Robots Take Center Stage in US Army Training Exercise

As part of the NGCV program, the US Army will test robotic combat vehicle prototypes / PRESSLAB via Shutterstock

 

Defense News reported that the US Army conducted a training exercise at the Yakima Air Base to assess the capability of robots to undertake dangerous and dirty work in combat zones. Gen. Mike Murray, commander of the US Army Futures Command, visited the Yakima Training Center, where the exercise was held, in the company of a robotics engineer from the University of Texas. General Murray wanted to see for himself the progress made by the different combat units that are evaluating robotic breach capabilities as part of the 2019 Bayonet Focus and  Joint Warfighting Assessment (JWA). 

Futures Command Tasked with Modernizing the US Army

Murray’s command is tasked with modernizing the US Army by focusing on six priorities: long-distance precision firing, next-generation combat vehicles (NGCV), future vertical lift capability, computer networks, air and missile defenses, and soldier lethality.

As part of the NGCV program, the US Army will test robotic combat vehicle prototypes. Murray claimed technology is not the main problem but determining the usefulness of robots and how they can be used optimally on the battlefield. Speaking to Defense News, Murray said hardware is not the primary issue but understanding the weaknesses and strengths of the technology. He added that robotics is not the hard part but determining how soldiers should interact, adapt, and perform their tasks now that they have robotic capability. 

The US Army continues to add new complications to the breach exercises, including flying a Black Hawk helicopter integrated with two unmanned aircraft systems called Air-Launched Effects that can monitor and reconnoiter enemy terrain thousands of feet from the air. The technology is still in its nascent stages but is included in efforts to modernize the US Army’s vertical lift capability. 

Bravo Company Made the Breach Obstacles

The Bravo Company of the 23rd Brigade Engineering Battalion was tasked to make the breach obstacles and how these may be overcome by the robots. Bravo Company also took the task of finding out how the robots, while in the line of fire, can make their way through obstacles, such as minefields, concertina wire, and anti-tank trenches, and clear the way for assaulting enemy territory. 

To create the breach, two surrogate NGCVS (a Humvee and an M113 armored personnel carrier) was used by Bravo Company in securing the area and providing suppression fire. After suppressing enemy fire, two robotic assault breacher vehicles (ABVs) began tackling the obstacles. 

The first ABV was equipped with a mine-clearing line charge, and cleared a path for the second ABV by inserting stakes in the ground so that the trailing ABV will know where to maneuver and use a blade in filling a tank trench. Once the ditch was filled, an assault force can now be used in attacking enemy lines. 

 

The first breach exercise lasted two-and-a-half hours but the second exercise was shorter by thirty minutes, proving that robots can establish a breach in about the same time that it takes a manned operation to accomplish one.  

Electronic Signatures of the Robotic Vehicles Could Pose a Problem in the Future 

A problem that could possibly hamper the deployment of robotic vehicles is the electronic signature that they give off. Lt. Col. Jonathan Fursman, commanding officer of the 2nd Infantry Division Stryker Brigade Combat Team, said electronic signatures cannot be avoided in a robotic breach and jamming will become a threat. 

The robots’ noisy signatures and the enemy’s capability to jam these signatures is a troubling issue, claimed Fursman. He said his unit tried to deceive enemy forces by generating a larger signature on the far side of the plateau to give the impression that a massive formation was taking place in another location.  

A bigger problem for the US Army is the possibility that an 80-ton robot might become inoperable while it is still breaching an obstacle. Capt. Nichole Rotte, the commander of Bravo Company, said that they have come up with two TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures) in case they lose robotics capability. These include bringing in operators aboard Stryker vehicles who will manually move the trucks through a breach.

A problem that could possibly hamper the deployment of robotic vehicles is the electronic signature that they give off / daseaford via Shutterstock

 

The US Army has made enormous strides in this field in recent years. For instance, in 2017, the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, showed off robotic combat vehicle capability by developing a robotic wingman within the maneuver force and integrating a tank formation with robotic capability. 

On the other hand, the Alabama National Guard used a reconnaissance vehicle in launching a quadcopter that is immune to the effects of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. The quadcopter will be used in monitoring the presence of chemical agents in an area. A Puma unmanned aircraft system was also deployed to scout obstacles in the path of the robotic vehicles. A smoke screen was also installed by the Alabama National Guard using a robotic Polaris MRZR vehicle that could support a thick and continuous plume for half an hour. 

The training exercise also included mounted and dismounted electronic capabilities for spotting enemy locations and deploying anti-tank weapons, such as single multipurpose attack munitions or kamikaze drones.