The U.S. Army recently conducted the first live-fire testing with one of its prototype 30mm cannon-armed Ripsaw M5 unmanned mini-tanks, which are derived from a series of vehicles that have probably seen more time on movie screens than on the range.
The service also demonstrated the ability to operate the vehicle from a control station installed inside a modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle, highlighting the potential for pairing M5s with manned platforms in the future. This sort of "loyal wingman" type role is one potential mission set the Army has said it is looking at for the Ripsaws, or similar future designs, which it has acquired are part of a broader effort to expand the use of unmanned ground vehicles across the service.
Personnel from two different components of the Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC), the Armaments Center at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, and the Ground Vehicle Systems Center (GVSC) at the Detroit Arsenal in Michigan, together with contractors from Booz Allen Hamilton, joined together to carry out the live-fire testing. The actual shooting took place at Fort Dix in New Jersey on July 30. The service's Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross-Functional Team (NGCV CFT), part of Army Futures Command, is overseeing all testing of the M5 as part of the Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium (RCV-M) program.
“To date, there hasn’t been any testing other than in the lab,” Mike Mera, an engineer in the Remote Weapons Branch at the Armaments Center at Picatinny, said in a statement. “We want to look at the integration of a turret, which was provided as government-furnished equipment to the effort, onto the platform."
Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg has supplied the turrets, which are Protector RT40 remote weapon stations, for use on the M5s. The RT40's main armament is a 30mm XM813 automatic cannon and it also has a coaxially-mounted 7.62x51mm M240 machine gun. Launchers for smoke grenades, used to create protective smoke screens around a vehicle, are mounted on either side.
The RT40, previously known as the MCT-30, is the same turrets that the Army used on its XM1296 Stryker Dragoon 8x8 wheeled armored vehicles. In June, the service announced it had picked a different turret, from Israeli defense contractor Rafael, supplied in partnership with U.S. firm Pratt Miller, which is now a subsidiary of truck-maker Oshkosh, to arm hundreds of other Strykers as part of the Medium Caliber Weapon System (MCWS) program.
“We’re using high-speed cameras to look at the platform, cannon, and turret dynamics,” Mera, the Armaments Center engineer, further explained about the recent testing at Fort Dix. “We’ve got data collection systems downrange to collect the dispersion information, and we’ll evaluate both the performance and quality of the overall integration to make sure expectations are being met.”
Making sure this turret, which is relatively large compared to the rest of the M5, works on the vehicle is key to Army's entire vision for the RCV-M. The service has previously said that the unmanned vehicle would need to have sufficient "lethality to defeat some Tier I threats," a category that includes hostile vehicles armed with medium-caliber guns, large recoilless rifles, or multiple anti-tank guided missiles.
Howe and Howe Technologies, the Ripsaw's manufacturer, now a division of Textron, has touted the M5's ability to accommodate a wide array of potentially weighty payloads without the need for dramatic changes to the vehicle's core design in the past. "Nobody has ever done that for the U.S. Army before, making it truly scalable, so you can say this mission set requirement is going to be we are going to need a payload of 6,000 pounds, it's going to need this suspension package, it's going to deliver this payload at this time," Mike Howe, the Senior Vice President of Howe and Howe, told Military.com in 2019. "Or it's going to need a 1,000-pound [remote weapons station] system, it's going to use the same chassis, same suspension components with slight variations and you can scale it down."
The Army picked the M5 as the winner of its RCV-M competition in January 2020. However, it's important to note that this was not the first time the Army has tested Ripsaw variants, including driver-optional versions. Examples have also made appearances in multiple Hollywood blockbusters, including G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Fast and Furious 8: Fate of the Furious, and Mad Max: Fury Road. The name M5 actually refers to the fact that this is the fifth generation of the Ripsaw design, which has often been characterized most by its high speed for a tracked vehicle. Early, stripped-down versions have demonstrated the ability to get up to 65 miles per hour on improved roads.
While the M5, and its armament specifically, was the focus of the testing last week, it also highlighted how the Army might field a fleet of RCV-Ms in the future. Operators fired the weapons on the unmanned mini-tank remotely using a control station installed inside a Mission Enabling Technologies Demonstrator (MET-D) vehicle.
The MET-D is a modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle designed to, among other things, provide a mobile control center for unmanned ground vehicles. Previous Army tests showed that personnel riding in the MET-D could control two other unmanned vehicles, modified M113 armored personnel carriers, and that the entire trio could operate a single team. The MET-D also has an array of additional capabilities, including an advanced communications and data-sharing suite and cameras positioned around the hull to improve situational awareness.
“These are all prototypes,” Cristian Bara, a GVSC test engineer for the RCV-M and MET-D programs, said after the tests at Fort Dix. "This is the first system that we’ve developed where we have a gun of this caliber mounted on the robot, a completely unmanned robot, and that is also controlled from a different location or within the manned combat vehicle; it’s certainly unique."
As it stands now, the Army expects the RCV-Ms to operate under the direct control of human personnel, but with the idea that the vehicles could incorporate increasing autonomous capabilities as time goes on. “We’re taking humans out of harm’s way,” Army Colonel Jeffrey Jurand, the Project Manager for Maneuver Combat Systems at PEO Ground Combat Systems at the Detriot Arsenal, said.
“Although it’s something we’d want to avoid, if the vehicle were to be lost, we’re not losing soldiers," he continued. "We can build new vehicles.”
That last point also speaks to multiple components of the Army's broader unmanned ground vehicle plans. RCV-M is in the middle of the Army's current three-tier RCV concept. The service has said it wants this medium unmanned system to be "durable" rather than "attritable." The latter term refers to systems that are not, by design, expendable, but are cheap enough for commanders to feel more comfortable committing them to missions where the risk of losing them would preclude the use of a more exquisite platform.
The Army has said it wants the RCV-Light, or RCV-L, to be attritable. Pratt Miller and QinetiQ's Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle (EMAV), which you can read about more here, won the RCV-L competition last year.
So far, the service has not picked a prototype design for the RCV-Heavy, or RCV-H, component, which is envisioned as being closer to an unmanned light tank.
The Army expects to begin integrating its ground fleet of unmanned ground vehicles into more routine training, which can only help the service refine its requirements and develop relevant tactics, techniques, and procedures for employing them, starting next year. “Here, we’re evaluating the armaments integration, but the overall expectation is to get these into the Soldiers’ hands and perform some experimentation as part of a regular training regimen down at Fort Hood, Texas, next summer,” Mike Mera, the Remote Weapons Branch engineer, said.
All told, the Ripsaw, with its action movie pedigree, now seems to be moving closer and closer to real battlefields.
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