lineage to the V-22 Osprey. According to Bell representatives, the V-280 features physical design differences that reflect a number of lessons learned over the 30-plus years since design work began on the Osprey. Examples include a new “straight” wing design that eliminates the need for a midwing gearbox, using carbon reinforcements to replace some metal reinforcements in the wing structure, and the use of graphite fabric on the wing skin. The representatives characterize Valor as “the start of proliferation of tilt-rotors.”
2 Combat Vehicles
The Army’s next-generation combat vehicle could be a futuristic marvel packed with laser weaponry; lighter but tougher armor based on nanotechnology; active protection systems against incoming fire; a hybrid electric power plant—and more.
But how all of that might come together in an actual vehicle design is a long way off, said Col. William T. Nuckols, director of the mounted requirements division at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Ga.
The next-generation combat vehicle (NGCV) could be “a single combat vehicle that replaces the Abrams, the Bradley, potentially even the Stryker,” Nuckols said. “It could be a family of vehicles. We simply don’t know yet.”
Army efforts to address combat vehicle capability gaps seem to reflect an optimized balance between new capabilities and budget constraints.
“People say things like, ‘The Abrams you have today is the same Abrams you had 20 or 30 years ago,’” said Maj. Gen. David Bassett, U.S. Army program executive officer for ground combat systems. “But the truth is, they are nothing like each other.”
Bassett said the Army is exploring the “technologies and capabilities that you can get on the existing vehicle so that you can evolve maybe at a lower cost, given the constraints of the portfolio, versus what are the capabilities that you really have to replace the vehicle to go out and get.”
The filling of projected capability gaps is being guided by implementation of the Army’s Combat Vehicle Modernization Strategy. Approved in 2015, the strategy outlined three new vehicle capabilities focused primarily on the Army’s infantry brigade combat teams: Light Reconnaissance Vehicle; Ultra Light Combat Vehicle, now called Ground Combat Vehicle; and Mobile Protected Firepower.
The Army does not plan to field the NGCV until 2035, but the “majority of the hard work” must be done by 2025 because “it’s going to take 10 years for industry to actually build and field what we want,” Nuckols said. This pathway partly reflects the demise of other recent ground combat vehicle programs, including the Future Combat System, canceled in 2009 for being too light; and the Ground Combat Vehicle, shut down in 2014 for being too heavy.
Nuckols said the Army is “trying diligently” to learn lessons from those previous programs, “which is why we’re going to have a series of decision points. We’ll make conscious decisions about what NGCV will and will not be [and] what capabilities and technologies it will have, based on our assessments of the technology and where it is.”
The biggest threats to armored combat vehicles today are rocket-propelled grenades, armor-piercing anti-tank guided missiles and IEDs, said John Gordon IV, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corp.
Moreover, the penetrating power of shaped-charge weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles has increased dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years, he said, adding that future threats may include cyber disruption, electronic warfare and even tactical nuclear weapons.
“We can’t ignore the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used,” he said. “The Russians talk a lot about tactical use of nuclear weapons.”
As to how future combat vehicles will be powered, research is moving forward on new biofuel and fuel cell technology, but “hybrid electric drives and pure electric drives appear to be the most promising renewable energy sources right now,” said John C. Paulson, senior director of engineering and project management for General Dynamics Land Systems.
Full electrification will require advances in energy storage technology, both batteries and capacitors, for heavy vehicle operations, he said. “But the big advantage of electric drives is, we’ll be able to supply more power to combat vehicles to support future weapons like high-intensity lasers, rail guns, active protective systems and improved situational awareness electronics.”
In the Army’s armored brigade combat teams, just one new platform effort, the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV), began to arrive in small numbers in December. It will replace the M113 series tracked platforms.
Pointing to the concluded Ground Combat Vehicle program, Bassett noted that at the end of the technology development phase, “we did a lot of analysis to show the investments we are making in Bradley, Abrams, Paladin and AMPV offer significantly more combat capability than we would have gotten with just a replacement for the Bradley in that formation.”
“At the end of the day, a combat vehicle is about ‘a box,’ a mobility system, a lethality system, a communications system and some other things,” he said. “And if you can take all those things and put them on an existing vehicle, then maybe you don’t need to have a whole new vehicle from scratch, given the risk associated with that kind of development.”
3 Advanced Protection
The TRADOC report says new capabilities in advanced protection are needed because of “aging ground combat vehicles and aircraft, the need for more capable forces with fewer transport and sustainment needs to meet expeditionary requirements, and the advancement of threat capabilities in lethality.”
The current vision involves a broad Modular Active Protection System (MAPS) initiative in parallel with activities exploring active protection systems. According to Bassett, the longer-term strategy for MAPS is a system that is adaptable, modular, and usable across any potential vehicle in the Army family. Near-term efforts look at installing, characterizing and then giving Army leaders the right amount of data to make a sound decision about whether some off-the-shelf systems can be employed.
As Stryker project manager, Col. Glenn Dean has the overall lead for active protection systems within Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems. “Expedited active protection is an activity to take ‘claimed nondevelopmental’ active protection systems, install them on our combat platforms, and characterize them so we can define both what the active protection systems do and the impacts on the host platform,” he said.
Noting that current schedules show MAPS transitioning to a program of record around 2020, he said the expedited active protection system effort was striving to accelerate the process and that he anticipates an Army decision point in late fiscal 2017.
4 Cross-Domain Fires
Tomorrow’s multidomain battles will mandate abilities to deliver and benefit from cross-domain fires, according to the TRADOC report, “employing joint and combined mutually supporting lethal and nonlethal fires across all domains to achieve effects designed to create multiple dilemmas for the adversary, achieve overmatch” and enable joint combined maneuver.
The report notes the fires must be flexible, tailorable, precise and responsive, and that the future operational environment requires fires that can also effectively operate across the maritime, space and cyberspace domains as well as the electromagnetic spectrum.
Moreover, the future coordination of lethal and nonlethal actions in a joint arena will build on a foundation established by current joint service publications such as the December 2014 revision of Joint Publication 3-09: Joint Fire Support.
5 Expeditionary Mission Command and Cyber Electromagnetic
The TRADOC report calling for new capabilities builds on some of the work highlighted during the Army Warfighting Assessment 17.1 in October at Fort Bliss, Texas. That event grew from earlier iterations of Network Integration Evaluations, so it’s not surprising the process has long emphasized expeditionary Mission Command capabilities and cyber awareness.
According to the TRADOC report, “The network must enable exercising Mission Command, achieving situational understanding, and executing expeditionary joint combined arms operations.” Cyber electromagnetic activities should be “leveraged to seize, retain and exploit an advantage over enemies in both cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum while simultaneously denying and degrading adversaries’ use of the same.”
6 Robotic and Autonomous Systems
The report credits robotic and autonomous systems with enhancing formations through manned-unmanned teaming to increase combat effectiveness, expand terrain coverage, and reduce risks to soldiers during hazardous tasks.
The Army is gathering significant amounts of field data on these technologies, with “leader-follower” demonstrations during Army Warfighting Assessment 17.1 and early Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) prototypes demonstrated at the Pacific Manned-Unmanned Initiative (PACMAN-I) training site in Hawaii as well as several other venues.
“There have been a series of experiments,” said Bryan McVeigh, project manager for force projection in the Program Executive Office Combat Support and Combat Service Support. “PACMAN-I was just one of them.”
The TRADOC report notes that basic levels of autonomy exist in unmanned aircraft systems, but the majority of these systems remain intensively operator-managed. For ground vehicles, initial steps to evolve autonomy are the Leader-Follower Automated Convoy System and SMET.
“Ground vehicle autonomy is a gateway technology and once obtained will be available for all ground vehicles” to offer better protection to soldiers and achieve overmatch, the report says.
McVeigh said the action officer user group met at Fort Benning in mid-September to refine requirements, with a targeted approval date in the second quarter of fiscal 2017.
The program is competing in the fiscal 2019–23 Program Objective Memorandum cycle. “What I’m trying to do now, under the authority that I have under some of the programs, is to expedite development of the performance specification and, based on the emerging requirements,” move forward ahead of a materiel development decision, McVeigh said.
7 Soldier and Team Performance and Overmatch
Focusing on fundamental capabilities that empower soldiers and increase team performance, this effort will “pursue advances in human sciences for cognitive, social and physical development and emphasize engineering psychology and human factors engineering in the design of weapons and equipment,” according to the TRADOC report.
Several representative developments can be found at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Mass., where recent achievements have ranged from exploration of self-generating soldier power systems to high-altitude nutritional requirements.
Senior staff writer Chuck Vinch contributed to this report.