New Tracked Unmanned Vehicle Bristles With A Whopping 50 Switchblade Suicide Drones
General Dynamics Land Systems’ TRX is a modular unmanned ground vehicle design, and versions of it will be headed to an Army experiment next year.
General Dynamics Land Systems' showcased a mockup of its TRX tracked unmanned ground vehicle configured as a unique mobile launch platform for 50 AeroVironment Switchblade loitering munitions, commonly referred to as "suicide drones," earlier this week. This followed news that the Army now plans to test versions of the TRX, which stands for Tracked Robot 10-Ton, alongside Howe & Howe Technologies' Ripsaw M5 unmanned mini-tank and Pratt Miller and QinetiQ's Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle during an experimental exercise next year.
The loitering munition-armed TRX concept was on display at the Association of the U.S. Army's (AUSA) main annual conference in Washington, D.C., which opened on Oct. 11 and wrapped up yesterday. General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) had first unveiled TRX at the AUSA gathering last year. This builds off the company's formal partnership with AeroVironment, which it first announced in 2018.
The TRX on display at AUSA this year has two banks of 13 launch tubes for Switchblade 600 drones, as well as two other arrays, each with 12 tubes capable of launching smaller Switchblade 300s. It also has a tethered quadcopter-type unmanned aerial vehicle that is stowed internally when not in use.
This configuration presents a significant combination of reconnaissance and surveillance, as well as organic strike capabilities, in a relatively small and mobile package that can be used in very high-risk environments. What makes loitering munitions such as the Switchblades different from more traditional drones and missiles is that they can scout ahead and otherwise search for potential targets of interest and then initiate strikes on them directly, if desired.
AeroVironment's Switchblade family, like many loitering munitions, have an operator-in-the-loop control arrangement, where the user "sees" what the drone does via the feeds from the electro-optical and infrared cameras in its nose through the course of its flight. While the drones can be directed to fly to specific locations and automatically track designated targets, or even hit selected coordinates, the operator can also make fine adjustments to their course manually. This increases the accuracy of the system and also offers an added margin of safety, offering the user the option of aborting a strike should circumstances change, such as innocent bystanders suddenly appearing in the target area.
AeroVironment has talked about improving the autonomous capabilities in the future, including potentially enabling groups of them to work cooperatively together as a networked swarm. You can read more about the Switchblade family, as well as the company's other projects, in this past War Zone feature.
The exact purpose of the tethered drone in this particular TRX configuration is unclear, but it could provide a signal relay to allow it to operate well forward of its operators. This could be especially useful to help extend the reach of the datalink to its loitering munitions, or even ensure connectivity is possible at all in urban and high terrain. Fitting this tethered unmanned aerial system with a set of video sensors would also allow it to conduct localized surveillance around the vehicle, as well. If it could be untethered, it could help search for potential targets, especially those hiding behind cover.
The complete package could give even relatively small units a tremendous amount of organic precision firepower against threats at extended ranges, including those not within direct line of sight. It would give those same forces significantly increased battlefield awareness, as well. The fact that it is unmanned means it can operate forward of friendly troops in extremely dangerous areas, as well.
As already noted, this is just one possible configuration of TRX, which GLDS offers as a modular platform that can be readily reconfigured to meet customer requirements. GDLS had notably previously shown a less-involved loitering munition launch platform concept with three eight-cell launchers for Switchblade 600s and two six-cell launchers for Switchblade 300s on a simple flat deck, as seen in the video below.
"TRX features innovative thinking, ranging from its AI [artifical intelligence]-enhanced design to advanced, lightweight materials and a hybrid-electric propulsion system," according to GDLS' website. "TRX is positioned to provide superior performance as an enabling technology in a myriad of critical battlefield roles, including direct and indirect fire, autonomous resupply, complex obstacle breaching, counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS), electronic warfare (EW), reconnaissance, and other battlefield missions."
The core design is derived from the company's submission to the Army's Robotic Combat Vehicle-Medium (RCV-M) competition, which had sought a 10- to 20-ton unmanned vehicle and that Howe & Howe ultimately won with the M5. That earlier vehicle, known as GD-TL-1, featured the same RT40 turret from Norwegian defense contractor Kongsberg, which features a 30mm XM813 automatic cannon and a coaxially-mounted 7.62x51mm M240 machine gun, and was previously known as the MCT30, as the M5.
As already noted, it uses a hybrid-electric propulsion system, which is often touted as offering improved fuel economy compared to similarly-sized designs with more conventional internal combustion engines, as well as being quieter at lower speeds. GDLS has also shown versions of this unmanned vehicle with lightweight metallic and rubber-band-type tracks. The latter types of tracks offer certain advantages in performance, maintenance, and logistics over traditional metallic tracks. GDLS has said in the past that TRX has the speed necessary to keep pace with existing Army wheeled and tracked armored vehicles, such as the Stryker and Bradley families.
TRX is semi-autonomous, with it being able to follow various general instructions from a human operator, such as following waypoints and otherwise navigating by itself to a selected destination. A user would similarly be able to able to interact with any payloads it might be carrying, such as sensor systems or weapons, remotely. Its large, flat top deck can also just be used to carry cargo around the battlefield.
Despite the TRX losing the initial RCV-M competition, the Army presently plans to test four of these unmanned systems as part of a larger experiment at Fort Hood, Texas, next year. It is unclear how they will be configured for that exercise, but GDLS did demonstrate one in a cargo-carrying configuration during this year's iteration of the Army Expeditionary Warrior Experiment at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The RCV-M is one of three tiers of unmanned ground vehicles the Army is looking to acquire in the coming years for use in various roles. Pratt Miller and QinetiQ's Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle, which will also take part in the Fort Hood exercise next year, won the initial competition for a prototype RCV-Light design weighing under 10 tons. The service has yet to begin looking for possible RCV-Heavy types, which it expects will be between 20 and 30 tons and be more akin to an unmanned light tank.
There has also been an expectation that the Army will open a new competition to acquire a fleet of RCV-Ms for actual operational use after it concludes its initial testing of designs in this class, such as the Ripsaw and the TRX. GDLS had already continued to develop its design on its own with an eye toward competing for that future contract, as well as offering the platform to any other interested customers.
GDLS also appears to be working to leverage lessons learned with regard to the TRX's development and production, as well as the general design philosophy behind it, for other projects. At this year's AUSA conference, the company also displayed a larger, modular unmanned armored vehicle concept that looks more like a light tank, called the Katalyst Next Generation Electronic Architecture (NGEA).
This "new, modular open architecture features scalable and modular hardware and software for Next Generation Capabilities. It significantly improves warfighter effectiveness via enhanced mobility (obstacle avoidance, path planning); lethality (object detection, object identification/recognition, automated target prioritization); and survivability/reconnaissance (360-degree situational awareness, see-through armor, terrain analysis)," according to a GDLS press release. The "Katalyst NGEA also provides core capabilities such as computing, sensor fusion and processing, and power management and distribution. It provides unparalleled performance and size, weight, power and cost (SWaP-C) to support evolving needs."
All told, TRX, as well as Katalyst, only underscores the increasing interest in unmanned vehicles and loitering munitions within the U.S. military as a whole. TRX is already set to join the Army's burgeoning unmanned test fleet, and it will be very interesting to see what configuration or configurations — maybe including the loitering munition-packed one we saw this week — the service will test out next year.
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