Networking vehicles on the future battlefield

May 18, 2016
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are teaming with industry to develop capabilities for future armored combat vehicles for fast networking-on-the-move, cyber security, situational awareness, and deadly weaponry.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are teaming with industry to develop capabilities for future armored combat vehicles for fast networking-on-the-move, cyber security, situational awareness, and deadly weaponry.

By J.R. Wilson

Ground warfare has undergone evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the past 100 years. First was the arrival of tank warfare in World War I to what has been called the last true tank war at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Then came the networked battlespace since the turn of the century. The first unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) then came on the scene, and now we see an increased emphasis on networked air and ground sensors to provide unparalleled situational awareness and significant enhancements to vehicle protection and lethality.

The Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) uses the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System to test-drive a variety of new vehicle capabilities.

Those developments and future evolutions come from the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, Mich. Founded in 1946 as the Tank-Automotive Components Laboratory, TARDEC develops, integrates, and sustains cutting-edge technologies for all manned and unmanned U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) ground vehicle systems and combat service support equipment. It is the nation's laboratory for developing advanced military ground vehicle technologies, process integration expertise, and system-of-systems engineering solutions for force projection, ground vehicle power and mobility, ground vehicle robotics, ground systems survivability, and vehicle electronics and architecture.

TARDEC is focusing today on the Autonomous Mobility Applique System (AMAS) architecture for optionally manned vehicles and developing manned/unmanned teaming technologies and concepts.

"We see AMAS as a standardized way to automate mid- to large-size ground vehicles, something large enough that a human could drive it," says Alex Kade, TARDEC's chief systems architect for ground vehicle robotics. "AMAS enables a soldier to push a button and have the vehicle drive itself - or it can be installed in a fully unmanned platform never designed for a human driver. So it really offers various levels of autonomous mobility by degree, along with networking and improved situational awareness.

"Small ground vehicles are a different architecture on which we've worked using standard robotics," Kade continues. "Right now, we're trying to adopt interoperability profiles developed out of TARDEC. We're working to build a network to ensure all levels of manned and unmanned ground vehicles are coordinated seamlessly and effectively, with a man-on-the-loop, rather than in-the-loop, performing an overwatch function. That is still being developed."

With the end of major combat operations under Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan, the expectation had been a return to more traditional combat requirements.

Unexpected threats

The rise of many unexpected global threats - the would-be Islamic Caliphate in Syria and Iraq and Operation Inherent Resolve to combat it, renewed Taliban activity in Afghanistan, Russian provocations in Eastern Europe, Chinese sphere-of-influence growth in the East and South China Seas, North Korean nuclear posturing - have renewed demands on U.S. and allied ground and naval forces to respond.

As the U.S. has continued to tighten budgets and significantly draw down its forces across all services, an even greater demand is being placed on enhancing and expanding the capabilities of what remains. That is especially true for the Army and Marine Corps, which have taken some of the hardest hits and face the greatest uncertainties concerning future adversaries and potential ground combat.

"The goals are to do more for a given unit size - make them more efficient, operations safer, and warfighting more effective," Kade adds. "Convoy safety is one and several other requirements are being drafted, including lightening the load for soldiers at the squad, platoon, and company level, and improving small unit situational awareness using unmanned aerial vehicles {UAVs] and UGVs to look ahead during a mission. A lot of it has to do with how much bandwidth a particular network can support, can we share a clear situational picture and give the local unit a common operating picture."

Industry has responded with a range of technologies, from plug-ins for existing platforms to new vehicles designed for networked, situationally aware operations in extreme environments. For now, the unmanned side is still largely in the prototype and developmental phase for large vehicles, although the use of smaller robotics - which have seen considerable duty in Iraq and Afghanistan - grows and improves with smaller, faster processors enabling more and better sensors in less space.

Much of the technology related to autonomous operations - especially for vehicle situational awareness - is being adapted from the civilian automotive industry, where the move to develop driverless cars is gaining momentum worldwide. While that reduces the cost of research and development for the military, it also makes those technologies available to potential adversaries. There are significant differences, however, that have helped the U.S. maintain a lead in developing and ultimately fielding a new generation of networked, teamed manned and unmanned combat vehicles.

U.S. Army vehicle electronics researchers use the line-haul tractor to explore driver-optional capabilities, from driver-assist features to autonomous leader-follower or waypoint-navigated driving.

Allied development

Frost & Sullivan Aerospace and Defense Analyst Brad Curran says the only U.S. allies really putting research and operational efforts into ground force networking are France, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, all increasing C4 capability on manned vehicles, but not much on UGVs. Israel is a unique case, he adds, where researchers are trying drastically to increase C4ISR capability between advanced unmanned and manned ground and aerial vehicles to speed up the sensor-to-weapons kill chain.

"Certainly China is a threat because they produce a lot of the commercial technologies used in a lot of autonomous systems and trying to get American sources for those components is getting more and more difficult," Kade says. "We have to be sensitive to any back doors that might be built into COTS components. Part of the military hardening process is how to make these components more secure, robust, and reliable, which drives the process on COTS components higher.

"We have a lot of initiatives, such as small business innovation research [SBIR] and other collaborative efforts, to increase the capability and manufacturing footprint for a lot of these high-tech components. In some cases, there have been some very interesting developments using SBIRs to get industry to bid on particular projects and programs."

For the Marine Corps, which typically works together with the Army, budget constraints have forced many new and proposed programs to be delayed, canceled, or cut back - including efforts to upgrade legacy platforms and systems. Marine Corps leaders outlined the service's plan for ground forces modernization in testimony on 2 March 2016 before a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.

Among those testifying were Lt. Gen. Robert Walsh, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for combat development and integration; Brig. Gen. Joseph Shrader, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Systems Command; and William Taylor, program executive officer (PEO) of Marine Corps Land Systems.

"Ground force modernization is focused on high-priority programs such as the Amphibious Combat Vehicle (ACV) 1.1, Amphibious Assault Vehicle survivability upgrades, Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). The ability to coordinate and synchronize distributed Command and Control (C2) sensors and systems is critical to the success ashore," they told lawmakers.

Marine Corps priorities

Marine Corps priorities are G/ATOR, as well as networking on the move. "These systems will provide modern-day, interoperable technologies that support real-time surveillance, detection, targeting, and force protection, in addition to the common C2 suite required to enable the effective employment and situational awareness of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force."

The highest ground modernization priority for Marine Corps combat vehicles is replacing the old Amphibious Assault Vehicle with modern armored personnel carriers. First, the Marines want to field a personnel carrier. Later, they want improved personnel carrier capabilities, a C2 variant, and a recovery variant. The second phase of this project will examine high water speed to extend littoral ship-to-shore maneuver range. When globally sourced, the Amphibious Assault Vehicle program seeks the ability to move the assault echelons of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades.

Oshkosh Defense won a contract to build the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle last year. Marine Corps leaders want to buy 5,500 JLTVs. "JLTV is essentially the first light tactical vehicle capable of functioning as a mobile command post by itself," says John Bryant, Oshkosh Defense senior vice president for defense programs. "The C4ISR capability normally found in much larger, dedicated mobile command post vehicles are packaged into the much smaller JLTV to provide a very scalable, flexible, and reliable architecture. No light tactical vehicle has ever before been built with that C4ISR, network-ready capability.

"On the JLTV, our integrated C4ISR architecture allows the reception and transmission of video feeds from everything from our driver's vision enhancer - and uncooled FLIR - a more powerful long-range advanced scout surveillance system or from remote weapons stations," Bryant says. "That architecture enables an integrated common operating picture from a number of sensors, with images processed right in the JLTV."

Three requirements drive networking research for tactical wheeled vehicles, Bryant adds: C4ISR capability to support situational awareness, radio systems, IED defeat systems, and video feeds from infrared sensors and weapons stations; the move away from stand-alone systems to reduce space, weight, and power consumption (SWaP); and increasing cyber security requirements and C4ISR security.

The Commando four-wheeled armored vehicle from Textron Marine and Land Systems will help mechanized fighting forces bridge the gap between the JLTV and much heavier Stryker combat vehicles.

Joint operations

"Effective Joint operations against any land threat will not be possible without ready Army ground combat forces and the supporting units that enable them," said Lt. Gen. Michael E. Williamson, principal military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology in testimony before Congress in March.

"A properly sized, equipped, and ready Army makes it possible for the Joint Force to deploy in sufficient scale and duration to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and provide multiple options for resolving crises and winning decisively," Williamson told Congress.

Army leaders are emphasizing a robust network protected from cyber attacks. Key investments will include the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) "networking-on-the-move" capability throughout division, brigade, battalion and company levels. Employing military and commercial satellite connectivity and high-capacity, line-of-sight connectivity, WIN-T Increment 2 is in full rate production and fielding.

Another high priority is assured position, navigation, and timing in the absence of the GPS system for infantry and mechanized forces. Of interest are non-GPS augmentation, pseudolite transceivers (an alternative source of GPS-like signals) and anti-jam capabilities in a hub system that distributes an assured position, navigation, and timing to vehicles and foot soldiers.

Also of interest are communications security (COMSEC); offensive and defensive cyber warfare; cyber situational awareness; a new ground mobility vehicle; Stryker vehicle upgrades; mobile protected firepower; and a new armored multi-purpose vehicle.

The Ground Mobility Vehicle will fill a mobility gap in the infantry brigade combat teams. Stryker lethality upgrades will help increase mobility, electrical power, and network upgrades, including building double V-hull upgrades to increase vehicle protection from land mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)

Mobile protected firepower involves large-caliber, vehicle-mount guns to defeat enemy prepared positions, destroy enemy armored vehicles, and fight enemy combat vehicles. The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle, meanwhile, will replace legacy M113 armored personnel carriers at the brigade level and below.

The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle will fill five roles: general-purpose vehicle, mortar carrier, mission command, medical evacuation, and medical treatment.

Enabling technologies

Among the chief enabling technologies for manned and unmanned combat vehicles are small-form-factor switches able to withstand punishment in the field while increasing vehicle data throughput in a small size and weight, says Ronen Isaac, general manager of rugged Ethernet specialist MilSource in El Segundo, Calif.

"We have another program for a much larger unmanned vehicle, an off-shoot of Lockheed's Squad Mission Support System," Isaac says. "They are putting two switches on board to connect radios and computers and have spread the load out, connecting multiple sensors inside of the vehicle with separate switches to connect to the radio."

Army research investments focus on enabling warfighters to operate not only in contested environments, but also to win decisively against any potential adversary. Efforts include the Modular Active Protection System program to increase vehicle survivability and protection; electronic warfare (EW) efforts against enemy helicopters, vehicles, and foot soldiers; combat vehicle prototyping; degraded-visibility systems; and sensor protection.

Two programs Williamson and Murray termed critical to providing soldiers with the best intelligence tools and technology are an updated version of the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A) and JLTV, which provides a leap in protection, performance, and payload.

"The Army has started to work on manned and unmanned teaming with UAVs and we expect them to do the same with UGVs. Increased situational awareness and ISR for manned ground vehicles is definitely a trend for the future, such as updating Stryker and Bradley, based on the VICTORY architecture," says Frost & Sullivan's Curran. VICTORY stands for Vehicle Integration for C4ISR/EW Interoperability.

"They need more computing power, more raw power, and the ability to distribute it, because all these platforms will have better electro-optical sensors, active protection measures, counter rocket and mortar systems, improved situational awareness, and communications ability," Curran says.

VICTORY-based standardization of connector and power assets help vehicle electronics designers integrate advanced sensors as they come online through the 2020s.

Scientists at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Baltimore are working on the Advanced Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robotic System, shown above.

Sensors and communications

A key effort now is to take the new sensor and communications technologies that have been added to existing platforms during the past 10 years and develop integrated systems that are more sustainable and interoperable across platforms. One of the key enabling technologies involves the industry's vast increases in computing power.

"FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] and small-form-factor, powerful computers such as those from Mercury, leveraging commercial products such as Dell's Toughbooks and wireless technologies developed for commercial smartphones - all those mature technologies that can be reliably applied to a tactical environment," Curran says. "Compute-intensive systems, such as radars, software-defined radios, and other power-hungry systems can use the application of commercial technology."

Textron Marine and Land Systems in Slidell, La., is working on networking and situational awareness in the company's family of Commando four-wheeled armored vehicles and its driver vision enhancement and vehicle information systems. The Commando vehicle integrates a lot of growth and capability in onboard image processing, which is essential to situational awareness.

The Textron Commando combat vehicle is a test bed for vehicle networking, situational awareness, driver vision enhancement, and vehicle information systems.

"There have been several advances in video processing and graphic image processing, as well as electro-optical sensors to improve the video image," says George Ramirez, Textron senior engineering consultant. "With the advent of HD video and fusion of video images, you have an enabler for situational awareness. The resolution of the video image helps identify specific targets with long-range sensor optics for reconnaissance and surveillance missions.

"At a strategic level, in an insurgent environment, it allows you to get more detailed about what is going on around you than before and improves speed of response," Ramirez continues. "In a more conventional situation, there would be a lot of data moving about the battlespace and the whole operation would accelerate quite a bit."

As how manned and unmanned ground vehicles will deal with future threats, Larry Jepson, Textron's director of engineering for land systems, sees a muddled picture.

"The whole Iraq/Afghan insurgent effort has been a very, very strong force on how the U.S. Army does things and the equipment it needs, Jepson says. "That is a fundamentally different environment than what we were looking at in the 1980s and '90s.

The Marine Corps, Army, and Pentagon researchers continue to experiment with UGVs to extend battlefield situational awareness, but the fielding of unmanned ground platforms continues to lag behind UAVs and naval unmanned surface and underwater vehicles, Jepson says. End-user skepticism about UGVs also reflects similar initial doubts about UAVs and UUVs.

"Money is tight, forces are shrinking, and maintenance is being deferred," Frost & Sullivan's Curran says. "Incremental improvements to utilize new technologies, based on standards-based computers and connections, will be the wave of the future. There will be fewer but more capable platforms, based on less-expensive, non-proprietary, standardized equipment and architectures."

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