Planning for a Future Tank Must Consider Technology Leaps, Robotic ‘Crews’

Acronyms in this article

Republished from ARMOR, January-February 1993 edition

“’The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing wax –
Of cabbages – and kings. ... “ -Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

With apologies to Lewis Carroll and his Walrus – whose Wonderland is scarcely stranger and certainly less threatening than ours – perhaps the time has come to talk of kings: of who, or what, may be “King of the Killing Zone”1 a decade or more hence; and when the Army can hope to get its next main battle tank, the replacement for the M1 series.

The Armored Systems Modernization Program has been greatly reduced in scope, a consequence of the collapse of the Soviet threat and the Army’s successes. The logic of the program’s rational schedule to keep the armored force in step with improvements in technology has been enveloped and bypassed by the larger question of the mission to be served by making the investment required to accomplish this. Despite imminent sales of the production-ready, vastly superior M1A2 to foreign armies, the cost-effectiveness of upgrading the U.S. Army’s M1-series tanks to the M1A2 configuration is questioned. Even this logically unassailable proposal may not be fully implemented. Arguments for maintaining the unique production base for armored combat vehicles are met with skepticism in some quarters. The schedule for an M1 replacement, the future MBT, is hazy and ill defined. The only certainty is that this proposed principal armored combat vehicle will not be in the armored force much before 2010 at best.

Obviously, this is not a very satisfactory situation from the Army’s point of view, but there are aspects of it that can be turned to advantage. It eliminates the need to focus on a near-term replacement of the M1 series and permits – in fact, demands – an unconstrained long-term look at where technology is going over the next two decades. It is possible we need a major redirection in both hardware and combat-development objectives. The purpose of this article is to discuss briefly why that may be the case, suggest the direction it might take and initiate further discussion on the subject.

It is not difficult to see why in the public view the Army’s concerns with further improving our combat vehicles should be something less than a major concern to the country at large. Obviously, even after the reductions now underway, the Army’s force-in­being will be unmatched by any other on the planet. Given that training and morale are maintained, it will remain that way – unless, of course, some of its many potential adversaries improve their capabilities significantly.

Unfortunately for the complacent, some of those potential adversaries will make such improvements. New threats are inevitable in a world culture made up of a multitude of highly competitive nationalistic states existing in a capitalistic world economy based on international trade whose key drivers are high technology and technological innovation. This is the basic “engine” described by Kennedy,2 O’Neill3 and others as that which carried European civilization to world domination. It now has become global and generates change far more rapidly than in the past. To ignore it is to risk unpleasant surprises.

The purpose of our research-and-development programs over the past 50 years has been to prevent such surprises, and they largely have been successful in that regard. This has been a continuous process, and it has been possible to meet projected threats by modifying our equipment and forces in relatively small steps. When projections must be made farther ahead, however, a thorough grasp of the implications implicit in ongoing improvements in the relevant technology is likely to indicate the need for a discontinuous change in equipment and tactics.

The time involved need be no longer than the roughly two decades between the present and 2010, when a new U.S. MBT reasonably may be possible. This is comparable to the time between the two world wars. Then, as now, existing technology at the beginning of the period promised further developments that could drastically change the way armies fought. Writers such as Fuller, Hart and Mitchell, among others, discussed the potential of tanks and airplanes, but “despite this, the evidence of the initial battles of [World War II] from 1939 to 1941 would indicate that only the Germans paid serious attention to the analyses of how the technology best could be employed. However, here, too, this may be giving too much credit for intelligent military innovation with regard to technology. As the historian Tuchman has stated with respect to a much earlier war, ‘most military innovations’ [evolve] ‘from defeat, ignominy and paucity of means.’4 Certainly all these factors influenced the German situation prior to [World War II].”5

At the start of that conflict, the Allied armies paid a heavy price for their lack of “intelligent military innovation.” Their losses confirmed the wisdom of the U.S. Army Armor Branch’s founders, whose battles within the Army to overcome conservative opposition in creating the armored force have become an often-told story out of the corps’ history.

It appears to me, as I have stated in previous articles, that again we are at a major turning point in the tactics of ground warfare, the first since World War II.6 7 The course taken by the corps’ founders 60 years ago should be the model followed today. We need a critical examination of the developing technology’s implications to determine the best path to follow. The two basic questions are:

  • What technological developments could threaten current armor forces?
  • How could these offer an opportunity to a potential adversary?

The current focus for a future MBT is on developing a “super M1” in which all the characteristics of the outstanding current tank are improved. This is a conservative approach. However, its apparent virtues may be meretricious, giving a false assurance of battlefield success 20 years hence. An alternate approach to a future principal armored combat vehicle may offer much more. We need to keep in mind that “armor is a state of mind, an instinctive sense of mobility,”8 not a specific type of hardware. Much still can be done to improve the MBT in its current form. The separation of forces in “close combat” in Operation Desert Storm stretched out to more than 3,000 meters in many cases, five to six times that of World War II tank battles. This overmatch can be increased with improved ammunition such as X-ROD or the XM943 Smart Target-Activated Fire and Forget.9 Longer-range vision systems and fire-control systems also will increase vehicle lethality. Cross-country speed can be significantly increased. Improved communications such as Intervehicular Information System will improve organizational effectiveness greatly, but of course will do this regardless of the specific vehicle systems used.

Ultimately, however, when the needs of armor are reviewed,10 there are limitations inherent in the current MBT type, for which foreseeable technology currently has no good answers. Strategic (air) deployability and high survivability obviously are contradictory requirements. Passive armor is heavy; reactive armor is of limited effectiveness; and close-in, vehicle-mounted active systems are an unproven concept. The kill ranges in Desert Storm already exceed continuous intervisibility distances in many potential combat areas. And, as Desert Storm demonstrated, the ability to kill at longer range provides the greatest improvement in survivability.

This also allows a lower force density, which can further improve survivability.

Improvements in weaponry have dictated trends toward greater separation of forces and lower force density on the battlefield since warfare began. The technology now evolving will accelerate those trends. That technology – encompassing communications, artificial intelligence, robotics and related fields – is well recognized by the military but is largely independent of military budgets. It has applicability in a multitude of areas and will be implemented ubiquitously. Ultimately, it will dominate military activities as well. It promises to greatly extend “close combat” ranges; greatly reduce the density of Soldiers (but not necessarily machines!) on the battlefield; and greatly improve the survivability of those who remain.

The many military robotics programs now underway implicitly recognize this potential.11 Concept-of-employment evaluation exercises already have been conducted.12

The review of emerging technologies in the March-April 1992 issue of ARMOR discusses the application of AI and robotics to the armor mission, and indicates the eventual use of unmanned systems.13 Unmanned aerial vehicles were used successfully in Desert Storm for both intelligence-gathering and naval fire direction.

The development of AI and robotics is going to progress much faster than is generally realized. Moravec predicts human equivalence at the super­computer level by 2010 and at the personal-computer level within 20 more years.14 The trends support that projection. This is much more capability than will be needed for very effective semi-autonomous, tele-directed, robotic fighting vehicles. Current concepts for a future MBT effectively are going to be overrun by the advancing technology if it is going to take us until 2010 to field it. The logical response to this is a concept of a future MBT fully exploiting those technologies.

I would propose that the best choice for a future MBT for the 2010 timeframe is a vehicle system consisting of a manned control vehicle “armed” with a variable number of semi-autonomous, tele-directed robotic surrogates as its main weapon. The control vehicle would have about the protection levels and armament of the Bradley and greater mobility, but no more than 20 tons weight. This should be an achievable goal within the timeframe. The robotic surrogates would be configured for the mission at hand. Their primary function, however, would be to engage and destroy the enemy. They would be fighting vehicles, probably armed with missiles, and directed by Soldiers in the control vehicle. Nominally, a complete future MBT system would consist of a control vehicle and six robotic surrogates. Both functionally and in configuration, it compares to a current MBT in much the same way an aircraft carrier compares to a battleship, an equivalent change in naval systems which occurred in about the same length of time involved here.

This approach appears (to me) to retain the mobility of current systems while having the following advantages over the conventional MBT configuration:

  • Better strategic deployability due to the system’s lighter, smaller component vehicles;
  • Much longer striking range due to the ability of the robotic fighting units to attack 10 kilometers or more ahead of the control vehicle in almost all terrain conditions;
  • Higher survivability (of the control vehicle) due to being out of range of many enemy weapons;
  • Higher lethality due to the difficulty a conventional MBT will have coping with a simultaneous attack from several directions by a number of small, fast units uninhibited by risks;
  • Much greater intelligence-gathering power, due to the larger number of sensing units involved and the potential for direct input into an IVIS system;
  • Quick repair of battle damage by replacement of the robotic units;
  • System flexibility through choice of robotic units to fit specific missions;
  • Reduced chance of fratricide for the system’s manned units.

There are, of course, unsolved technical problems with this concept, too. It is not a conservative approach. The most challenging of these appears to be in the communication links between the control unit and the robotic units. Some of these are:

  • Bandwidth requirement, which may be resolved by new compression techniques;
  • Transmission security, which may be improved by techniques and algorithms based on so-called “fuzzy logic,” becoming less critical as the robotic units become more autonomous;
  • Line-of-sight transmission requirements, which could be met through using unmanned aerial vehicles, albeit with the limitations inherent in that approach.

I have no particular expertise in that area of technology, and it is one that should be addressed by an author who does have that expertise as part of a thorough critique of the proposed concept. The basic question here, as with all the technologies involved, is not what can be done now but what can we reasonably expect to be able to do in 20 years.

A broader critique of the concept than any single person can bring to the discussion obviously is critical to determining whether there is any merit in this proposed change in focus. The technology is only one aspect of the question. All aspects of employing such systems in combat should be explored. What effect would they have on tactics? How could they be employed most effectively? Would they really have the advantage over conventional systems it appears they might? What are their weaknesses? How would such systems fight others of their own kind? What are the logistic impacts? Certainly, more knowledgeable readers will recognize other topics that should also be included.

This is, I believe, a topic worth serious discussion within the Armor community. It appears to me there is reason to believe that relatively simple and inexpensive robotic vehicle systems in the hands of our potential adversaries will be a far more dangerous future threat to our forces than any number of obsolescent Russian battle tanks. Long before 2010 such systems, probably using optical-cable guidance and operated by infantry, almost certainly will become available in quantity to almost any country that wants them. Superior equipment based on the same advances in technology should be the most effective counter. A super MBT, like the battleship in World War II, may prove to be only a more expensive target.

If what has been proposed above is wrong, the reasons why it is wrong should be clearly established. If thorough discussion and analysis indicates it is right, our course should be adjusted appropriately. In that discussion, however, it should be kept clearly in mind that “Armor is a state of mind, an instinctive sense of mobility” – a corps of fighting men imbued with that spirit, not a particular type of fighting machine.


1 Kelly, Orr, King of the Killing Zone, New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1989.

2 Kennedy, Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, New York: Random House, 1987.

3 McNeill, William H., The Pursuit of Power, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

4 Tuchman, Barbara W., A Distant Mirror, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

5 Dobbs, Herbert H., “The Changing Environment – Combat Vehicle Technology in a Historical Perspective,” The Society of Automotive Engineer, May 1984, Paper #840852.

6 Ibid.

7 Dobbs, Herbert H., “Key Thrusts in the Combat Vehicle Technology Base,” U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command, Warren, MI, September 1983. Presented at the American Defense Preparedness Association combat-vehicle systems meeting Sept. 20-21, 1983, at Fort Knox, KY, from Paper #840852.

8 Foley, Thomas C., viewgraph on “Essence of Armor” from “Report to the Total Armor Force 1992,” the Chief of Armor’s report, 1992 Armor Conference, May 1992, Fort Knox, KY.

9 Naylor, Sean D., “Silver Streak,” Defense News, Springfield, VA: The Army Times Publishing Co., Sept. 14, 1992.

10 Foley.

11 Unmanned Systems, The Magazine of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, Spring 1992, Vol. 10, No. 2. Issue devoted to unmanned ground vehicle systems.

12 Hennebeck, L.M., and Powell Johnson, “Lessons for Tomorrow’s Battlefield,” Unmanned Systems, Spring 1992, Vol. 10, No.2.

13 Payne, Edward W., “The Army’s Key Emerging Technologies,” ARMOR, March-April 1992, Vol. CI, No. 2.

14 Moravec, Hans, Mind Children: the Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

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