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US military experts are looking to replace the current main battle tank with a family of vehicles option that will take tank-like capabilities and spread them across manned and unmanned platforms for better survivability.

The US Army is doing more than simply upgrading existing vehicles and fueling the next steps in ground fighting over the coming decade. Scientists at the Army Research Lab (ARL) such as Jeff Zabinski, Director of weapons and material research and Dr. Scott Schoenfeld, senior scientist for terminal ballistics, are envisioning how to do the work of armor without armor.

The key to that is distributing the functions of a tank, from sensing and firepower to protection. Some of that does still involve heavy metal moving around the battlefield — sometimes with a crew; sometimes without. But protection can also mean not being seen, or even being seen as something else. That’s where electronic warfare, masking and hiding in plain sight of sensors can play a role.

More powerful computers and algorithms are helping scientists at ARL and elsewhere factor in massive numbers of interactions hitting the projectile before it ever reaches an Army vehicle, Zabinski said. And with advances in autonomy and remote controlling, new approaches are now possible that were previously not.

Space onboard, now designed for humans, can be shrunk or gotten rid of, making smaller machines that can do similar or new tasks.

And rather than simply taking a hit to heavy armor and surviving, the future of armor’s function and protection could be pushing, deflecting, coaxing or turning an adversary’s attack rather than absorbing it, Schoenfeld said.

Regardless of the defense, some strikes will get through. That’s where “intelligent, sacrificial robots” can put themselves between humans and harm, Schoenfeld said. 

Those same future robots can be made with cutting-edge materials being researched now that can either “degrade gracefully” or “self-heal,” Schoenfeld said.

All of these advances may not look like the diesel-driven behemoths of the battlefield today, but at their core, they’ll do what armor has always done — protect soldiers while delivering firepower, according to defensenews.com.