WASHINGTON — The US Army is planning to demonstrate a host of combat vehicles in the role of robotic wingmen in 2017 at Fort Benning, Georgia, as it prepares to enter an official program of record in 2023.

The service is already successfully teaming unmanned and manned aircraft in the field, pairing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters with Shadow and Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft to fill the role of an armed scout helicopter after the Army retired its OH-58 Kiowa Warriors.

But teaming vehicles on the ground poses more challenges such as safely navigating around stationary or moving obstacles and rolling over rough terrain. The Army has a lot of thinking and experimenting ahead of itself to iron out concepts for today's and tomorrow's battlefield. 

One of the efforts planned for the summer of 2017 at Fort Benning will assess whether it's possible to give the weapons loader on an Abrams tank the responsibility to control unmanned air and ground vehicles by equipping the tank with an automatic loader, Lt. Gen. Michael Lundy, the commanding general at the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, said during a teleconference with reporters this month.

Lundy noted an automatic loader, which is a proven capability not yet fielded, would be integrated into an Abrams in order to take the burden off the weapons loader and free that crew member for unmanned systems operations duty.

The plan takes what the Army has and, without introducing new force structure, should supplement the Abrams with increased situational awareness among other capabilities, Lundy said.

The demonstration would then lead to a decision on whether the Army should require a product improvement to add an automatic loader to the Abrams, he said. Then more operational decisions would be made such as what a manned-unmanned teaming arrangement with Abrams would look like.

"What does that mean for tethered UAS, ground vehicles that are attached to the Abrams tank? We really got to do some more experimenting before we get to those kinds of decisions," Lundy said. "How do you use those kinds of capabilities and how does it increase either the lethality or the protection or mobility of said combat vehicle."

Also this summer at Fort Benning, the Army will conduct a joint capability technology demonstration of the robotic wingman concept using Humvees. The second phase, to be conducted later at an unspecified time, will demonstrate the same capability using M113s, according to a set of slides used during a presentation at a capabilities information exchange between industry and Army Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Eustis, Virginia, this month.

The demonstrations will feed into the development of the Army’s planned programs of record for both a semiautonomous robotic wingman starting in 2023 and an autonomous version that would come online in 2035, the slides noted.

The semiautonomous wingman would take existing combat vehicles and give them leader-follower capability, waypoint navigation, and obstacle detection and avoidance. The autonomous wingman will be a purpose-built platform and have fully autonomous navigation capability and teleoperated weapons.

The efforts in the robotic wingman arena are part of a bigger Army strategy to gradually bring more autonomy, artificial intelligence and common control of unmanned systems into soldier formations over the course of 25 years. The Army will move from having to keep constant vigilance over robotic systems to developing relationships where the unmanned move alongside a war fighter on a mission, much like a hunter and his bird dog.

The Army Capabilities Integration Center unveiled a version of its robotics and autonomous systems strategy in October.

The strategy identifies five capability objectives that will guide science and technology research and development and how unmanned aircraft and unmanned ground systems are used.

The Army wants to use unmanned systems to increase situational awareness, lighten both the soldier’s physical and cognitive loads, bolster force sustainment, and help units move and maneuver on the battlefield while protecting soldiers from threats.

The service plans to submit a draft capabilities development document (CDD) for Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC) review in January on the Squad Multi-Purpose Equipment Transport, which is a ground robotic vehicle that will be able to carry gear, supplies and equipment for an entire squad. The Army also plans to submit a draft CDD for leader-follower automated resupply in February.

A CDD for a robotic wingman will be needed in 2019, according to the Army's slides.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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