Behold Israeli defense contractor Rafael’s new promo for the company’s Advanced Suite for Armored Fighting Vehicles. The clip is a vision of how automation, sensors, new self-defense technologies, and giant screens could revolutionize the way soldiers fight from armored vehicles.
The video starts with four American soldiers seemingly floating in midair, cruising down a desert road. Once the quartet start taking enemy fire, the future tech kicks into high gear. Four soldiers quickly become just two and a new notional tank armed with an autocannon, two machine guns, and a brace of anti-tank missiles appears out of thin air to wrap itself around the pair. We’re in business.
The two soldiers sit side by side at their own workstations, LCD touchscreen control panels hovering in their laps. Before them is a panoramic view of the world outside their vehicle, brought to life by five high-definition video screens fed by cameras mounted outside the tank. The screens are alive with icons indicating vehicle route, possible threats, and more.
How armored vehicle crews of the future will ride into battle. Youtube/Rafael
What's curious about this system is how it marries the noisy, stress-filled workspace of armored vehicle crews with that associated with drone operators. Instead of standing in their crew hatches, dodging enemy fire while each crewman is concentrated on a separate set of tasks, Rafael’s Advanced AFV suite imagines two crewmen sitting side by side, presented with a common image of the battlefield, insulated from the noise, danger, and to an extent stress of battle.
The system extends situational awareness by allowing the soldiers to see threats, way points, objectives, and other items of interest superimposed upon the giant screens in an augmented reality-style view. This includes not only items programmed into the mission profile or identified by the crew or vehicle AI, but also info shared by other friendly forces. This could allow the crew to race to pile on (or avoid altogether) an otherwise unseen enemy force.
The AFV suite also has an impressive amount of autonomy built into it, from pattern recognition and target identification to driving and even self-protection. The system is constantly analyzing the same video feed the human crew sees, scanning for potential threats. Humans can easily develop tunnel vision or become distracted in combat, and an AI acting as a third set of eyes is a hedge against the soldiers missing something critical to their own survival.
The system is also capable of driving the vehicle along a set route if the human crew is involved doing something else, such as manually firing the weapons. If the vehicle comes under enemy fire the AI will launch an active defense system--like Rafael’s Trophy system, currently fitting on the M1 Abrams tank--to intercept incoming rockets and missiles. In another possible example of AI weapons release, the turret immediately swivels in the direction of the missile fire and fires a burst.
AI acting as a third set of eyes is a hedge against the soldiers missing something critical
The level of autonomy in this system is different from many of today’s proposals for autonomous systems. The U.S. Army’s Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle, the replacement for the M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting vehicle, will be required to operate without a crew for particularly dangerous missions. Rafael’s vision implies it thinks there should always be soldiers in some armored fighting vehicles, even on particularly dangerous missions, and that having a crew--both AI and human onboard can help mitigate those dangers. The autonomous system is a virtual third crewman, providing an extra pair of eyes or an extra trigger finger when needed.
Rafael’s suite appears ideally suited for future vehicles, but the company hints that it’s also figured out how to incorporate it into existing armored fighting vehicles, including the M1 Abrams tank and M2 Bradley. Incorporating such as system into legacy vehicles might necessitate an extensive redesign of their interiors, but the combination of increased effectiveness and reduced crew could be worth it.
Artificial intelligence, autonomous operation, and giant screens are coming to military vehicles, it’s just a matter of time. This new video is the most convincing example to date of how to integrate them into land warfare while ensuring they aren’t just expensive gimmicks.