Your wingman is your boy, your best friend, your partner, and your comrade in arms, ready to have your back under any circumstances. But while the role of “wingman” comes with a ton of complicated connotations in military aviation, it has a more sinister one for ground-pounders: Half the time, your wingman is really just Jody in disguise, lying in wait to ball your one true love while your back is turned.
Luckily, the Army is working on building a stronger, faster, less-cuckhappy wingman to have soldiers’ backs downrange. This wingman comes in the form of a specially-outfitted Humvee packing a 7.62mm weapon system — an M240 machine gun or M134 Gatling-style minigun — gussied up with autonomous target tracking and detection sensors and piloted either autonomously or remotely by a fellow soldier. The only thing this bad boy is built to fuck up is militants.
The two-vehicle set in the “Wingman” Joint Capability Technology Demonstration program includes a robotic vehicle, pictured here, and command and control vehicle.U.S. Army/Keith Briggs/TARDEC Ground Vehicle Robotics
As part of the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center’s “Wingman” Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, engineers are working overtime to “qualify an autonomous combat vehicle on a gunnery range in the coming month.” Sure, the branch has been working to better mesh robotic assets with ground forces downrange for years. But this $20 million program aims to produce an autonomous battle-wagon capable of enhancing ground forces’ lethality and range in the next three years.
Among the most important updates offered by the Wingman is the (ARDEC) remote-controlled Advanced Remote Armament System, an electric gun turret designed to eliminate the jamming issues posed by the traditional gas-operated M240.
“Obviously if you're a kilometer away from your vehicle, jams are not good,” program deputy chief Thomas B. Udvare said in an Army statement on Jan 31. “What's nice about their electrically-driven system is that the incidents of jamming are greatly reduced.”
The Autonomous Remote Engagement System, which is mounted on the Picatinny Lightweight Remote Weapon System and coupled with an M240B machine gun, is a subsystem of the Wingman program that reduces the time to identify targets using vision-based automatic target detection and user-specified target selection.U.S. Army/Keith Briggs/TARDEC Ground Vehicle Robotics
Don’t worry: These upgunned Humvees won’t be completely autonomous just yet. The current Wingman setup involves two soldiers, one to monitor the ARAS and another to actually pull the trigger, ensuring that fire control remains in human hands at all time.
“You're not going to have these systems go out there like in The Terminator,” Udvare said. “For the foreseeable future, you will always have a soldier in the loop.” Which, well, good, because no way I’m leaving a wingman alone, no matter how metal and car-shaped he may be. I mean, have you seen Knight Rider? Jesus.
When soldiers might see their new wingman bound over horizon, like virtually all other complicated weapons systems, remains to be seen: According to the Army, engineers plan on taking the platform for a spin on the Scout Gunnery Table VI course, normally used to qualify ground combat vehicles teams for more complicated exercises — a milestone Udvare described as “a beginning point to start to assess these platforms and drive technology.”
But should the trials go well, soldiers (and, in time, infantry Marines) could have a chance to bond with their new wingman by October 2018. And should the Humvees prove effective in larger warfighting exercises, the complicated auto-targeting subsystems developed by TARDEC could see broader testing with the Army’s fleet of M113 armored personnel carrier and their beastly .50-cal heavy machine guns.
“We’re definitely exploring all of the possibilities,” TARDEC chief Paul Rogers said in the Army statement. “We’re optimizing the different options based on what we believe will have the greatest value for our operating force in the future.” Hell, as long as he doesn’t jam downrange, the JCTD can be my wingman any day.