Pentagon wants real-world Iron Man tech for future fighting vehicles

·Managing Editor
Darpa Ground-X Vehicle Technology program
Darpa Ground-X Vehicle Technology program

From World War II onward, armies around the world have evolved their basic ground vehicles from small trucks like the original two-man Jeep into something resembling a miniature tank. The next-generation Joint Light Tactical Vehicle for U.S. armed forces due next year will sport a curb weight of 14,000 lbs., mostly to provide the armor necessary to survive the roadside bombs that maimed and killed so many American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But bombing tactics can evolve faster than vehicle designs. Which is why the Pentagon's advanced technology arm has launched a program to reinvent the military vehicle for the 21st century — asking whether technology can do a better job of saving lives than simply adding more armor.

Last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency unveiled the Ground-X Vehicle Technology program, which invites contractors to help design a radically different fighting machine. DARPA's goals for the program couldn't be more radical: it wants a vehicle that's twice as fast as what U.S. armed forces use now, that weighs half as much (with a corresponding reduction in fuel use), takes only half the crew and can travel over 95 percent of terrain.

DARPA says the "more armor" design of modern vehicles has now reached the point of diminishing returns. Such trucks cost millions more to design, build and run, need long supply chains of fuel and parts and are so heavy they can't stray far off roads — making them hard to deploy rapidly into trouble spots. 

To accomplish its goals, DARPA imagines the future Ground-X vehicle will need the types of technology only seen in "Iron Man" movies today: Self-driving capabilities to dodge projectiles, armor that moves itself for maximum shielding and unique suspensions/wheel combinations that could travel over most surfaces at high speed.

“GXV-T’s goal is not just to improve or replace one particular vehicle — it’s about breaking the ‘more armor’ paradigm and revolutionizing protection for all armored fighting vehicles,” said Kevin Massey, DARPA program manager, in a statement.

The first talks with potential contractors are set for next month; it will be a few years before DARPA has design proposals and a few more before a working test vehicle could be built. Judging by the raft of conflicts in the world today, workable technologies that can save soldiers' lives in dangerous situations can't come soon enough.