Author Archives: grantturnbull

Adapt or die: US Army looks to modernise

In the words of US Army chief of staff, Gen Mark Milley, the army he is responsible for is at an inflection point; it must adapt, or it dies.

With this in mind, the service used this year’s Association of the US Army (AUSA) annual conference in Washington DC to outline how it will adapt in an uncertain world, especially as the West’s political, economic and technological advantage slowly declines.

For several decades the US Army has enjoyed technological superiority against its adversaries, which was especially the case during both Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet however brutal and bloody those conflicts were, the army was not challenged by an enemy with high-end capabilities.

The worry now is that the US has taken its eye off the ball and lost its ability to effectively counter a so-called ‘near-peer adversary’ – army speak for Russia and China.

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At AUSA, Milley and the acting secretary of the army Ryan McCarthy outlined how it would attempt to regain what is known as ‘overmatch’, or the capability to defeat a near-peer enemy by overwhelming force.

This will start at home, with the acquisition process, which army leaders want sped up and be made less risk-averse, including reducing the amount of bureaucratic layers with the formation of a new command that brings ‘modernisation under one roof’.

‘It has more to do with streamlining processes,’ said Milley. ‘It’s a significant restructure, probably the biggest in the last 40 years or so. Remember, Army Materiel Command, Forces Command and TRADOC were all formed in the 1970 in the wake of Vietnam.’

In addition to the restructure, the army service chiefs outlined six key areas that modernisation would focus on including; long-range fires, mobility, networking, protection, sustainment and soldier lethality.

As you read this blog, and a more detailed report available on Shephard’s website, it’s important to understand this new thinking of the US Army and how it is influencing existing programmes, new acquisitions and relationships with industry.

Programmes that are considered too burdensome, and not adaptive to current technology trends are being tossed aside in favour of new initiatives. Just before AUSA, the army announced that acquisition of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) would finish early in 2018 due to a myriad of shortcomings.

That’s significant as WIN-T was considered to be one of the army’s top modernisation initiatives but instead has joined the long list of billion dollar boondoggles, along with the army’s Future Combat System in the 2000s as well as the search for a replacement scout helicopter.

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Ultimately, the US Army wants capability, and it wants it quick to address the growing gaps mentioned above.

One area that was clearly a priority at AUSA was short-range air defence, or SHORAD – which falls under ‘protection’ of the six key priorities. As visitors explored the exhibition hall, it was not difficult to see that industry was preparing potential options for an upcoming army requirement, with several companies using AUSA to show off its SHORAD technologies.

Those companies included BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) and Oshkosh, which all demonstrated some kind vehicle-borne SHORAD integration using existing systems that would likely require little developmental efforts.

As well as SHORAD, the US Army is also looking at how it can beef up its lower-tier air defences. Raytheon – partnering with Rafael Advanced Defense Systems – displayed a full Iron Dome system on the exhibition floor at this year’s AUSA.

The system, which is marketed in the US by Raytheon as ‘Skyhunter’, was tested by the US Army earlier this year where it achieved a successful intercept. The company is now pursuing potential options that could see Skyhunter used to protect forward-deployed forces.

Another big push for the US Army, and an initiative that is likely to be held up as an example of how acquisition could be carried out in the future, is active protection systems (APS).

This technology is still in its relative infancy, but is seen as an opportunity to add additional protection for vehicle crews when it comes to the threat from new-generation anti-tank munitions.

According to Maj Gen David Bassett, program executive officer for ground combat systems, this could be the new way that the US Army does acquisition for much-needed technologies on the battlefield.

The US Army’s approach to fielding an APS capability has been significantly different from its usual strategy of setting out a detailed requirements document and trialling industry submissions against an extensive set of test points. This was testing an established capability first and foremost.

The last few years has seen the army take a less ambitious approach to vehicle modernisation, especially after the cancellation of FCS and GCV.

Priority has instead been given to the modernisation of legacy vehicles such as the Abrams and the Bradley, as well as relatively low risk vehicles such as the armoured multi-purpose vehicle (AMPV) – which is essentially a Bradley without a turret, and the Mobile Protected Firepower vehicle, which will effectively be a COTS purchase.

For the moment at least, the army can boast a vehicle programme that is on schedule and meeting its cost projections, which is a unique position considering past projects.

The question is how long this will last and whether the incremental upgrades of 80s-era platforms is giving the army the overmatch capabilities it so desperately needs to keep hold of.

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Looking to the future, beyond manned vehicles, the army is also looking to replicate the success it has had with aerial unmanned vehicles but this time on the ground. One of its biggest initiatives is the squad multipurpose equipment transport programme, which aims to acquire small robots that can carry equipment for soldiers.

Overall, AUSA was an opportunity for US Army leaders to set out their strategic aims and priorities for the future, especially when it comes to retaining its technological superiority and battle winning capabilities.

It remains to be seen whether the service can overcome challenges – including budgetary – and achieve its goals of modernisation. Industry will also have to respond with innovative solutions that do not end in cost overturns, delays and eventual cancellations.

Overmatch under threat?

As militaries continue to field increasingly sophisticated equipment, and digitisation across the battlespace becomes the norm, it’s easy to overlook the innovations still taking place in the fundamental – and sometimes basic – technologies of warfare, which do not venture into the realm of zeros and ones.

This is particularly the case for small arms ammunition, which despite being around for centuries and a core requirement for troops – along with food and water – is still subject to continual engineering developments that aim to increase lethality, while also decreasing the burden for the soldier in terms of weight and load.

The 5.56mm cartridge has been the standard option for small arms calibres for several decades since its introduction by the US with the M16 rifle in the 1960s and its consequent standardisation across NATO. However, recent conflicts have exposed shortfalls with the round.

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Fit for purpose?

While the ammunition does provide several advantages, including a high muzzle velocity and low weight – allowing troops to carry significantly more rounds than if equipped with heavier 7.62mm cartridges – many have questioned whether 5.56mm is really the optimum choice for NATO armies today especially as near-peer armies field newer-generation body-worn armour, which includes ceramic strike plates, and as engagement ranges increase beyond the effective range of 5.56mm. Together, that means that the round no longer has the stopping power desired to effectively neutralise enemy combatants.

Of course, this worry is not new and has been the subject of many debates and scientific studies, not least when the ammunition was moving towards NATO standardisation. However, with the reasons mentioned above, many now consider the 5.56mm as potentially obsolete, meaning that squads have ultimately lost an all-important overmatch capability.

The US Army is leading the way when it comes to finding alternative solutions, including new calibres and lighter weight technologies, which is explored in more depth in the Oct/Nov issue of Land Warfare International.

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The service has expressed an interest in a new Interim Combat Service Rifle, with solicitations stating that it will be chambered in 7.62mm, rather than 5.56mm. Nevertheless, there are still questions concerning weight and the efficacy of this more powerful ammunition against modern ceramic armour.

If there is an eventual switchover to 7.62mm, or even an intermediate calibre such as 6.5mm, by the US Army, it would conclude an almost 50-year relationship with the 5.56mm round that began with the fielding of the M16.

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Getting active

Active protection systems are another hot topic in the land warfare domain. In the future, this could supplement existing armour technologies – both active and passive – and provide an extra layer of protection to vehicles in order to increase survivability.

APS technologies can sense incoming threats and automatically dispense a countermeasure, which in a ‘hard-kill’ configuration comprises an explosive projectile fired from the host vehicle, destroying a missile before impact. The equipment has already been fielded by the Israelis and is likely to be in service with the Russian and Chinese armies in the very near future.

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Much like the ammunition debate, there’s a worry in some circles that near-peer adversaries (Russia and China) could steal a march on the US in this domain, meaning that the US Army loses another aspect of its overmatch capabilities. APS could reduce the effectiveness of anti-tank weapons including shoulder-fired weapons, as well as new-generation tank munitions being fielded.

In an attempt to catch up, the US Army has tested several APS technologies this year, including the now-famous Trophy system from Israel, and there’s a possibility that the service could announce the purchase of APS equipment for fielding very soon. Shephard understands that fielding APS remains a key priority for service chiefs and recent testing has only served to strengthen that stance.

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Yet even if the US Army decide to invest in APS, there will still be challenges when it comes to full integration with vehicle mission systems, which is a concern for all armies today as platforms become more digitised.

Ammunition and APS occupy two ends of the technology spectrum, one decades-old technology and the other a new and highly advanced system. However, both flag up areas where Western technological and tactical advantage is slowly eroding, and this doesn’t stop at APS and ammunition. There are a whole host of technologies where this is the case, demonstrating that Western overmatch can no longer be taken for granted.

To read the latest Oct/Nov edition of Land Warfare International, download our app from Google Play Store or Apple iTunes. You can also read the latest online land warfare news here

The movers and shakers of DSEI 2017

With thousands of exhibitors and two enormous exhibition halls chock full of technology, DSEI never disappoints when it comes to seeing new and interesting defence kit. The show, held at the London ExCel centre every two years, is a key date in the calendar for the industry and is used as an opportunity to bring out the big guns – literally.

The show is billed as a tri-service event, showcasing equipment from the land, sea and air domains, although like its Parisian equivalent – Eurosatory – there is a skew towards land capabilities.

Nevertheless, the event utilises the ExCel’s location next to the Thames to bring in several warships and have them berthed up during the week. The highlight this year being the Type 23 frigate HMS Argyll as well as LÉ Samuel Beckett from the Irish Naval Service.

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LÉ Samuel Beckett berthed next to the ExCel centre for DSEI 2017. (Photo: Grant Turnbull)

Mirroring an increase in focus by the UK government on naval capabilities, the DSEI event also had a strong maritime flavour to it this year. This was likely influenced by several key events before the show including the naming of the second Queen Elizabeth-class carrier HMS Prince of Wales, the release of the National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSbS) and contracts placed for the new Type 26 Global Combat Ship.

Ahead of the show, our roving reporter Beth Maundrill looked at how the NSbS was was aiming to overcome past mistakes in naval programmes that saw costs balloon and fleet sizes dwindle. Speaking at the event itself, Adm Philip Jones, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff said he wanted to see the Royal Navy be ‘even faster and more agile’ in how it exploits technology advancements.

Industry is also positioning itself for a future Type 31 contract, with several companies unveiling potential designs at DSEI. Babcock showcased its Arrowhead 120 design, which is likely to compete against BMT Group for the Type 31e contract. Both companies will also be eyeing the export market, something that is being pushed in the new NSbS.

Another new naval technology unveiled at the show was the MBDA Dragonfire, part of a research programme with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) that aims to explore the use of directed-energy weapons, better known as lasers, onboard vessels.

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A scale model example of the new Dragonfire, developed for the UK MoD by a team from MBDA and Leonardo. (Photo: Grant Turnbull)

Back on terra firma, it was British Army vehicle programmes that were taking up a lot of the focus. The service is currently recapitalising its fleet with both new build vehicles and upgrades. We got a little more clarity on the long-running Mechanised Infantry Vehicle programme, with an acquisition strategy now planned for later this year that will determine whether it is competed or sole-sourced.

Many companies brought along their 8×8 offerings to tempt the British Army. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a defence show, German company Rheinmetall rocked up with a Boxer 8×8 painted in the colours of the Union Jack. Gimmick or serious marketing strategy?

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Bit of a gimmick or a serious effort to make moves in the UK? (Photo: Rheinmetall)

Officials also gave a little more information on the Warrior upgrade programme, with a full production contract expected next year that will give the army a fleet of modernised ‘Warrior 2’ platforms. A Warrior on display at the show was also sporting a new camouflage, known as the Barracuda Mobile Camouflage System, which Shephard discovered had been ordered in small units by the British Army, with a potentially larger order expected.

It was also announced that the British Army’s flagship acquisition, the Ajax, has now begun manned live-firing trials, which should wrap up in around five months in time for delivery to the army.

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An upgraded Warrior vehicle on display at Lockheed Martin’s stand at DSEI, sporting a new camouflage system. (Photo: Grant Turnbull)

The UK defence secretary Michael Fallon also announced several contracts that aim to improve the capability of the British Army when it comes to protecting troops. These included a new EOD ground robot from Harris as well as a new £10 million initiative to study vehicle active protection systems, which is being led by Leonardo. The former programme, known as Icarus, could help the army develop technologies that effectively form a ‘shield’ around a vehicle to protect it against RPGs and anti-tank missiles.

Active protection systems are a significant topic of discussion at the moment, with several countries including China, Israel and Russia fielding some kind of capability. There is a worry among experts that the West will be left behind when it comes to utilising this kind of technology, with foreign APS-equipped vehicles potentially neutralising our current generation anti-tank capabilities.

Adding to this discourse, a BAE Systems CV90 was on display at the show that incorporated the IMI Systems Iron Fist APS technology – which will likely be fielded to the Dutch Army CV90 in the future.

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The IMI Systems Iron Fist active protection system on the turret of a CV9030 IFV at DSEI 2017. (Photo: Grant Turnbull)

Unsurprisingly, the UK-based BAE Systems took centre stage at DSEI, showing a huge array of its technologies across all domains. These technologies included the latest generation of its Broadsword soldier technologies currently undergoing evaluation with several foreign armies, as well as a new ‘Tactical Hotspot’ concept that provides voice and data communications in the most austere environments.

The company has also turned its hand to unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) with its Ironclad concept, which could be used for medical evacuation missions on the battlefield.

Indeed, the growing importance of unmanned systems was once again evident at DSEI this year with several innovations being displayed. BAE Systems also demonstrated its P950 RIB in an unmanned configuration.

Elsewhere, Qinetiq demonstrated a new configuration for its Titan UGV (developed in cooperation with Milrem and its THeMIS). Rheinmetall Canada, fresh from unveiling its new UGV concept earlier this year, came to DSEI to show an armed configuration for its multi-mission ground vehicle. Several other armed UGVs were on display this year, including Milrem’s THeMIS, which integrated a new FN Herstal .50 cal machine gun.

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Qinetiq’s Titan, which uses the THeMIS UGV from Estonian company Milrem, features several new integrations at this year’s DSEI. (Photo: Grant Turnbull)

That’s just a very tiny selection of what was making the headlines during the show, we have plenty more over at Shephard  for your reading and viewing pleasure.

The show was notable in that it had no real stand-out announcements or surprises, with a sense that many programmes and initiatives are continuing to tick over for the time being.

Many visitors will be optimistic about the market going forward, but the industry as a whole is still conscious of the uncertainty created by Brexit and the wider geostrategic environment.

Volatile conditions – tensions rise in Asia

As the Sep/Oct issue of Shephard’s Digital Battlespace went to press, it was reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was on the brink of firing missiles towards the US territory of Guam. That has not happened, yet, but it is another sign that the unhinged leader of North Korea continues to be a threat to the region and, as his missile and nuclear technologies advance, to countries outside the region.

This year has seen North Korea’s ballistic missile capability go from strength to strength and by July the country had carried out at least 14 firings of various domestic-built missiles. The 14th was possibly the most significant, with the firing of a intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could have hit the US west coast (which was instead was fired 2,300 miles into space).

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Add to that already dangerous situation the development of a possible nuclear warhead for an ICBM and the situation becomes almost apocalyptic. If it’s any comfort, it is believed that North Korea still does not possess the capability to miniaturise a nuclear warhead or even the technology for the warhead to survive re-entry. Yet despite these limitations, and an international community grouping together to impose harsh sanctions, Pyongyang still manages to achieve successes.

Another volatile leader to add to this combustible mix is Donald Trump. In his short time as president, he has shown himself to be unstable and irrational – two character traits that do not bode well for international diplomacy and dealing with despotic regimes. His response to North Korean missile tests was to promise ‘fire and fury’ if the country made any more threats to the US.

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Addressing missile threats

Ultimately, it will be patient diplomacy that brings the two countries back from the brink of all-out war. But what lessons can we learn from this? First and foremost, it should act as a wake-up call – if it hasn’t already – that governments have to invest in ballistic missile defence (BMD) technologies for the protection of not just soldiers in theatre, but also citizens going about their daily lives.

Admittedly, that is easier said than done.

BMD is a huge and costly endeavour that requires significant investment, often in the billions. It necessitates a host of early-warning sensors (on land and sea, and in air and space) and for those sensors to be networked so that data can be fed into complex C2 systems. Highly capable, highly manoeuvrable interceptors must be acquired to shoot down the missiles, a feat that has often been compared to shooting down a bullet with a bullet.

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The US is the only country in the world that can field multiple BMD systems, including the homeland Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which in May achieved its first-ever intercept – probably not by coincidence considering recent events – of an ICBM fired towards the US from deep in the Pacific.

However, the GMD programme has been notorious for its significant cost – its yearly budget is around $1.5 billion – and the fact that before May, it failed eight of 17 tests.

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To reduce costs, NATO has pooled resources to offer a territorial BMD capability, which achieved initial operating capability last year. It includes ship-based radars as well as ground-based systems, such as Aegis Ashore, based in Romania and soon in Poland. The US also works closely with its Asian allies to provide BMD systems, including THAAD in South Korea and possibly Aegis Ashore in Japan in the future.

Effective defence

Another way BMD will become more cost-effective in the future will be the increasing effectiveness and reliability of sensors, particularly next-generation radars that can detect, track and provide fire control data for interceptors. Industry is particularly focused on how it can ensure lifecycle costs remain low, by increasing a sensor’s reliability and keeping repairs to a minimum, which is especially important at sea.

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In this edition of DB, we look in more detail at naval radars, with several of the systems outlined now featuring some kind of BMD function or growth potential. With industry utilising the advances in commercial electronics, these systems are rapidly evolving in terms of capability – particularly with the onset of active electronically scanned array systems and Gallium Nitride technologies – allowing for longer detection ranges and greater kill rates for interceptors.

Of course, challenges remain, not least when it comes to funding, but the alternative of having no effective defence against ballistic missile threats does not bear thinking about.

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The latest edition of Digital Battlespace (Sep/Oct 2017) is now available to download FREE on IoS and Andriod. 

Sacré bleu! Should we be more like the French?

In the lead-up to this year’s Bastille Day, I had the opportunity to visit Satory in France, an area that has a rich history both for the defence industry and armed forces. While there, I spoke to local defence companies, DGA procurement officials and the armed forces about the Scorpion programme, an ambitious effort to revamp the army’s vehicle fleet and C2 systems for the 21st century.

The French Army and domestic industry is clearly proud of its modernisation agenda and the programme achievements so far, inviting leading media outlets to Satory to see it all first hand. This involved an exclusive look at the first prototype of the Griffon 6×6 vehicle, which is currently going through testing, as well as demonstrations of the army’s new sensors and communication systems, including an updated FELIN soldier suite.

 

Indeed, one of the French Army’s biggest achievements is the fact that despite being so ambitious, it has not become so massive that it has collapsed in on itself like other modernisation initiatives undertaken by the UK and US. Studies for Scorpion were initiated as far back as 1999, with work ramping up in the mid-2000s.

‘We have been preparing this programme for a very long time,’ the project manager told me in Satory.

Many might consider this to be a drawn-out procurement process, but as Scorpion begins to provide tangible results, it actually shows that France’s slow and maturing approach has delivered results (much like a vintage Bordeaux wine).

This is in stark contrast to the US Army’s disastrous Future Combat Systems modernisation programme, which ran through the 2000s and was eventually cancelled, wasting billions of dollars in the process.

Similarly, the British Army’s strategy to recapitalise its armoured vehicle fleet in the 2000s, known as the Future Rapid Effects System also ended with little to show except wasted taxpayer’s money and capability gaps. Indeed, the UK is still attempting to pick up the pieces of that failed procurement process and has once again kickstarted acquisition for the 8×8 Mechanised Infantry Vehicle, which will likely be a focus of this year’s DSEI.

Even the British Army’s less ambitious attempts to upgrade its existing inventory of armoured vehicles and replace obsolete subsystems appears to be moving at a snail’s pace. Countries such as France and Germany have already started programmes that will see comprehensive upgrades of their MBT fleets, yet the British have only formally contracted an assessment phase for its ageing Challenger 2, which will determine what needs to be upgraded.

The UK’s attempts to upgrade its Warrior fighting vehicles under the Warrior Capability Sustainment Programme has also been dogged by uncertainty, with a production contract yet to be signed despite the upgrade effort now being in its sixth contracted year. Prime contractor Lockheed Martin UK is understandably anxious to be awarded a production contract to provide some certainty in an increasingly uncertain economic environment.

 

Of course, decisions to delay or cancel modernisation initiatives can be put down to budgetary concerns and pressures. The French, however, spend roughly the same on defence as the UK (and considerably less than the US) yet in terms of ‘effect’ (to use a military term) it appears to have much greater impact and spends its money much more wisely.

French defence industrial capability is also strong, with the country still able to produce high-end equipment for its armed forces unlike the steady erosion seen in the UK and elsewhere.

It will pain some in the defence industry to hear this, but should we be more like the French?

Land Warfare International Aug-Sep 2017

 

The latest edition of Land Warfare International (Aug/Sep 2017) is now available to download FREE on IoS and Andriod. 

Meet Megatron, the British Army’s tank transformer

The British Army’s Challenger main battle tank is a beast of a machine. It weighs around 62t (equivalent to 30 large family cars) and sports a huge 120mm gun, and can go up to 35mph on the roughest terrain.

The Challenger 1 saw combat in the first Gulf War and was then superseded by the Challenger 2 in the 1990s, which fought in the 2003 Iraq war and beyond. Its performance during these conflicts has earned the Challenger the title of one of the best tanks of its generation, up there with the US M1 Abrams and German Leopard 2.

But not content with this, the British Army is constantly looking at how it can boost the Challenger 2’s capabilities further.

Here’s where ‘Megatron’ comes in, it’s the army’s nickname for an experimental Challenger tank that is kitted out with a range of new technologies that could eventually be rolled out across the tank fleet.

Challenger 2-Megatron

While not quite being able to transform into a giant alien robot like its namesake, this version is very much a Challenger 2 on steroids. Operated by the Armoured Trials and Development Unit in Bovington, Megatron has been extensively modified compared to its regular Challenger 2 counterparts.

One of the key elements of Megatron is a significant increase in its armour protection, pushing its combat weight up to 75t, making it one of the heaviest, if not the heaviest, tanks in the world. This armour configuration is similar to the Dorchester Level 2 (DL2) package fitted to Challengers deploying to Iraq for Operation Telic.

To protect the crew, the tank is fitted with double-layered explosive reactive armour blocks on the hull, as well as additional armour blocks on the turret. Slat armour, is fitted to protect the rear of the vehicle against RPG attacks, and the underbody is uparmoured to protect against mines and buried IEDs.

One of its most notable external features is its mobile camouflage system, which is essentially an invisibility cloak for both the visible and thermal spectrum. Indeed, this is no ordinary camouflage netting, this MCS is able to mask the vehicle’s heat signature when viewed through thermal binoculars and can even make the tank look like a car or animal.

Challenger 2-Megatron

MCS is also capable of reducing a vehicle’s radar signature, just like the stealth coating on a fighter jet.

Fielding ‘smart’ camo is a growing trend for land forces around the world, particularly with the proliferation of thermal technologies beyond first-tier militaries. The British Army will field this system on their new Ajax vehicles, and it’s likely this fielding will extend to the Challenger.

The US Army has also trialled MCS on its Stryker 8×8 vehicles that are currently stationed in Europe.

Another external feature of Megatron is a comprehensive ECM suite, evidenced by the array of antennas on top of the turret. These effectively jam signals that could be used to trigger a roadside bomb, creating a safety bubble around the vehicle.

Although these new capabilities give the Challenger formidable capabilities, they also present several challenges. Adding so much armour, for instance, weighs the tank down and puts extra strain on vehicle parts, not least the engine and the suspension. Megatron has reportedly been fitted with a new suspension system and a new 1,500hp engine to retain its mobility.

Challenger Megatron 2

But at 75t, the tank becomes ungainly, particularly when it comes to air mobility and utilisation of infrastructure including bridges (military and civil) and roads.

Megatron is just one example of how the British Army is trying to maintain the combat relevance of its ageing tank, with some of the lessons learned likely informing the ongoing Challenger 2 Life Extension Programme (LEP).

The LEP, currently in its assessment phase, will see the tank get new sighting systems, gun control equipment and an enhanced electronic architecture and brought up to a ‘Mk2’ standard.

Its rifled 120mm main gun could also be replaced, although that is not a main requirement.

Challenger 2 upgrades are long overdue, with allies such as the US (M1), France (Leclerc) and Germany (Leopard 2) already forging ahead with their own upgrade programmes. Russia and China have also been busy developing their own latest-generation tanks, which have the potential to outmatch western tanks in the not-to-distant future.

Megatron, therefore, is the tank that the British Army needs, sooner rather than later.

Revolutionary Road: the path to greater autonomy

During a recent trip to Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of exploring several sights in that beautiful city, including the National Museum of Scotland. There, among the displays – which highlight the country’s contribution to advances in areas such as science, medicine and engineering – was a robot called Freddy.

Its simple name belies its revolutionary nature, since much of the technology written about in the current, and pretty much all issues of Shephard Media’s Unmanned Vehicles magazine can likely be traced back to Freddy.

This particular robot was developed in the 1970s by a talented team from Edinburgh University’s then Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception. It was given the task of assembling wooden toy components presented to it in a ‘jumbled heap’.

Freddy the robot

Using a robotic arm with grippers, a camera and a basic computer, Freddy was able to take the pieces and assemble a wooden toy car. Limited computing power at the time meant this process took around 16 hours to complete.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly complex endeavour and some even believed it was impossible. But those pioneering developers proved the doubters wrong and led the way in artificial perception and its translation into intelligent, human-like responses through computer processing and complex algorithms.

Indeed, read through the current edition of UV UV Front Cover(Volume 22 Issue 2) and you will see a common theme: the pursuit of increased autonomy for unmanned platforms.

The basic concept remains the same as it did for Freddy over 40 years ago – a UV senses its surroundings and makes intelligent decisions about the task for which it has been designated (and even those for which it has not). Advances in sensors, computer processing and artificial intelligence means that, yes, the main idea is similar, but what is achievable is vastly different.

In the edition, writer Rory Jackson examines how UGV OEMs are continuing to insert autonomous functions into their vehicles, mirroring efforts within the commercial automotive world when it comes to the driverless car revolution.

Companies such as Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin and start-up Milrem have pursued a roadmap of greater autonomy to ease soldier burden and increase safety, while at the same time attempting to lower costs. I visited Milrem in Estonia recently to see first-hand how the company is expanding its workforce as it looks to advance autonomous capabilities for its THeMIS UGV.

Milrem THeMIS

In the air domain, UAVs are integrating more intelligent features, including technologies like sense and avoid, not only to ease integration into airspace occupied by manned aircraft and enable beyond-line-of-light operations – as Beth Stevenson details in her analysis of the current state of UAS regulation in the US – but also when it comes to controlling systems, or multiple systems (ie swarms), through a ground control station (GCS).

In this edition, Angus Batey runs through GCS and C2 technologies for UAVs and how there will be extra considerations for air forces as they bring capabilities such as stealth UAVs into service in the future.

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Much will depend on how an advanced stealth platform makes decisions by itself, rather than today’s UAV concept of operations that sees a reliance on external human commands sent via SATCOM. These signals would likely give away a stealth aircraft’s position to enemy air defences.

Another area where platform autonomy will be crucial is underwater. Much like contested airspace in a warzone, communication links to and from a deep-sea robot are inherently difficult. This means that the more decisions an AUV can make by itself, the better.

Heidi Vella explores this in more detail for UV with her take on the growing use of AUVs in the commercial world, and importantly, the challenges still present.

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The key to the adoption of autonomous vehicles will be quantitative evidence that investing in the technology, however expensive, will eventually bring down cost of operations, while also increasing safety and productivity.

So, as you read through our current issue of UV, remember that Freddy, the pioneering Scottish robot, and his legacy, lives on. For those of us who are following the developments in this exciting sector, it will be interesting to see which one of the technologies within this issue, and future editions of UV, will have such a revolutionary effect that we will also be talking about it in 40 years’ time.

The April/May edition of Unmanned Vehicles is out now, download a FREE copy through Shephard Media’s Android and Apple apps.

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