Unfortunately, it doesn’t necessarily get around the basic deficiencies of many active protection systems, such only being able to defeat a limited number of threats before becoming dead weight or potentially posing a danger to nearby friendly troops or innocent bystanders. So far, active protection systems are most useful against infantry anti-tank weapons, such as rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles, rather than tank or artillery shells, too.
An ammo-less directed energy weapon with unlimited magazine depth could be an optimal solution to many of these limitations, but there are potential limitations in these cases, too. Laser or microwave energy beams typically need significant power to remain capable at long ranges and can become unreliable when trying to penetrate through dust, smoke, and other obscurants. Those systems would also need to be powerful enough to defeat the threat in a relatively short engagement window. A viable system of this kind is still likely years away from becoming a reality.
The U.S. military has explored the potential of jammers to form a protective “bubble” around vehicles, primarily to defeat improvised explosive devices, and the Russians have reportedly fielded similar systems that can either pre-detonate or disarm incoming rockets, missiles, and shells. The biggest problem here is ensuring that these electronic warfare suites don’t disrupt friendly communications or other electronics, but are still reliable enough to serve their purpose and do so out to an effective range.
Still, MAPS might open up the possibility for novel ways to mitigate at least some of these issues, especially if the Army pushes ahead with plans to increase network connectivity between vehicles. On top of that, the service has made manned-unmanned teaming a central theme in the still developing requirements for its future Next Generation Combat Vehicle (NGCV) family, which it hopes will eventually replace some, if not all of its existing armored vehicles.
Linking individual MAPS together could help improve sensor ranges, giving more warning of hostile threats. It could also allow one vehicle to try and shoot down a projectile aimed at another in a larger formation and simply add more active protection capacity to groups of vehicles large and small. Combined with unmanned vehicles, these capabilities could grow even more since sensors and active protection systems could be more widely distributed across the battlefield at lower costs.
A single unmanned ground vehicle could serve as a dedicated sensor node or as a truck loaded with active countermeasures. This could help keep costs down, too, since each drone might not necessarily require the full suite of systems. This will be an important consideration if the Army intends to field large numbers of these vehicles to go along with manned vehicles. These more traditional platforms could easily be expensive in their own right if they end up packed with robust active protection suites, as well as advanced weapons, fire control systems, communications, and more.
It’s not hard to imagine a future where wheeled or tracked drones act as pickets to lead the way for formations of manned armor into hostile territory. This could be especially valuable in tightly packed or otherwise constrained environments, such as dense urban areas, where unmanned vehicles could scout ahead to spot of neutralize threats, reducing risks to manned vehicles and dismounted troops.
The MAPS plan could also serve as a good model for how to develop complete future vehicles that can be more rapidly improved upon as time goes on and as new technology become available. It might also help the Army meet its aggressive development schedule for its Next Generation Combat Vehicle family, or NGCV, which will include both manned and unmanned types.
The service hopes these will replace existing Abrams Tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Stryker wheeled armored vehicles, and more by 2028. It expects to pick a vendor or vendors to build the first demonstrator vehicles later in 2018 and have those designs ready for testing the year after.
Active protection is already a major consideration in the NGCV project, which will likely include the MAPS architecture, so we may get a closer look at how the Army plans integrate this new modular system in the near future.
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