As befitting such cutting-edge military machines, the Army testers have dubbed these "Hunter" and the other "Killer." They are being put through the paces at an Army exercise called the Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX), held last spring. The 10-day event involves scores of real-world tests of new technologies that the Army says it needs to keep up with the modernizing militaries of China, Iran and Russia.
Hunter and Killer provide a glimpse into what future battles might look like, and what combat vehicles will be asked to do. The lessons learned now will be applied to vehicles the Army hopes to field in 2020, Army officials tell Autoblog.
The first thing that becomes obvious when examining these machines is that the Army is not counting on infantry troops to be able to drop close to their mission targets. "We've all grown used to an environment where we've enjoyed air superiority," says Maj. Andrew Forney, branch chief of the Maneuver, Aviation, Soldier Division, Army Capabilities Integration Center at Fort Sill. "We're having a lot of discussions on what we do if we can't rely on that."
Modern antiaircraft missiles made by Russia and China have increasingly long ranges, so infantry parachuting into combat will have to travel farther to get to the fight. That means small off-road vehicles will have to be dropped with them, to help ferry the soldiers and the 80 pounds of gear they each carry closer to the action.
It's no coincidence that Polaris ATVs are being used for this test. They have a pedigree within the military because of their use by Special Operations forces. The company even has a division called Polaris Defense to focus on this market. Special Operations forces also use the General Dynamics' Flyer as an off-road vehicle of choice.
However familiar, the Army cannot just adopt these militarized dune buggies since Special Operations Command has some specific uses and requirements for their ATVs that the Army doesn't share.
SpecOps vehicles carry six soldiers, not the nine needed to transport an entire squad of infantry. SpecOps also demands a vehicle that the troops (called operators) can use as a fighting platform, so they have weapons mounts. They carry extra, secret communications equipment. And while some Army helicopters can carry these vehicles, the versions fielded today aren't designed to be dropped from airplanes.
Neither Hunter nor Killer are the final design that will appear in the field in 2020. A large-scale acquisition program will settle that in the future. But the gear that the vehicle has to carry, and the rules that govern how frontline soldiers use it, are being developed now.
Let's get back to that hypothetical airdrop. The Army troops have landed, stowed their parachutes and loaded up their 4x4s. They are now ready to move toward the enemy's position. To get there unnoticed — and to be "noticed" means being targeted by lethal barrages of enemy artillery — requires air defenses targeted at enemy drones.
Russia used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to spot Ukrainian forces during their recent conflict, a grim lesson that U.S. military planners took to heart. Knocking down UAVs is now a cottage industry, and more than a dozen drone-killing systems tested at MIFIX 2017 proved this interest is still strong. The system that got the most attention was a 5-kilowatt laser mounted on a Stryker vehicle, which officials say torched more than 12 drones during the exercises. A 10-kW version is to be tested in November.
But the laser is too big for the buggies needed to drop into combat with airborne forces. For scale, the Army says Hunter/Killer has a maximum load of 1,500 pounds — compare that to the Army's current Stryker vehicle weighing almost 20 tons. So these small vehicles need something else to counter snooping unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Killer vehicle has specialized radar and a laser range finder that soldiers can use to detect and track drones as they get close. Some of these systems have been adapted from equipment developed to track incoming mortar rounds.
The system is largely automated. When the drone is spotted, the soldiers can jam the communications between a UAV and its operator, a bit of electronic warfare pushed out to the front line of a battle.
Giving a commander the tools in hand to make a quick decision could be the key to victory, or even survival. "What we're excited about is that these platforms allow these capabilities to be pushed down to the tactical level," says Michael Murray, battle operations software suite team program lead for the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.
The main mission of these light, air-dropped forces is to find the enemy and direct long-range attacks against their air defenses. That could mean missions such as disabling GPS signal jamming, directing long-range cruise missile attacks against command centers, seizing airports or crippling antiaircraft missile batteries. These actions will open up the skies to warplanes, friendly drones and closer airdrops of reinforcements or supplies.
This is the art of what the military calls "precision fires." Army troops need to be able to direct long-distance attacks from their own branch, or from the Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. At MFIX 2017, the Hunter vehicle was kitted out with an automated system that can ease the process of asking for this support.
The soldiers in the vehicle also had a live video feed showing them what U.S. drones were seeing. This kind of tech is already standard at headquarters and is becoming standard in many large vehicles, but is also needed by those close to the action — airborne divisions.
"After previous exercises, we heard, 'We love these capabilities, but it'd be great if they were on a vehicle that is suited for a light division," says Murray. "We want to arm that young leader with things that let him operate decentralized, with all the tools and situational awareness he needs to make decisions in real time, at the tactical edge and not at divisional HQ."