Army considers German-built future armored combat vehicles

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The U.S. Army is vigorously pursuing a new combat vehicle able to launch attack drones, carry longer-range TOW missiles, fire a 50mm cannon and operate “optionally-manned” technology, according to initial requirements outlined by service weapons developers.

The Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), an infantry fighting vehicle, is intended as a high-tech, more mobile and more lethal Bradley. The Army is already working closely with industry on accelerated plans to plans to engineer a mobile infantry carrier able to deploy quickly, traverse rough terrain, keep pace with maneuvering infantry and yet also operate with sufficient protection necessary to thwart the most advanced enemy attacks.

The effort is currently on the fast track; many industry teams are already offering vehicles, and the timeline has been accelerated by nearly a decade. The Army plans to have a combat-ready operational vehicle by 2026.

“Our original vision was 2035. We now have a challenging test schedule, so we can’t afford a clean sheet design. We may need a powertrain and suspension that are already in use somewhere. We need to bring together mature components, with less risk to the schedule,” Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Optionally-Manned Vehicle Program Manager Col. Jim Schirmer, said in October at the Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium.

A Lynx at last year's Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Symposium. (Kris Osborn)

A Lynx at last year’s Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Annual Symposium. (Kris Osborn)

The expedited timeframe means that combat vehicle developers will look at both the state of the art current technology as well as promising future systems, Maj. Gen. Cummings, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems, told Warrior Maven in a recent interview.

“The Army is trying to do things faster, and that means looking at things out there now in the commercial market. We will continue to upgrade our current platforms with anything we may go to war with today. At the same time, make the proper investment in future technologies and future systems so we will have that capability for the war we have to fight after next,” Cumming said in the interview.

Three of the major teams competing to build the vehicle include General Dynamics Land Systems, BAE Systems– and a U.S.-German team of Raytheon and Rheinmetall Defence NGCV- called the Lynx.

(Of course, it is important to point out that the Army, naturally, does not endorse any particular platform or industry offering – as the service is currently evaluating a number of options. The Army speaks about requirements and its vision for the vehicle, not about specific vendor offerings)

LYNX

The Lynx represents an effort to combine German combat-vehicle engineering and expertise with Raytheon’s weaponry, sensor and computing technology.

Rheinmetall is known for engineering a range of combat vehicles, to include the much-discussed Leopard 2 Main Battle Tank and Puma Infantry Fighting Vehicle. The Leopard is currently in use by more than 15 countries, to include Canada, Austria, The Netherlands, Spain, Chile, Denmark, Norway and others. Several reports state that Canada used about 20 German-made Leopard 2A6Ms in Afghanistan.

“We’ve been working for three years to analyze future customer requirements. The Lynx has a payload of up to 18K kilos. Threats change on the battlefield and technologies change as well,” Ben Hudson, Vice President of Combat Vehicle Development, Rheinmetall, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Upon initial examination, the Lynx appears to incorporate some advanced characteristics of the widely-known Rheinmetall-built Puma Infantry Fighting Vehicle – specifically with respect to anti-tank weaponry, 360-degree sensors and targeting technology. Naturally, Raytheon and Rheinmetall developers emphasize that the Lynx incorporates many technologies far more advanced than those used in the Puma – even if some of the operational concepts and technological aims appear similar.

The Puma is equipped with heavy and light guns, grenade launchers, a 30mm cannon and provisions for anti-tank missiles, according to information from Defencylopedia.

The Puma has a crew of three and an ability to carry 6 soldiers in the rear, a configuration which matches the Army vision for its Optionally Manned Vehicle.

“The Puma can fire accurately and effectively up to a distance of 3000 m and 400 rounds are carried on board. The secondary gun is the 5.56 mm x MG4 machine gun. The entire vehicle is coated with a special IR-suppressing paint which reduces its thermal signature and makes it difficult for hostile missiles to target it,” Defencylopedia writes.

Hudson explained that Lynx development has been underway for several years, making it what he called a workable foundation from which to architect a new NGCV-Optionally-Manned Vehicle. The idea is to build a vehicle able to both anticipate and accommodate Army requirements on the much-accelerated time frame. Strategically speaking, this means the industry is challenged to combined off-the-shelf or ready combat systems with emerging or new systems as well. The idea is to both produce something near term, yet also build something which substantially brings armored vehicle combat technology to a new level.

The Raytheon-Rheinmetall Lynx emerges from the recently-unveiled Lynx FF41 Next-Generation Combat Vehicle; the platform can be traced to its predecessor which arrived in 2016, the Lynx KF31.  The Lynx FF41 vehicle can be built in a number of variants, to include Infantry Fighting Vehicle, Command and Control, Armored Reconnaissance, Repair and Recovery and Ambulance models, Rheinmetall information says.

The broad Army vision, already well underway through Army-industry weapons developers, may hinge upon the developmental pace of emerging new active protection systems, advanced targeting sensors, longer-range weapons and artificial intelligence.

Given current state of the art technology, engineering a vehicle that is both sufficiently survivable and mobile seems, in some respects, to be a contradiction in terms. Armor, most of which is heavy, is needed for protection, and lower-weight is needed for speed, maneuverability and deployability.  Therefore, prospects for achieving the apparent paradox could include lighter weight armor composites, unmanned vehicles and long-range, high-fidelity, AI-enabled sensors able to ID threats before they are able to attack.

While these requirements are still being refined as the Army works with industry, Army developers have indicated some specifics regarding the service’s approach to the new platform.

For instance, Schirmer told Warrior that the new vehicle will operate with a three-man crew, carry six-soldiers in the back and ultimately fire a 50mm cannon.

“Under armor volume is important for the size and weight of the vehicle. We will ultimately go to a 50mm cannon, but it may begin as a 35mm,” Schirmer said.

New longer-range “TOW missile-compatible” weapons will arm the new platform, Schirmer said, as a way to destroy enemy armored vehicles at a safer stand-off range. Also, these new missiles are very likely to be configured with newer, more varied explosives able to destroy enemy tanks, armored vehicles and infantry formations to a much greater extent than existing weapons can.

Raytheon developers say the Lynx is armed with an improved TOW missile, developed with a new propulsion system for an advanced, long-range weapon to track and destroy enemy armored vehicles from farther distances. The most recent TOW missiles, according to descriptions from the Federation of American Scientists, include hardened “guidance links with a thermal beacon which improves operations in dust, smoke and other obscurants.”

The weapon is capable of penetrating more than 30-inches of armor and has a range of more than 3,000-meters. Its mission, according to FAS, is to attack and destroy tanks and other key targets such as non-armored vehicles, crew-served weapons and missile launchers. It uses aerodynamic contours to speed travel time to targets.

It can launch 3 missiles in 90-seconds and fire from a tripod, vehicle or helicopter, FAS writes.

“In almost all situations, the fight ended after firing the TOW. It can bring in either close air support or artillery before the enemy even realized he was being seen.” Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, former 101st Airborne Division Commander, said several years ago when a Maj. Gen. – according to Army information on the TOW missile.

The requirements for the vehicle are grounded in the use of unmanned technology, such as an ability to launch attack drones, control nearby unmanned vehicles and integrate advanced video surveillance. As part of this, the vehicle will leverage advanced networking, to include new software and sensors to engineer secure communications links to pass high-speed video back to the operator, Schirmer explained.

“The ability to control a small drone will give us eyes down range,” Schirmer explained.

AI-enabled sensors and targeting technology will also be a pivotal technology when it comes to engineering a vehicle that is both highly mobile and survivable.

When it comes to new sensor technology, there are several pertinent areas of technical exploration.

Improved 3rd-Gen Forward Looking Infrared sensors will bring higher-resolution targeting, longer-range technology and massively improved computer technology. Computer-enabled autonomy will help operators organize incoming sensor data from otherwise disparate nodes.

“The vehicle in and of itself from a systems capability uses a 3rd Gen FLIR. We are currently developing that in support of the Army. We want to achieve overmatch capability from a sighting capability,” Kim Ernzen, vice president of land warfare systems, Raytheon, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Much like the Puma requirements call for a 360-degree array of cameras around the vehicle, as a way to alert crews of approaching threats from all directions.

“If no one has their screen turned to that view, threat-related information is not of use to the crew,” Schirmer said.

This kind of camera-sensor synergy, Schirmer explained, can be heavily fortified by AI which can quickly and simultaneously perform a wide range of functions – to reduce what developers call the “cognitive burden” upon the operators.

“AI reduces the amount of work to be done remotely and brings the crew’s attention to threats they might not otherwise see,” he added.

AI draws upon algorithms to function autonomously to test enemy defenses, travel at high speeds, perform advanced ISR functions and even fire weapons. In this kind of scenario, humans would, of course, operate in a role of command and control, allowing self-driving machines to confront the highest risks.

“The Lynx offers a manned-unmanned teaming opportunity. The vehicle has a digital backbone and fly-by-wire technology to move to optionally manned,” Hudson said.

Turret-launched attack drones are identified as a key component of emerging Army requirements for the NGCV for counter air, ISR and land-attack missions. Raytheon-Rheinmetall is offering a drone system called Coyote; small swarms of tube-launched Coyote drones fired from the Lynx turret are intended for ISR, electronic warfare and direct attack missions. Groups of small drones can blanket an area with surveillance, sending back combat-essential detail such as enemy force movements on the other side of a hill. Coyotes can also be used as expendable explosives or guided attack drones designed to hit non-line-of-sight targets.

Ernzen said Raytheon has been working with the Army on Coyote as a way to, among other things, introduce a counter drone weapon.

Finally, very little of this overall attack and survivability plan would fully come to fruition without advanced Active Protection Systems. These technologies, many of which are already operational, use computer-enabled fire-control, advanced radar and interceptor weapons to identify, track and destroy approaching enemy fire in a matter of seconds, or even milliseconds.

Along these lines, Schirmer has explained that advanced APS able to knock out kinetic-energy penetrator rods will need to emerge so that defenses are not only able to intercept RPGs and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles.

Threat levels are part of the reason many of the industry offerings are building “adjustable” vehicles. This includes building interchangeable turrets, configured with different weapons depending upon the mission, and adding sensors or attack drones as necessary. Air Defense is also a vital element of this, Schirmer said. Should the Army be operating in areas where there are enemy helicopters, overhead artillery, drones or aircraft threats, the vehicles will be equipped with interceptor attack drones or air-defense missiles such as Stingers or Hellfire missiles.

Interestingly, some of these areas of innovation may not be restricted to just the NGCV, according to Maj. Gen. Brian Cummings, Program Executive Officer, Ground Combat Systems.

“Right now we are trying to get the replacement for the Bradley to be the first optionally manned fighting vehicle. As we get that capability we may look at technology that we are getting in the future and insert them into current platforms,” Cummings told Warrior in an interview at AUSA in October.

Cummings also said Army developers are working on both near-term and longer term plans; he said it was entirely possible that a future tank or tank-like combat vehicle could emerge out of the NGCV program.

RUSSIAN THREAT

While there are of course many reasons for the massive acceleration of the Army’s new infantry carrier, service developers are not hesitant to cite a Russian threat in Eastern Europe as part of the equation.

“According to the National Defense Strategy, we need to make sure we can provide a deterrent force to Eastern Europe. We have challenges in Eastern Europe,” he said. “Russia’s order of battle has incredible density of artillery pieces.”

At the same time, however, Schirmer did not indicate that the much-discussed new Russian tank, the technological advanced T-14, was a specific concern.

“All these new things are necessary without the T-14 on the battlefield,” he said.

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