WASHINGTON — The first stab at building prototypes for what the U.S. Army intends to be an innovative, leap-ahead Next-Generation Combat Vehicle and its robotic wingman will be ready for soldier evaluations in fiscal 2020, according to the service’s new cross-functional team lead for NGCV.

Subsequently, the Army will rapidly produce follow-on prototypes in FY22 and again in FY24, each taking lessons learned from the previous prototypes and refining capabilities. Soldiers will have the chance to heavily evaluate the prototypes at every stage.

Brig. Gen. David Lesperance is in charge of mapping the Army’s plan to develop and field an NGCV, one of the top six modernization priorities laid out by the service. Cross-functional teams, or CFT, were recently formed for each of the priorities and will reside within the Army’s new Futures Command, expected to stand up in the summer.

The CFT has decided to focus on two lines of effort, Lesperance told a small group of reporters in a March 15 phone call. The first line is to build a robotic combat vehicle, “which is an optimally unmanned close combat platform;” the second is the NGCV, an optionally manned vehicle that will get soldiers to a point of lethal advantage in close combat, he said.

[US Army’s next-gen combat vehicle prototyping to be accelerated]

The team is executing a detailed proof-of-concept phase to design, test and redesign prototypes that will help the Army define requirements that don’t just procure a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle or an Abrams tank replacement, but will bring to life something completely new and innovative, Lesperance said.

“Everybody asks the question, is it going to replace the Bradley, or is it going to replace the tank?” Lesperance said. “Bottom line at this point: That is not a useful starting point for the conversation.”

Lesperance was hesitant to delve too far into any possible required attributes of the vehicle — the Army is just at the beginning stages.

Lesperance noted the concept designs from industry partners have yet to be delivered, adding: “I don’t want to stifle creativity nor predict what may come back to us.”

He said the team was reaching out to some nontraditional design and engineering sources to look at the problem in a different way. “We are providing much more broad or higher-level requirements to allow industry to come back with a little bit more of their own innovation and creativity.” Those designs are forthcoming, Lesperance said.

“We are looking at an NGCV that really gives us leap-ahead capability from that which we have now. We are looking at critical-enabling and potentially disruptive capability,” he said. That includes a deep dive at reducing weight and shifting the size-weight-power paradigm.

The Army wants next-gen vehicles to be strategically deployable and to operate in dense urban terrain, Lesperance said. The team is looking at robotics and autonomous systems, directed energy and energetics that have lethal and nonlethal protection applications, power generation, and management. These can serve a whole platform’s needs via alternative energy and vehicle protection suites, among a variety of other capabilities that could come from traditional or nontraditional sources.

For the robotic combat vehicle, the Army will take lessons learned from aerial manned-unmanned teaming, which is a capability that has been fielded for several years to fill the armed aerial reconnaissance role left open when the service retired its Kiowa Warrior helicopters.

Teaming a manned and robotic vehicle “opens up a lot of possibilities for different tactics, techniques and procedures,” Lesperance said. Making contact with the enemy first using a robotic vehicle gives a unit leader the time to make better battlefield decisions, he said.

Will the U.S. Army start placing robots in combat formation?

If this sounds familiar, it is. The concept aligns well with the Army’s robotics and autonomous systems strategy released more than a year ago. Lesperance confirmed that plans for robotics as part of the NGCV program are “very nested” with that strategy.

Lesperance said the prototypes will be built based on what is technologically available that keeps the Army on its timeline, at least for the initial prototype, and puts capability in soldiers’ hands to evaluate.

“We are looking at entering shakedown testing in later 2019, and in early 2020 into units’ hands for evaluation; and informed by those experiments, we will feed that back into the prototyping process into Phase 2 and Phase 3 and beyond,” he said.

The team will also conduct early experimentation on the number of armored soldiers that would be optimal inside a vehicle designed to operate in dense urban terrain, Lesperance said.

A major factor that killed the Ground Combat Vehicle was the service tried to build a vehicle around fitting an entire squad together and the platform quickly grew to an unmanageable size.

Based on early simulation experimentation and live soldier experimentation, moving into the next six to 12 months, the service will be better informed on the number of soldiers per vehicle it will work into requirements, Lesperance said.

The Army already kicked off a major prototyping effort in October to develop the NGCV by awarding an industry team a contract to build two demonstrators by FY22.

Fiscal 2019 budget documents show the timeline has been accelerated and prototypes could be finished as early as 2020.

The Army’s Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, or TARDEC, awarded the contract to a team consisting of SAIC — the team lead — as well as Lockheed Martin, Moog Inc., GS Engineering, Hodges Transportation and Roush Industries.

At the time, TARDEC asked the team to design a vehicle for a two-person crew and six soldiers, which equates to a split squad or a fires team in the back.

And according to Army Secretary Mark Esper, the door is open for foreign companies to build a new combat vehicle for the Army. Lesperance said the team is engaging with industry worldwide on what kind of capabilities are out there that meet the Army’s vision for an NGCV.

Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.

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