It’s called a  “wet gap crossing,” the point wherein armored forces, infantry and tactical vehicles need to cross a body of water such as a river while on attack. This naturally occurring circumstance, often encountered in combat, not only causes logistical challenges for maneuvering forces but also increases vulnerability to enemy attack. 

How quickly could a mechanized unit build a bridge? What if a known route had to be abandoned due to changing threat circumstances, requiring units to traverse water? 

A group of carefully assembled Army scientists, engineers, futurists and weapons experts are spending time examining questions such as this with a mind to what war will look like in 2040. One possible solution now being studied by Army Futures Command’s “Team Ignite” is the use of robotic aircraft to transport attacking forces. 

“Getting units over rivers is a very dangerous operation because you are exposed. We can use robotics and have launched a focused excursion looking at robotic air assault drones,” Col. Stephanie Ahern, Secretary of the Army Initiatives Group Chief, told reporters Oct. 14. 

The challenges, Ahern continued, include ensuring that forces and platforms can survive the landings, sustain movements, protect dismounted units and ensure safe passage for follow on forces. 

“We examined robotic air assault drones with the 101st Airborne units to assess what were some of the attributes we would need. We are incorporating those lessons into an understanding of how we will operate into the future,”  Dr. Jean Vettel, Chief Scientist for Futures & Concepts Center and Ignite Senior Science Lead. 

Ahern and Vettel talked about ongoing work with the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program, an ongoing testing and development effort to deploy a new fleet of high-performance aircraft to include new reconnaissance and attack helicopters as well as new long-range aircraft. This program, which is already flying aircraft, includes the advancement of autonomous and unmanned flight technology. 

What this means is it is by no means inconceivable that a small fleet of robotic assault helicopters could not only transport soldiers, ammo, weapons and equipment over a river but use heavy-lift technology to airdrop larger platforms by sling loading them underneath the aircraft. The Army’s Chinook helicopter can already move M777 artillery cannons and tactical vehicles and mounted vertical maneuver technology continues to reach new levels of performance capability.

Strategically speaking, these technical developments reinforce the current Army thinking about how tactics will need to adjust in the future to prepare for newer kinds of combat and warfare conditions. For example, the Army is making a large push to become much more expeditionary, mobile and deployable, so having an ability of this kind naturally enables the Army to move and operate better in unpredictable terrain. 

Kris Osborn is Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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