Author Archives: grantturnbull

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The Challenger 1 saw combat in the first Gulf War and was then superseded by the Challenger 2 in the 1990s, which fought in the 2003 Iraq war and beyond.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.

RS20416_UK - Secrets Taking Flight

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.

NASA demonstration.jpg

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.

US Army finally ‘going green’ in Europe

When it comes to operating in the field, one of the most important considerations for any soldier is camouflage. From painting exposed skin with cam cream, to covering vehicles with nets and various bits of foliage, the purpose is the same; blend into your surroundings.

It probably goes without saying that your camouflage varies depending on your environment. Tan colours for desert environments, white for snow conditions and green for woodland. Simple, right?

Unfortunately for the US forces currently stationed in Europe, it’s actually not so simple. Over a decade of fighting in the hot and sandy environments of the Middle East and Central Asia has meant that many of its vehicles are still painted in desert tan – despite being deployed in the woodland environments of Eastern European as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.

The result? Vehicles are very visible, even with attempts at covering them with camouflage nets and tree branches. Quill saw this first hand during a recent visit to Latvia to see the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team and the 1st Battalion 68th Armor Regiment. Some examples of the desert-coloured vehicles can be seen below:

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Can you spot the tank?

Of course you can.

Now the US Army is finally ‘going green’, not by improving its recycling habits, but painting its armoured vehicles in standard woodland colours. On 10 April, the service released photos of one of the first M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks to go through the painting process, with apparently another 400 vehicles to receive a fresh lick of paint.

This equipment belongs to Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, based currently in Germany. Both 66th and 68th Armor Regiments make up the two heavy armour elements of 3ABCT, with M1A2 Abrams at their disposal.

‘The tan tanks were there because we’ve operated in a desert environment for so long,’ said Capt James England, Battle Company commander, in a US Army press release. ‘Now that the terrain has changed, we are painting them green to blend in.’

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The green scheme will be applied to all fighting vehicles in 3ABCT, including M1A2 Abrams, M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M109A6 Paladin self-propelled artillery vehicles. According to the US Army, support vehicles will still retain their tan colours – likely owing to their non-fighting roles behind the front line.

Painting takes around three days, a process that includes washing the vehicles down, drying, applying the paint and then letting the paint dry.

Interestingly, the paint is temporary and, once the tanks and other vehicles return to 3ABCT’s home station at Fort Carson, Colorado, can be stripped off using a pressure washer.

 

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.

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.

The curious case of Iran’s new helo

This week Iran unveiled a new helicopter purported to have been designed and manufactured domestically. According to one Iranian press agency, the new Saba-248 helicopter demonstrates the country’s ‘great headways in manufacturing a broad range of indigenous equipment’.

But as with many Iranian equipment projects, all is not what it seems.

Saba 248 Iran 2

Looking at photographs of the Saba-248, there are clear indications that the basis of helicopter is actually the Italian-made Agusta 109. In fact, dig a little deeper, as our full story shows, and you’ll discover that the Iranian Helicopter Support and Renewal Company (IHSRC) actually used a crashed A109E for the ‘prototype’ Saba.

It’s unclear how much of the A109E has been reverse-engineered and whether Iran can transition the helicopter into full-rate production. Other attempts at indigenous military helicopters – including the Shahed 278 and 285 – don’t appear to have come to much, particularly as many have relied on recycled parts from older helicopters.

Saba 248 Iran 3

It might not be the sexiest part of manufacturing, but supply chain is hugely important.

Years of sanctions means the Iranians don’t have access to OEM spares and its own attempts at parts manufacturing will be limited. As a result, they have become particularly adept at ‘making do’ and somehow keeping aircraft flying that should probably have been retired and scrapped decades ago.

There are numerous examples of US-built aircraft, including the F-14 Tomcat, supplied to the Shah of Iran before the 1979 revolution, that somehow still manage to get airborne. The aviation wing of the army, for example, operates a geriatric fleet of CH-47Cs and AH-1Js.

Of course, this is not the first time that Iran has publicly ‘reverse-engineered’ a crashed western design. Last year, the authorities unveiled a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) that appeared to be based on the US RQ-170 ‘Sentinel’ stealth drone that crashed in the country in 2011. Whether it’s a real capability, or just another cheap knock-off, is anyone’s guess.

The lesson to all this? Take any announcement of a ‘new’ Iranian aircraft with a pinch of salt.

 

 

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