The new vehicle, officially known as the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV), will provide a successor to the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, an armored combat system designed to safely carry a squad of six soldiers to the place in a battle zone where they dismount.
Bradley has been repeatedly upgraded since it first joined the force and the Army plans to continue buying the latest version until OMFV is ready for production. But land warfare has become a lot more lethal since its introduction, thanks to the appearance of everything from smart weapons to unmanned drones, so finding a successor is an urgent priority.
In fact, the sense of urgency was so strong that the Army tried too hard in its first effort to get a competition started. It now concedes it was overly aggressive in the capabilities and timeline it was seeking. So at the beginning of 2020, it started over.
The new approach is a break from tradition, relying heavily on digital tools to avoid the expense of prototyping until the Army is confident it has a design that meets its needs—with growth potential to cope with a constantly evolving threat.
The “cross functional team” pursuing a next-gen combat vehicle values as its top priority, bar none, survivability. Modern battlefields are so dangerous that none of the vehicle’s other capabilities matter much if you can’t first provide soldiers on board with the protection needed to stay alive.
The number-two priority is mobility, which is why the vehicle will be tracked. It has to be able to maneuver quickly in any type of terrain from desert sands to deep mud. Mobility contributes to survivability, so it isn’t hard to see why those are the top performance priorities.
The number-three priority is growth, meaning the ability to be upgraded as threats evolve. Bradley has been adapted over time to threats as diverse as antitank weapons and improvised explosive devices, but sometimes the response to one danger impedes effectiveness against other dangers.
The remaining priorities, in descending order of importance, are lethality, weight, logistics, transportability, manning and training. The Army hasn’t disclosed how it will address each performance feature in the solicitation, but in the course of engineering key objectives will need to be reconciled to arrive at an optimum mix of capabilities.
This is where past efforts to replace Bradley have tended to break down. The more armor you have the better the protection; but the weight of armor impinges on mobility and transportability to the battle zone, and it also impacts logistics because heavier vehicles need more fuel.
New tools are appearing constantly that can model and simulate how different approaches to the vehicle’s design would perform in an operational setting.
Vendors break out into two basic groups. One group favors the application of new ideas to traditional combat vehicle concepts. The other, non-traditional, group is thinking more expansively about how the challenge of moving soldiers across the battlefield might be accomplished.
New design shops are more interested in conceptualizing the future fighting vehicle than actually building it, so the iterative process the teams have laid out to get to a winner provides considerable latitude for assimilating new ideas.
Having largely completed the initial market research phase, it is now moving into a design phase in which up to five vendors will be funded to generate “rough” digital designs of what the future vehicle might look like. Three of those five will then be selected to generate detailed digital designs that can be precisely modeled to evaluate performance.
It is only after that third phase and the selection of a favored design that the Army will spend money to develop hardware prototypes in the fourth phase—prototypes that will transition into low-rate production when their merits are demonstrated.
This isn’t the way things are usually done. It has been an article of faith for years that early prototyping can unlock valuable insights when developing combat systems. However, prototyping is expensive, and digital engineering has now advanced to a point where the real-world performance of designs can be modeled and simulated with great fidelity.
That is the path the Army has chosen to follow. In contrast to buying small lots of new combat systems and sending them into operational environments to see how they fare, team is more interested in finding the one optimal solution for service’s future needs.
The team believes the most promising way to get to that outcome is by opening the aperture wide for novel ideas, and then see what verdict the modeling and simulation process renders with regard to their virtues. Soldiers will figure prominently in testing the new ideas, because people are what OMFV is all about. They need to have a say in how they will go to war.
Instead of a traditional three-man crew, team is looking at potential designs were, “you have two humans with a virtual crew member, sharing the functions of gunning, driving, and commanding.”
Field tests and computer models have convinced the Army that future armored vehicles can fight with just two human crew, assisted by automation, instead of the traditional three or more,
The OMFV is scheduled to enter service in 2028 to replace the M2 Bradley, which has the traditional trio of commander, gunner, and driver. Both vehicles can also carry infantry as passengers, and the Army envisions the OMFV being operated by remote control in some situations.
The Army has already field-tested Bradleys modified to operate with a two-soldier crew instead of the usual three and “we’ve got those Mission-Enabling Technology Demonstrators, or MET-D, actually maneuvering as part of the Robotic Combat Vehicle test.”
With the benefit of modern automation, those two-soldier crews have proven able to maneuver around obstacles, look out for threats, and engage targets — without being overwhelmed by too many simultaneous demands. “They’re doing that both in simulation and real world.
“You have two humans with a virtual crewmember that will remove cognitive load from the humans and allow the functions of gunning, and driving, and commanding the vehicle to be shared between humans and machines.”
“We think that the technology has matured to the point where this third virtual crewmember will provide the situational awareness to allow our soldiers to fight effectively.”
The defense contractors who would have to build the vehicle – even if a DoD team designs it – aren’t so sure. Some industry participants maintain “A two-man crew will be overwhelmed with decision making, no matter how much AI is added”
For at least eight decades, combat vehicle designers have faced a di-lemma. A smaller crew allows a smaller vehicle, one that’s cheaper, lighter, and harder to hit – and if it is hit, puts fewer lives at risk.
But battlefield experience for decades has shown that smaller crews are easily overwhelmed by the chaos of combat. Historically, an effective fighting vehicle required a driver solely focused on the path ahead, a gunner solely focused on hitting the current target, and a commander looking in all directions for the next target to attack, threat to avoid, or path to take. Many vehicles added a dedicated ammunition handler and/or radio operator as well.
A “virtual crewmember” could solve this dilemma — but will the technology truly be ready by the late 2020s?
Army started experimenting with Robotic Combat Vehicles that had no human crew aboard at all. The long-term goal is to have a single soldier oversee a whole wolfpack of RCVs, but the current early prototypes are operated by remote control, with a crew of two: a gunner/sensor operator and a driver.
The Army has been impressed by how well these teleoperated RCVs have performed in field trials. If two soldiers can effectively operate a vehicle they’re not even in, might two be enough to operate a manned vehicle as well?
The other piece of the experimental RCV unit is the mothership, an M2 Bradley with its passenger cabin converted to hold the teleoperators and their workstations. These modified M2s, called MET-Ds, also operate with just two crewmembers, a gunner and a driver – without a separate commander, and they have done so successfully in combat scenarios.
The Army is not just adding automation to individual vehicles. It’s seeking to create combined units of manned and unmanned war machines that share data on threats and targets over a battlefield network, allowing them to work together as a seamless tactical unit that’s far more than the sum of its parts.
“This vehicle will not fight alone, but as part of a platoon, a company, a battalion. “The shared situational awareness across that formation will transform the way we fight.”
The M2 Bradley has been repeatedly upgraded since its introduction, but after 40 years in service, the vehicle is reaching its limits.
These ongoing experiments are the latest in a long series. “As far back as 1991, the Army was looking at reducing the number of crew members. “Back then, the tech had not matured to the point that it would allow a two-person crew.”
But that was then, Three decades later, with the rise of the iPhone, Google Maps, and a booming business in artificial intelligence, the times and the technology have changed.
“Since then, our 360-degree situational awareness has vastly improved,” Instead of peering through periscopes, gun-sights, and slit-like bulletproof windows – or just sticking their head out the hatch and hoping there’re no snipers around – crews can look at wide-screen displays fed by multiple cameras and other sensors mounted all around their vehicle.
Automated target recognition systems can analyze the sensor feeds in real time, identify potential threats and targets, alert the crew to their presence, and even automatically bring the main gun to bear, but the Army still requires a human decision to fire.
Waypoint navigation algorithms, obstacle sensors, and automated collision avoidance routines can ease the task of maneuvering 40-plus-tons of metal around the battlefield.
Could all this technology unburden the human crew, allowing just two soldiers to operate a combat vehicle, instead of needing one solely focused on driving, a second solely focused on shooting, and a third giv-ing direction to the other two? The Army now thinks so.
That said, the newly released Request for Proposal is a draft, being circulated specifically to get feedback on what’s feasible. If too many companies say the two-person crew won’t work, the Army can still change that requirement before the final RFP comes out.
Vendors are learning, through their experimentation, that it’s a high-risk requirement.”But like anything else involving technology: Given time — and money — it’s achievable.”
Industry sources say the Army shouldn’t enter its own in-house design team in the race to replace the M2 Bradley, but top Army officials are confident the team would stimulate, not stifle, much-needed innovation and competition
After three failed attempts to replace the M2 Bradley troop carrier with better tech for modern warfare, the Army has a bold new strategy – one that could include a DoD design team competing head-to-head against contractors.
But why bother jumping through all these administrative hoops to get the DoD team in the mix, when other top-priority programs, from high-speed helicopters to precision-guided rifles, rely entirely on industry?
There isn’t much precedent to cite a direct example of something similar occurring. But armored combat vehicles are a uniquely military design problem with few equivalents in the commercial world.
“If you look at small arms, while we do have expertise in-house, there’s a commercial industry that is very, very similar to the small arms that we’re procuring for the military.
“If you look at aviation, while there’s obviously some very important differences with military aircraft versus civilian ones, there’s an awful lot of similarities.”
“On the combat vehicle side, they’re aren’t as many similarities. “The engines that we use in commercial trucking can’t survive under armor without cooling…. Our suspension systems are not unlike some commercial construction equipment, but we drive our vehicles at much higher speeds and are generally much heavier.”
Army scientists and engineers have spent decades studying everything from engines to armaments, from automated targeting systems to complete concepts for new vehicles. “We’ve got DoD folks that are really experts on combat vehicles and have good ideas. “This phase primarily is generating ideas… potentially some innovation from inside our own halls.”
A DoD team might compete in later phases of the program – not just in developing “preliminary digital designs,” the subject of the draft RFP, but potentially in building a physical prototype vehicle as well. Actual mass production, however, would definitely be up to the private sector.
DoD has got the ability to build prototypes. “The challenge would be the transition from an EMD [Engineering & Manufacturing Development]-like prototype into a production asset. That’s something, typically, DoD has not done.
So the DoD team might need help crafting a sufficiently detailed design that a contractor could actually build a working vehicle from it. Conversely, the manufacturer would have to set up their supply chain and production line without the benefit of having done a prototype beforehand.
With the new mandate for a two-man crew and the proposal for a DoD design team industry is saying “just when the Army has finally asked industry to come up with a solution rather than dictate it to them, it seems they have signaled what they really want to do is dictate the solution.”
Some in industry are not in agreement with the Army on the acquisition strategy. They maintain DoD thinks there are companies that would welcome the DoD business to mass-produce a DoD design, and they are skeptical of a build-to-print proposal when the company doing the production has little invested in the design.
But Army officials have argued that they’ve set the competition up to let industry participate at minimal risk. Industry would submit a proposal, and then DoD is paying them for their initial design.
But what if a company feels it’s not competitive without investing its own Independent Research and Development (IRAD). That’s a question for industry, but that is not the intent of the program. “We’re trying to reduce risk for industry.”
The Army wants a wide range of competitors – definitely from industry, but perhaps in-house as well – to offer the widest possible range of ideas. OMFV could resemble a Bradley rebuilt with the best available 21st century tech, or it could look nothing like a 20th century Infantry Fighting Vehicle at all.
Army says industry has a choice. “Industry can use a traditional IFV model… or industry can provide a different manner in which we will transport our infantrymen on the battlefield.
We are probably going to see a lot of unique solutions to the problem.”
The biggest technological innovation the Army’s seeking: replacing the three-man crew used in the Bradley – and almost every comparable IFV worldwide – with just two crew members assisted by AI. Why the Army thinks that’s achievable, and why some are skeptical is going to be a drama.
The full order of the priorities for the OMFV characteristics is as follows: