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 US army effort appears focused and appears inspired by the Russian Armata combat vehicle platform. The Armata is a common platform for tanks, armored vehicles and manned and unmanned systems. The US system will have more lasers and advanced electronics and power generation. The US systems will have proper funding. Russia does not have the funding to buy the Armata in volume.

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.

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 contact 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 first generation vehicle could even be the proposed M2A5 Bradley, 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