By late 2019, the U.S. Army could field up to three manned and unmanned combat vehicles to help determine the future of heavy army fighting vehicles. The Next Generation Combat Vehicle will replace Cold War era fighting vehicles with a new, modern design meant to kit out tank and mechanized infantry units with a 21st century armored chariot.
Army officials have laid out the groundwork for developing the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, or NGCV. The NGCV will replace the M-1 Abrams main battle tank and M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFV). Both the Abrams and Bradley, while highly successful, were introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Army regularly updates both with the latest technologies, including new ammunition, anti-shaped charge reactive armor, remote-controlled weapons systems, advanced networking and communications, and ballistic shields for the crew. Still, after 40 years, it’s beginning to make more sense to replace rather than continue to upgrade.
The focus on replacing the Army’s heavier armored vehicles is a departure from a 2016 statement by an Army official who stated NGCV, “might be an Infantry Fighting Vehicle, but it might be a single combat vehicle that replaces the Abrams, the Bradley, potentially the [light tank] and even the [wheeled armored vehicle]. It could be a family of vehicles very similar to the original FCS program."
by late fiscal year 2019 the Army will introduce one manned and two unmanned combat vehicles for testing by the service’s Test and Evaluation Command. The three vehicles will then be assigned to an operational combat unit around 2021. By 2023, seven manned and 14 unmanned vehicles will repeat the schedule, hopefully winnowing the process down to both manned and unmanned systems ready for mass production.
The U.S. Army is making it pretty clear that the manned and unmanned NGCVs will work together on the battlefield. While the manned vehicles will be larger and carry a tank gun or squad of infantry troops, the unmanned vehicle will be considerably smaller, but still carry a considerable punch. The unmanned vehicle could be used as a scouting vehicle, traveling ahead of a mixed armored task force. Once it makes with the enemy, the unmanned vehicles could identify their positions, attack them with direct fire, and pass their coordinates to nearby field artillery and air support. This buys the manned component time to form a plan, get into position, and launch an attack on an enemy that has had little time to prepare.
The 2019 deadline for a manned vehicle means the first generation NGCV will likely be something relatively new but already in production. The first generation vehicle may not look anything like the final vehicle, but would be a placeholder that incorporates at least some of the technologies the Army is looking for. Candidates with tracks include the , the , and the . Wheeled vehicles could include the , , and the huge, 40 ton . The first generation vehicle could even be the , which includes two to five times more protection for crew and infantrymen riding inside, along with a longer hull to increase the number of mounted infantry to eight.
What will the Army eventually end up with? NGCV will probably be a tracked, 50 to 60 ton common chassis available in both tank and infantry fighting vehicle flavors. The vehicle will have traditional passive steel, composite, and even depleted uranium armor, complemented with an active protection system to protect it from tank gun rounds, anti-tank missiles, and rocket propelled grenades. It will be at least as mobile as the M1 Abrams, be transportable by the Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter, and generate a large amount of onboard electricity to support lasers, railguns, and possibly some sort of future cloaking device. It will be relatively roomy inside, with a lot of space for new tech as it becomes available.
The tank version will carry a 120 mm gun, or larger, for engaging the enemy with direct fire, with the added ability to engage targets outside line of sight with gun-fired missiles. An automatic loader for the gun is likely, reducing the crew to just three. The infantry fighting vehicle will be longer than the tank and carry a crew of three plus nine infantrymen. It will have have just as much protection as the tank version—after all, it may not be a tank, but it must protect even more soldiers while exposed to many of the same threats. The IFV will be equipped with a 35-40-millimeter gun and, for engaging tanks at long range, a pair of or even the heavier .
NGCV is the Army’s third attempt to replace the Abrams tank and the Bradley IFV. During the 2000s, the cancelled Future Combat Systems program spent $18.1 billion without fielding a single vehicle. The NGCV program path seems both rapid and fairly realistic, with a focus previous failed programs lacked. If all goes according to plan, by the mid-2020s the Army could finally, at long last replace both the vaunted Abrams and Bradley with new vehicles capable of destroying the enemy and keeping friendly soldiers alive amid the havoc of 21st century combat.