Battle tank’s aerial wingman


Armoured warfare is known for several shortcomings in irregular terrain, and that has plagued many tank commanders since the very conception of the weapon. One recent example can be found in Syria where the ‘invincible’ Leopard 2 of the Turkish armed forces suffered heavily from land mines, anti-tank missiles and close rocket shots.

A similar pattern occurred in Ukraine, where an analysis from the IISS Military Balance has shown that as many as 30% of Ukrainian tanks and 56% of their armoured personnel carriers were destroyed between 2013 and 2016.

Put simply, tanks losses in modern conflicts remain a problem, especially when such losses are caused by cheap and innovative methods. Close infantry support has been since WW2 a classic way of countering such weaknesses, but the rise of unmanned systems on the battlefield might bring its own answer to the issue.

French defense manufacturer Nexter, for example, unveiled in February at IDEX (Abu Dhabi) its intention to tighten the integration of the Leclerc tank with Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Equipped with two drones that could be controlled from inside or outside the tank, it could anticipate threats with several sensors (camera, IR sensor, laser rangefinder). Tanks would therefore be less exposed and able to easily track lurking rocketeers or hidden targets. The first drone, called IXOS XX, would be connected to the tank via cable. Resistant to moderate winds, it has a speed of 10km/h. The second one, the XOS LG, would have limited endurance (30 minutes) but could fly up to 40 km/h.

In addition, the UAVs could work in pair with the Nerva land robot (also provided by Nexter) which aims to detect mines and IEDs laying on the tank’s path. These devices would then be operated by a single man inside the tank with the help of a tablet and a monitoring helmet, while personnel at the back could follow the process and react accordingly. Going further, Nexter recently signed a deal with French UAV manufacturer Drone Volt, to link the heavier Hercules 20 to the Nerva.

On the other side of the Atlantic, AeroVironment has chosen an even more aggressive approach by integrating its Shrike 2 UAS and its Switchblade Tactical Missile Systems into General Dynamics Land Systems [GDLS] vehicles. This collaboration is developed as part of the US Army’s “Next Generation Combat Vehicle” [NGCV] and the US Marine Corps’ “Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle” programs. According to Kirk Flittie, vice president and general manager of AeroVironment’s UAS business “by integrating the UAS and loitering missile systems […] our team will deliver a new level of battlefield lethality, survivability and combat effectiveness”.

The Shrike 2 hybrid VTOL UAS is intended for electronic warfare, organic reconnaissance and target acquisition missions. Such tools can stay up to 60 minutes in the air for a total range of 20km. “Such capabilities would be particularly useful in complex terrains […] where an elevated view of the scene provides a significant advantage” said Don Kotchman, VP and general manager of General Dynamics Land Systems. Then, after having identified a threat, a direct fire or indirect attack can be decided, using the Switchblade loitering weapons on board. At any moment, the strike can be aborted by the controller within the 15 minute endurance of the weapons. After the attack, the Shrike 2 even offers the possibility for battle damage assessment. Another key feature is the very low collateral damage of the strikes allowed by the Loitering Missile Systems precision, GDLS adds.

Another promising development can be seen in the Advanced Targeting & Lethality Automated System (ATLAS) program, also developed by the US Armed Forces. Its goal is to use AI support to identify threats that stressed crewman might fail to detect, prioritize potential targets and even fire without required control… provided that it has received human authorization. In other words, ATLAS presents a list of “objects of interest” and it is up to the soldier to decide what to do with it.

The Israeli company Uvision for its part made the headlines in early March as it successfully carried out a demonstration of its HERO class drone. The most interesting entry of this class is a variant of the Hero 400, the Hero 400-EC which is an all-electric device guided by electro-optical and infra-red systems that can independently locate static or moving target and strike them with the approval of a human operator.

As reported by Defense News, the Hero family has warheads ranging from 0.5kg to 30 kg. In order to offer mobile support, Uvision is also developing robotic drone carriers that would ultimately be able to support four of these Hero-class missiles.

The West however does not have the monopoly in the matter. As early as November 2016, Russia announced that would fit its T-14 Armata tanks with the PTERODACTYL drone, a device manufactured by the Moscow Aviation Institute (MAI), able to circle up to 100 metres in the air and operate almost indefinitely as it will get its power from its parent device.

Cable-connection enables the drone to carry heavier payload as it doesn’t need batteries. It also benefits from vertical take-off and is able to follow the tank even when it is moving at max speed thanks to a combination of rotors and wings. Fitted with a thermal imager and radar capabilities, PTERODACTYL is presented as being capable of making a clear assessment of the battlefield in a 10km radius.

China is of course also present in that field. In November 2018, the PRC revealed its QN-506 armored vehicle, proudly presenting it as the ‘new king of ground warfare’. It is fitted with a quadcopter drone with an alleged range of 6.2nm, a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour, for a max fly time of 40mn. The device could also help to acquire targets for the S-570 missiles, thus providing accurate artillery support to armored formations. Moreover, the drone is equipped with sensors that include a gunshot detection system that can automatically locate a firing opponent.

All-in-all these various projects come with promising outlook. Yet several concerns may be raised over the consequences laid out by such systems. Stuart Russel, a Berkeley-based AI scientist, warns against the risk of ‘automation bias’, a phenomenon caused by poor interface design and insufficient training, turning the crewman into a “mindless button-pusher” relying evermore on various bots and tracking systems.

One should also keep in mind the ‘thermal blanket syndrome’, in reference to those cheap tools used by Afghan fighters to nullify the effect of high-end night-vision goggles. Expensive spotting devices can sometimes be countered in the cheapest of manners, a reality that might haunt many of those developments in coming years.

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.