Monthly Archives: March 2017

Why France’s special forces are badass

France’s special forces are up there with some of the best in the world, alongside the famous US Navy SEALs and the British SAS.

This week at the special forces exhibition SOFINS, being held in France, we saw some of the latest kit and technology used by the country’s special operations command.

We’ve seen everything from small arms to rivercraft to tactical vehicles.

Interestingly, the French National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (aka GIGN, an elite special ops unit) has ordered a new standard issue weapon in the form of the Bren 2 assault rifle from Czech company, CZ.

SOFINS: French GIGN gets new rifle

Meanwhile, the French Army dropped a web series highlighting its Gorgones annual training exercise for the brigade des forces spéciales terre (BFST – that’s the French army’s special forces command).

The videos highlight some pretty awesome operational training with members of the 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment (13th RDP) in full dive kit jumping out of an army Cougar helicopter.

The eight-part web series showed how over 15 days 400 soldiers worked together on the training exercise which included 1st Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment (1st RPIMa), 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment (4e RHFS) alongside the 13th RDP and BFST.

While the BFST might not quite be the GIGN, after having watched the web series we can officially say that France’s special forces are pretty badass.

Richmond missing missiles?

Hard-working and part of a 13-strong Royal Navy frigate force HMS Richmond should ideally be one of the more capable and versatile platforms in the fleet.

And it usually is. Perhaps however, until now.

Social media images on Monday showed the frigate leaving Portsmouth on a tasking, something far from out of the ordinary for the hard-pressed Type 23s, only this time it appears that the quad-packed Harpoon missile launchers are missing.

With the Harpoon recently stated as due to be retired in 2018 the capability was coming to the end of its useful life anyway, but eyebrows might be raised at seeing the only ASuW missile fitted to the vessels removed ahead of its out-of-service date.

When contacted the UK’s Ministry of Defence said that ‘it would be inappropriate to comment on the details and specific weapons systems carried by each of our ships’.

Furthermore, the MoD said that all Royal Navy ships ‘carry a range of offensive and defensive weapons systems and sail with the appropriate capabilities for their tasking’.

Potentially this means HMS Richmond, commissioned into service 22 years ago, is left with more traditional projectile weapons for surface warfare. It is not known if the removal of the Harpoon from the vessel is temporary.

Responding to questions in the UK’s House of Lords in November last year Earl Howe, minister of state at the MoD, said that the current batch of Harpoon missiles had ‘reached the end of its natural life’.

‘To replace it would require significant investment in a new missile stockpile. It was the Royal Navy’s judgment that that would be a less than optimal use of its budget for future investment.

He continued: ‘Its judgment was that investing in the carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ship, the new submarines and the offshore patrol vessels, as well a range of missiles and capabilities, rather than reinvesting in a 1980s weapons system, represented the right order of priority for the Royal Navy’s overall capability. That firmly remains its judgment.’

US_Navy_020612-N-9407M-518_British_frigate_HMS_Richmond_(F-239)_launches_an_AGM-84A_^ldquo,Harpoon^rdquo,_missile.jpg

Not something that HMS Richmond can do at the moment (Photo: US Navy)

US Army’s bionic arm needs improvement, this is how

Alleviating the weight burden on soldiers is a never-ending task. Armies are always on the look out for novel equipment and technology that lessen the burden – not always necessarily by reducing weight, but helping him or her carry a large load instead.

One of the latest technologies to come out of the US is a bionic ‘third arm’, created by the US Army Research Lab, which helps soldiers carry a weapon such as the issue M16/M4 rifle.

Now, I’m always keen to hear about weight-saving technologies and devices that can make tabbing and fighting with heavy kit are little more bearable (it can be a pretty horrible experience), but I’m sceptical about the arm:

The bionic arm weighs around 2kg and attaches to the soldier’s protective vest, which means reducing weight on a soldier’s upper body and potentially freeing up the arms for other tasks.

Now, this looks pretty interesting when it’s on an exhibition floor and makes a great story, but as ever with this type of technology it throws up a lot of questions about how this would be utilised ‘in the field’.

When soldiers and light infantry are attacking positions, they spend a lot of time in different positions, including standing, kneeling, lying flat (or prone) and everything in between.

There’s also generally a lot of running, crawling and climbing – depending on the terrain and fighting environment – which means your kit (and body) goes through some serious punishment.

For me, I think the arm would actually be a hindrance in those situations, rather than a help. The M4/M16 is not exactly a heavy weapon, in fact it’s one of the lightest assault rifles in the world, so having an extra bionic appendage to help carry it seems a little strange. But it could lead to some interesting technological developments, so I won’t write it off completely.

Now where this could find some purpose is carrying heavy weaponry, much like the soldiers in the film Alien 2 that use a similar articulated arm. The researchers have already said they are interested in attaching the M249 and M240 – but let’s think bigger!

My advise, swap out the lightweight M16/M4 for a beastly 7.62mm M134 Minigun capable of spewing out thousands of round per minute. Now this would be something that would significantly increase the lethality of the individual soldier and his squad.

Also it means that soldiers can recreate this epic scene from Terminator 2.

Or, better yet, that awesome scene from Predator:

Food for thought.

On the frontline with US Army tanks in Latvia

I recently travelled to Estonia and Latvia to see firsthand how NATO and the US is boosting its forces in the region in support of its Baltic allies. The region is currently going through an unprecedented build up of military forces, not seen since the Cold War.

The reason? A fear that an increasingly aggressive Russia could launch a conventional, or even hybrid, attack on the Baltics mirroring its actions in Ukraine.

We have a detailed analysis of the build up over at Shephard that can be read here.

While in Latvia, I visited the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT), which is the first unit to be deployed to Europe as part of a continuous US armoured brigade presence in the region.

The US military likes to call this ‘heel-to-toe’ rotations, which means that once 3ABCT is done later this year, another unit will follow on straight after to maintain that deterrence role.

In Latvia, I got a chance to see one of the most potent units in 3ABCT, the 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment (1-68th ‘Silver Lions’), which operates armoured Humvees, Bradley IFVs, and the M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank.

Weighing nearly 70t and bristling with advanced technology, including a 120mm main gun, the Abrams is the most deadly weapon in the US Army’s arsenal.

Its presence, along with other armoured vehicles, in the Baltics is to act as a deterrent against any outside threat.

I arrived in Adazi in the morning, it is just a short drive away from Latvia’s capital, Riga. I joined several local Latvian journalists and TV crews and we were transported out to a training area to view section-level live firing with Humvees, Bradley IFVs and, finally, Abrams tanks going through the range.

The Humvees, equipped with long-range sighting systems, and Bradleys would go through first to scout ahead for the Abrams.

As the country lacks an armoured capability, the exercise did not involve Latvian troops, though Colonel Gunars Kaulins (pictured above) of the Latvian Joint Forces Headquarters was there to observe the exercise – the area is, afterall, run and managed by the Latvian military.

The firing range is one of the only areas in Latvia where the army can fire high calibre and in-direct fire weaponry.

Once the Bradleys and Humvees had carried out their mission, it was time for the Abrams to roll forward. As this was a section-level exercise, two tanks would manoeuvre into firing positions and fire their main gun.

Lt Col Stephen Capehart, commander of the 1-68th, told me during the exercise that once his troops had qualified at squad-level, then the Battalion would move up to more complex exercises at platoon and then company level.

The brigade has been preparing for the European deployment throughout 2016, which included ‘home-station’ training at Fort Carson, Colorado, and a brigade-level exercise last July. The brigade then went through a deployment-validating rotation at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.

Much of the training focus has been on combating a so-called ‘near-peer’ adversary, which is military speak for an army that will likely be well-equipped and well-disciplined.

Training for a potential near-peer conflicts marks a significant shift for the US military, which for several years has been training its troops to fight against insurgencies with roadside bombs and other rudimentary weapons.

That shift is particularly important in Europe where the most significant threat is, right now at least, Russia. It has modernised its armed forces and according to both Estonian and Latvian officials I spoke to, represents a clear and present threat to Eastern Europe.

The deployment of US and NATO forces, including 3ABCT and the presence of Abrams tanks, has made a difference and will likely make Russia think twice before launching an attack in the future.

From fiction to action

I recently met with Bell Helicopter’s design and engineering team about the aesthetics of their concept aircraft the FCX-001.

When looking at the aircraft it is easy to see elements seemingly influenced by film and TV such as Star Wars and Flight of the Navigator, and this was deliberate. The team told me how at the drawing board stage they went with their imaginations before the final design.

While Bell might be prioritising the technologies on board the FCX-001 over the platform itself; the capacity to experiment and play with designs brings excitement to an industry which has seemed gloomy in relation to the oil and gas market.

Levi Bilbrey, senior brand strategist at Bell Helicopter, explained further. ‘We are using virtual reality as an experimental tool for market as a design tool[and] looking at augmented reality as a pilot and a passenger experience. We are thinking that the cockpit of the future is going to be a heads-up display.’

Here at Quill we’ve had a bit of fun looking at the wider aerospace market and how sometimes art (in the loosest sense of the word) imitates life.

On AvGeek forums we have been wrestling with fellow enthusiasts over whether Thunderbird 2 resembles the KC-390 or the An-124. What do you think?

Can conscription give European nations the edge over Russia?

Many states in Europe are carefully considering how best to enhance their military readiness in the face of a changing security environment in the region.

We have of course seen a splurge in defence spending and new equipment requirements as well as a move away from Russian platforms and now another topic is trending. Conscription.

The Armed Forces is planning for 4 000 recruits annually in basic military training in 2018 and 2019One state that has gone beyond the purchase of equipment and is looking at the manpower side of things is Sweden which earlier this month announced that it will be reintroducing military conscription.

This will mean as of 2018 around 4,000 young men and women could be called up into various roles. Sweden highlighted that in 2016 its forces lacked 1,000 active squad leaders, soldiers and sailors as well as 7,000 reservists. Conscription could help solve this problem it seems.

However, this is not the way forward for everyone. As Grant Turnbull found after speaking to State Secretary of the Latvian MoD Jānis Garisons, who said that it was unlikely the Baltic nation would consider conscription as it would prioritise the available budget to infrastructure rather than new weapon procurement.

Latvia says no to conscriptionWhile Latvia has said no to conscription for now the concept is reemerging in Europe after most states chose to abandon what were seen as out-dated policies of military national service.

Recently the front runner of the French presidential race, Emmanuel Marcon, said he wanted to restore military service to France considering recent attacks by Islamic extremists abroad, Russian aggression, US unpredictability and terror attacks on home soil.

Furthermore, Norway has long had a policy of national military service and has extended the policy to include all women.

In 2015 Lithuania reinstated the draft, reportedly for a five year period that will enhance and accelerate army recruitment having only suspended the policy in 2008.

Many nations in Europe phased out the draft after the end of the Cold War but we could see more considering it as jitters over Russian action in Crimea have not subsided.

Whatever your thoughts on national military service it is something that could be reintroduced to a country near you.

Let us know your thoughts on the topic in the comments below. Is it a worthwhile policy or outdated? Should nations be able to rely on volunteers alone?

Killer bots or battlefield helpers?

The field of robotics is changing the way we live, revolutionising everything from industrial processes, driving and even cleaning our houses. Increasingly sophisticated technology and the advantages of using robots, including cost-savings and safety, has seen a boom in robotic technology in recent years.

Unsurprisingly, the military has also taken an interest in robotics. Like the autonomous ‘driverless car’ revolution currently taking place in the commercial world, the military is also looking at how unmanned vehicles can re-shape operations and how humans conduct warfare.

Of course the use of unmanned systems in the air is now well-established but the full utilisation of ‘drones’ in other domains – including ground robots for missions such as load-carrying or surveillance – is still some years off. That’s not to say academia and industry have not been investing in militarised ground robots, they have, but the world’s armies haven’t fully bought into the concept apart from use in very specialist roles.

So far, at least.

THEMIS armed

Estonian company Milrem has made significant strides in the UGV space (Photo: author)

That might be changing, as I set out in a recent in-depth analysis looking at industry’s efforts to develop and manufacture UGVsPresumably responding to emerging requirements from several armed forces it appears that industry is now stepping-up efforts in developing various types of ground robot, including those that integrate a weapon system.

The justification for weaponising a UGV, much like the reasoning for robotics in other sectors, is increasing safety and significantly increasing capabilities at a much lower cost. Companies in the US, Germany, Estonia and Ukraine have all funded projects that look at enhancing the firepower of a ground robot.

But fielding a weaponised system – such as missiles or machine guns – will once again raise concerns about a ‘Terminator’ scenario involving killer robots and the possibility that UGVs could autonomously kill other humans on the battlefield.

Ukrainian Fantom

Ukrainian company Spets Techno Export has developed an armed UGV concept (Photo: author)

That’s unlikely however mainly because the weapons are operated by a human via a control station, similar to how remote weapon stations on vehicles are currently used. There is also the strong belief, among western companies and militaries at least, that a human must always remain ‘in-the-loop’ when it comes to weapon engagements whether that is on a manned or unmanned platform.

Don’t expect that to change anytime soon, unless the operational scenario or mission truly requires it.

Whether you are for or against the armed UGV concept the fact is that you can expect to see much more of the technology in the next few years. How much the militaries of the world will embrace the nascent technology is still guesswork, but if recent exhibitions are anything to go by, then we’ll likely see more companies look to enter this market in the near future.

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