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New Bradley Weapons and Sensors Will Shape Army's Next-Gen Combat Vehicle

Jul 12, 2018
The Army’s fast-tracked push to provide new weapons, sensors, air defenses and targeting technology for its Bradley Fighting Vehicle is part of a dual-pronged strategic approach to both prepare for near-term major warfare in the next ten years – and simultaneously begin work on a new Next-Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) for the 2030s and beyond.

These interwoven trajectories are, by design, aimed at making the Bradley better able to find and destroy enemy targets in the immediate future while also engineering innovations for armored combat vehicles intended to prevail in mechanized war 20 to 30 years from now.

Prototyping, experimenting and advancing the “art of the possible” based on the most promising emerging technologies are intended to provide innovation for the Army's future armored vehicle war platform , the NGCV, Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, Director, Program Analysis and Evaluation, G-8, said earlier this year.

“Instead of spending time and money pouring over requirements, you prototype and experiment to test hypotheses. You start tweaking variables in the near term,” Ferrari explained.

With this conceptual framework in mind, senior Army weapons developers tell Warrior Maven that the most modern variants of the Bradley will become the “yardstick against which potential NGCV candidates will be evaluated.”

There are several key technical spheres in which much of this strategy is focused, because things like long-range multi-function sensors, manned-unmanned teaming and artificial intelligence can bring impactful short and long-term results.

For this reason, engineering new lighter-weight armor composites, more lethal air and ground attack systems and computer-enabled vehicle defenses, among other things, bring substantial implications for both the Bradley and NGCV.

“The two efforts are interrelated. First, if the Army goes to war tonight or any time in the next 10 years, Bradleys will still make up the majority of the force…so the Army must invest at some level in Bradley for some period of time until NGCV is ready to enter production,” Ashley Givens, spokeswoman for Program Executive Office Ground Combat Systems, said. “The NGCV must be significantly better than today’s Bradley, or it begs the question ‘why are we doing this?’”

Much of this is driven by the pace of technological change; new algorithms enabling greater degrees of autonomy are emerging quickly, and many weapons developers see combat vehicles operating nearby “drone-robot wingmen” in the near future.

Unmanned systems or “ground-drones” could carry weapons, test enemy defenses or perform high-risk forward positioned ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) missions – while allowing manned crews to operate at a safer stand off distance. Of equal significance, drones carrying ammunition, supplies or weapons would enable a host vehicle to operate at a lighter weight, thereby enabling greater levels of combat zone maneuverability.

“The Army has chosen to increase the cross-country mobility of the Bradley, allowing it to go further into off-road situations to support infantry formations,” Givens said.

Most, if not all, of this hinges upon the evolution of computer automation, faster processing speeds and artificial intelligence, leaders with the Army Research Laboratory explain.

“We know there are going to be unmanned systems for the future, and we want to look at unmanned systems and work with teams of manned systems. This involves AI-enabled machine learning in high priority areas we know are going to be long term as well as near term applications,” Karl Kappra, Chief of the Office of Strategy Management for the Army Research Lab, said.

Advanced algorithms used for AI are cumulative, meaning Kappra’s reference to machine-learning points to how new data, techniques or procedures can be added to an existing technical infrastructure, to build upon what is already there.

This is the essence of machine learning -- today’s processing speeds enable computers to, for instance, access and draw upon seemingly limitless volumes of data in seconds – integrate new information, compare results, determine context and organize input in a nearly instantaneous fashion.

“AI is about training algorithms. You write some code, create learning algorithms, collect information and then fine tune it,” Ferrari said, when explaining the “incremental’ modernization approach currently guiding the service’s approach to NGCV. He explained that progress with AI will build upon itself, bringing new levels with each step forward.

Ferrari said combat use of autonomous systems will progress from “human assisted” to “human augmented” before moving to a “human is there to intervene” phase.”

“You have to progress through all of those stages. For NGCV, we can go down that path to get there,” he said. “Ground combat autonomy is probably the hardest level of autonomy possible. Imagine going over terrain that is filled with artillery shells.”

Significantly, while computer algorithms can access pools of information and perform procedural functions much faster than humans can, human cognition remains an indispensable part of the equation. There are certain kinds of intuition, problem-solving abilities and processes unique to the human mind, experts maintain. As a result, humans are likely to perform “command and control” functions wherein they make key decisions – such as those involving the use of lethal force – assisted by computer automation and AI.

The incremental modernization approach outlined by Ferrari aligns closely with the Army Research Laboratory, which has been making a more deliberate effort to connect its work with current operational combat as well as its typical research-oriented framework. Kappra explained that using new levels of autonomy could enable small micro-autonomous mechanical drones to use imaging sensors to map a building, sending data back to a ground combat vehicle.

“You could send a small UAS system into a building, have it fly through the building able to autonomously show you where walls and threats are inside the building,” Kappra said.

Conceptual focus in this area is to use what Army weapons developers call “multi-function” sensors which not only help vehicle crews find and destroy enemy targets at greater distances - but also simultaneously provide 360-degree cameras around the exterior of a vehicle to more quickly locate threats or enemy attacks.

This newer sensor technology, now in the process of being integrated, tested and prototyped, is designed to increase situational awareness by using algorithms and computer automation to help soldiers find targets or areas of combat significance.

Some of the technologies include more narrow-beam thermal sights for long range targeting along with closer-in, vehicle-surrounding electro-optical cameras able to quickly detect approaching enemy drones and incoming fire, Gene Klager, Deputy Director, Ground Combat Systems Division, Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, said earlier this year.

“We are developing algorithms for infrared search and track - we have a passive way to detect and track we would then hand off the target location to a countermeasure system,” Klager said. Klager’s unit is part of the Army’s Communications, Electronics, Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Using multi-pixel focal plane array technology and infrared detection, the sensors in development are designed for what Klager called Hostile Fire Detection, or HFD; computer automation, or algorithms created to help organize and communicate incoming sensor data, then assists a human combat vehicle operator in locating targets and significant objects such as approaching enemy drones.

“We are looking at things like Hostile Fire Detection. You really cannot expect a user to be looking at all these cameras at once. Sensors can look around a 360-degree area all the time. Hostile fire is automatically detected and operators are cued so they have the option to respond, look away or record the event,” Klager added.

More consolidated, multi-functional sensors able to perform several otherwise separately performed tasks also bring the advantage of decreasing the hardware footprint on a combat vehicle, thereby increasing mobility and deployability.

Automated sensor technology can, among many things, help identify and track multiple targets at once - such as attacks from enemy drones, artillery or armored vehicles at one time. This kind of scenario, much more likely in a major force-on-force type of mechanized warfare engagement, is precisely the circumstances these emerging sensors are designed to address.

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Photo caption: Soldiers assigned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 198th Infantry Regiment, 155th Armored Brigade Combat Team, Mississippi Army National Guard, ride in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle after an exercise near the El Jarbah training village on Doña Ana Range, N.M. (Winifred Brown, Fort Bliss Public Affairs Office)


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