“When you’re in the darkness and you hear these vehicles moving and you don’t really know where they are, there’s a level of fear that rises up,” Major General Ross Coffman, director of the Next Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team for the U.S. Army Futures Command says.
“When you couple that with these multi-ton, payload-agnostic war machines that are silent and magically appear, these systems are the equivalent of the Ghosts of Patton’s Army.”
The systems to which the general alludes are the first generation of semi-autonomous unmanned ground combat vehicles the Army plans to incorporate within its Armored Brigade Combat Teams (ABCT), potentially by the end of this decade. The Army calls them Robotic Combat Vehicles (RCVs) and ultimately plans to field three versions; an RCV Light (RCV-L), RCV Medium (RCV-M) and RCV Heavy (RCV-H).
The service has already begun experimenting with RCV-L and RCV-M prototypes as well as M113 armored personnel carrier and Stryker Dragoon surrogates for the RCV-H in exercises at Fort Carson, CO and Fort Dix, NJ. Smaller scale testing will continue through this year and next summer they’ll participate in a full-scale Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) Soldier Operational Experiment at Fort Hood, Texas.
Pending the results of these and the input of the Soldiers into whose hands they’ve been thrust, the Army could launch a program-of-record for the RCV-L in Fiscal 2023.
Many of the details of the air-transportable Light and Medium prototypes like QinetiQ-Pratt & Miller’s diesel-electric RCV-L and Textron Systems-Howe & Howe’s Ripsaw have been covered but far less has been said about how the Army may use them – how they’ll scout and fight.
Russia and China are experimenting with their own robotic combat vehicles as this written, trying to answer these same questions.
Ghosts & Warfighting
In calling to mind General George S. Patton’s Third Army of World War II, MG Coffman references the reconnaissance units which operated behind enemy lines as the eyes and ears of Patton’s armored divisions.
Operating from light tanks, armored cars, jeeps, or on foot, they moved among German forces in the Ardennes Forrest with speed and stealth. One story goes that a German SS officer plucked from his staff car with four others by American recon Cavalry using an M8 armored car plaintively asked, “You’re the Ghosts, aren’t you? The Ghosts of Patton’s Army.”
The Light Robotic Combat Vehicles which will most likely join U.S. Army formations first will have a similar “eyes and ears” role and, with a variety of modular payloads, the ability to strike. Coffman sees them as the initial elements to make contact with an adversary, traditional Army tactics with a twist.
“We always want to make first contact with the smallest [enemy] element,” he says. That’s doctrine. Why would we ever have that be a human again? Why isn’t that contact made with an unmanned aerial vehicle or an unmanned ground vehicle?”
Machines may make first contact but humans won’t be far behind – probably less than two kilometers.
That’s the effective range at which a soldier-controller in a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle can remotely command and drive an RCV based on the testing at Fort Carson. It’s an arms-length distance, not the cushion of hundreds or thousands of miles so familiar to Air Force Predator or Reaper UAV operators.
But it gives soldiers and commanders on the battlefield more decision space Coffman observes. In a recent interview he posited, “If you could extend the battlefield up to two kilometers with a robot, then that means that you can make decisions before your enemy comes.”
When the enemy does come, forward-positioned RCVs can more easily be left in place, allowing the Army to hold terrain as an adversary advances.
“If you’re in a security position, these robots can stay put,” Coffman says. “Normally you’d pull humans – your eyes forward – back so they don’t become trapped behind enemy lines. Now you can pair these robots with unmanned aerial vehicles and they’ll continue to report, continue to engage and make the enemy deploy faster. We can then [unleash] mass-effects on their main effort.”
At a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in March, Coffman laid out the threat of conflict with Russia and China, stressing the role of armor, the need to take and hold ground, and the slim likelihood that China will self-limit in any direct contest. Along with his boss, Army Chief of Staff General James McConville, Coffman stressed that in any such confrontation, all battle domains will be contested but land will be the decisive factor.
His comments are a welcome break from the political, image-driven discourse that currently dominates the conversation of America’s senior military leadership. They bolster the idea that getting unmanned ground combat vehicles right, and being willing to exploit them, is vital.
Tie It Back
Major Gen. Coffman has spent his career on the operational side of the Army – from Cavalry Regiments to Armored and Infantry Divisions and the National Training Center.
“I’ve always been a warfighter,” he says. “That’s all I’ve done. I often scratch my head and think, ‘If we can’t tie something back to war fighting, then what are we doing?”
Coffman adds that he thinks there are “quite a few” warfighter Major Generals.
“But where are they focused? They plucked me out of the operational forces and put me in Detroit to write the operational requirements for how we fight in the future… I have a pulpit because I’m here, not in the operational force.”
That force counts 11 ABCTs in the active Army. What proportion of each will RCVs make up?
The Army has a “Draft Unit of Issue per Brigade” Coffman explains. He reckons the number of RCVs will be “probably a Company to a Company-and-half” without elaborating on what percentage of an ABCT’s vehicles that will represent.
Whatever the exact balance is, it will be finalized after the 2022 Soldier Experiment at Fort Hood.
“We had robots filling a Cavalry role [in 2020 at Fort Carson]. Next summer we’re doing attack-and-defend tactics to ensure that we get the [manned/unmanned] force ratios correct.”
Those ratios will tell us a lot about how aggressive the Army wants to be with RCVs. While there’s considerable discussion of possible MUM-T concepts, Coffman believes teaming extends further.
“People talk about manned-unmanned teaming. I’m talking about unmanned-unmanned teaming where air and ground [platforms] are working in tandem to identify, geo-locate and report on enemy forces – and to destroy them within their capability with a human in the loop.”
Humans will always be in the loop when it comes to decision-making on when RCVs pull the trigger the General says and he doesn’t foresee the robots replacing boots on the ground.
“At the end of the day, unmanned vehicles will reduce risk to humans. It won’t reduce the number of humans [needed to fight] in my opinion. They’re either going to augment the fighting force, [performing] tasks currently done by humans… or they will do new and expanded tasks not currently done by humans. They will exponentially add to our capabilities as we move forward and fight.”
If the first such vehicles are small and light- less than 10 tons – it’s worth asking what can they do beyond expected ISR? Plenty Coffman says.
“The best thing about our unmanned ground platforms is that they’re payload-agnostic. We’ve already proven we can fire anti-tank weapons, 30 mm, 0.50 caliber, we can shoot anything in the Army [weapons payloads] from an unmanned vehicle today. Making them payload-agnostic opens the aperture. They can be breaching, tank killing systems, infantry killing systems.”
Given the very nature of unmanned platforms and the ethics of the Chinese, who many now see through the prism of Covid-19, does that payload agnosticism extend to biological/chemical weapons payloads?
In past comments, Coffman has mentioned the potential for RCVs to act as bio-chemical sensors but on this specific question he replies, “While anything may be technically possible, we are an ethical force and will always follow the law of ground warfare.”
One of the laws of ground warfare is that mass counts. Coffman has cited the challenge of effectively countering China’s armor – 7000 tanks 3000 infantry fighting vehicles. The Army’s emphasis on long-range precision fires (missiles, cannon) and dispersed, networked fighting units can counter some of that mass but any sophisticated adversary will attrit American forces and equipment begging the question of how resilient RCVs should be?
The answer lies partly in scale and functions. Not every robot has to be able to withstand a main gun round from an adversary’s main battle tank Coffman explains. RCV-Ls will be more expendable than RCV-Ms and RCV-Hs but have to be robust enough to operate effectively.
“Do they need sufficient protection so they aren’t taken off the battlefield by the smallest weapon our enemy owns? Yes,” Coffman affirms. We have options to protect just the payload, to protect the radios, to protect what we want to.”
That would probably include the RTK.
“Inside of an RCV is what we call the RTK, the Robotic Technical Kernel. The Kernel is the entire autonomy package which is owned by the government. Then you have the Tether which is essentially a radio that can handle sufficient megabits per second to control [the RCV] at a distance. There’s the human interface – how the human drives and operates the payload – which is the last piece.”
Understanding the RTK will surely be a goal of U.S. adversaries because it ties back to the 1s and 0s of how an RCV operates and offers a potential gateway to how the Army will operate its robots, singly or in networked fashion. That puts RCV payloads in a different, more vulnerable light despite the ability to add armor/countermeasures protection kits to the vehicles.
“Everything is vulnerable. Everything is hackable,” Coffman recognizes. “We need [RCVs] to be resilient enough without gold plating them. I want them resilient enough so they can’t be commandeered by our enemy and turned against us. They need to be resilient enough so that if they are jammed, they can seek other means to communicate. These things must be in the DNA of our robotic vehicles.”
So too should be a clear understanding of how to use them offensively. Some observers have argued that the lack of humans aboard such robots overseeing the fires and targeting may make RCV controllers/commanders indiscriminately gun-happy, prematurely expending whatever munitions payloads they carry.
The Army’s Attack Guidance Matrix prevents this Coffman says though he admits it “hasn’t always been perfect.”
“Let’s say you see an individual vehicle, a truck. There are about 50 munitions in the Army’s arsenal that can destroy that truck. The Attack Guidance Matrix allows you to properly match the destructive [munition] with the type of target you’re shoot so you don’t overkill it. That goes to the ethical nature of our Army and our Joint Force. We don’t shoot tank rounds at people.”
Soldiers will be the key to divining the practicalities of employing RCVs. In addition to the ongoing physical evaluations of the prototypes and exercises, personnel from across the Army are experimenting virtually with RCVs every quarter. If the current Army budget for 2022 is approved, they may be limited to exploring RVC potential in the virtual world for some time to come.
The FY22 budget would see the Army take a $3.7 billion funding hit. Though the service is pledging to preserve funding for modernization, an estimated 10 percent reduction in research funding for the future vehicle fleet is expected. MG Coffman says he’s sure that the Army’s senior leaders and Congress will “give us exactly what we need to fight and win.”
If they do and if robotic combat vehicles offer the stealthy force multiplying capabilities advertised, enemies in-contact my be chasing Patton’s Ghosts.