The right gear20 December 2017
Defence technology is having to evolve rapidly to keep pace with the changing nature of the threats faced by the military. Andrew Tunnicliffe talks with Major General Marc Thys about how collaboration can keep armies up to date, and the shared challenges that lie ahead.
In 1968, Albert Einstein said, “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I do know that World War IV will be fought with rocks.” When he made that statement, it’s likely that even such a mind as his would have been unable to envisage the world in which we now live.
Developments in technology, communications, hardware and software have been dramatic, frequently terminally so. Progress has brought with it challenges, new ways in which disputes are caused and battles fought. Technology is not just shaping the outcome of war, but also the vehicles with which it is prosecuted.
“Futurists once wrote a book on war,” says Major General Marc Thys. “They said society would conduct war as it developed. We are developing now through information; this can be seen on ships, in the air, and in our vehicles.”
The general witnessed a lot of change while serving for many years in the Belgian Army, and continues to witness it today. “The nature of conflict has shifted and there is a new paradigm for the Belgian Army,” he says. “There are homeland operations, where we don’t use many armoured vehicles; expedition operations, deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali; and there’s ‘real warfighting’, as it was known during the Cold War.
“The requirements for those three types of operations are all very different. Warfighting is mobile, contested dimensions are now the air and sea, cyber and communications. Expeditionary is more static; you work from compounds, but air is not contested, and you have the full freedom of movement. So the requirements for all these types of operations are a new challenge.”
His words are logical, but nonetheless eye-opening. What he says next only serves to cement the notion that war has changed. “We’re convinced that, as a small defence force, the Belgian Army is not able to develop and sustain complex armoured vehicles itself,” he says. This is why his country, government and colleagues are open to new ideas. “We have to work in partnerships,” he continues. “I think countries that still think they are able to do it alone are misleading themselves.” The Belgian and French military have entered into a strategic partnership, part of which involves developing land vehicles. “The vehicle has become as complex as an aircraft or ship,” he explains. “This means you also need a lot of knowledge, expertise and, especially, intelligence to feed your vehicle with the right information, and protect it against constantly evolving threats. That’s something we can’t do in a country like Belgium, and is why we entered into negotiation with France for our armoured fleet.”
The partnership goes beyond just buying equipment that is similar, but is rather about developing two more or less identical fleets. Ultimately, he says, it will mean the neighbouring nations follow a common approach with shared ambitions.
That includes not just procurement and development but also a strategy that enables a joint doctrine to develop from which training, maintenance strategies and even organisational structures will be mirrored. Thys says this way of working is already evident in the navy and the air force, but is currently less significant on the ground.
Of course, both countries’ armed forces had worked together for many years prior to this. Military alliances such as these – the close bond between the UK and US is another example – don’t happen spontaneously and can be the source of problems if one partner holds different ideals to the other. “In the end what has become the most important thing is not having the biggest gun or the most armour,” says Thys. It’s about the command, communication and information systems on board vehicles.”
As technology evolves, so do the questions it raises, and it’s here that the general feels partnerships can really bear fruit. His focus is firmly on developing a fleet that is ready for modern threats. “If you acknowledge the new type of conflict as a challenge, then you can start looking for the solutions,” says Thys. “A problem remains a problem until it is resolved, and we’re at that stage of looking at how to do things better. I think a partnership with a country that shares the same focus will help us both find the solutions.”
Knowledge is power
Thys believes that IT will play a central role in the evolution of defence technology, particularly the Scorpion programme, in which France and Belgium now have a joint stake. “IT is playing an increasingly important role and will continue to do so for years to come,” he says. “It is also one of the reasons we chose the French as partners. We looked at the market around Belgium and analysed what was on the shelf and being developed. Collecting information and using it at it to its maximum extent will enable us to use this weapon system in the most efficient and effective way.”
The Scorpion programme, which has been around for some time in many guises, is intended to be interoperable across partner nations’ forces, ensuring the smooth running of forces in joint operations, such as those undertaken by NATO. France has fully embraced it, placing its first significant order for vehicles developed as part of the programme in April 2017.
“The biggest challenge is the interoperability of systems,” says Thys. “Vehicles need to have a common configuration, which is something that has been quite difficult in the past due to the sheer amount and variation in fleets.”
Military vehicles are packed with sensors, continually feeding information back to central command and sharing it with other units in the vicinity. “The biggest development in recent years has been in the communication systems,” says Thys.
“The next thing is the networking of all vehicles,” he continues, anticipating a day when every single element of defence is connected.
Ships, planes and land vehicles will be able to communicate, providing the best possible intelligence in order to provide the most appropriate responses to whatever threats they face.
There are, or course, drawbacks associated with sharing designs, but Thys argues that they are a price worth paying. “In the end,” he says, “you come across discussions of sovereignty, but I’m convinced you can become more sovereign by having a good partnership, rather than by having a vehicle that isn’t able to meet current and present threats.”
He says he and his colleagues have significant experience in making partnerships work. “It’s like a marriage,” he says. “It needs work; you have to speak to each other every day.”
That isn’t stopping the Belgian Army from continuing to look at other agreements, however. “We are seeking partnerships now,” confirms Thys.
“As an example, we’re working on a partnership with the Dutch and Danish militaries for our special ops command. I’m looking at what we can do in the future with Germany and the UK. I’m convinced that the link – despite Brexit – between the UK and Belgium remains very important for our security. The same goes for the US.”
Whatever changes the military fleet undergoes, it will always require personnel to make it work. “The skills required for these new fleets are not changing,” says Thys.
“The face of war never changes, and that is one of the challenges. It has become very complex, but systems and vehicles must still be very repairable. When you’re deployed in the middle of nowhere and your vehicle breaks down, you still must be able to repair it.
“War and conflicts are human activities, and the soldiers will always have to be moved from one place to another. So the vehicle’s importance to defence will never change.”