A conflict of interest20 December 2018
Experts believe that the majority of the security threats confronting modern militaries over the next few decades will involve urban conflicts, facing enemies equipped with near-peer capable Chinese and Russian armaments. Neil Thompson talks with Dr William Suttie of Britain’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory about the implications this has for the latest developments in the field of land systems.
From autonomous conveyances to electrical-powered engines, the vehicle of the future is starting to look very different to the types of mechanised fleets that have dominated the battlefield since the end of the First World War. Now, with fighting in cities and other built-up areas expected to dominate 21st-century conflicts, the race is on to discover new, manoeuvrable and versatile platforms that can operate successfully within a confining urban battlespace, against enemies equipped with sophisticated armaments.
According to Dr William Suttie, an expert in the field of military vehicle and equipment research and development, who has worked for the UK’s Ministry of Defence for over 25 years, this sense of shifting priorities is already changing the way that armed forces around the globe are developing and procuring new equipment.
Suttie is currently the technical lead for mounted combat systems at the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, where he reveals that the objects of his work are undergoing several gradual (but profound) changes, in areas ranging from propulsion to weapon lethality. Currently, over a decade and a half of combat experience has seen mechanised units relegated to limited counterinsurgency roles against guerrilla insurgents acting as light infantry. Conflicts involving Western armies have been limited to fighting these small groups of enemies, often while they are blended into civilian populations, or hiding within remote and awkward types of terrain for mounted from which they emerge to stage ambushes. But many observers have worried that the importance of retaining a fleet that is capable of conducting mechanised force-on-force type engagements has been lost in an era where conflicts against peer, or nearequal, adversaries has seemed unlikely.
In fact, the importance of armoured ground combat units is actually growing at present, not least because the battlespace of the future, while increasingly urban, is one where potential foes are increasingly armed with Russian and Chinese-made weapons. The global proliferation of sophisticated drones, electronic warfare systems, precision munitions, armoured vehicles and artillery means that any Asian, European, African or Middle Eastern battlefield that international forces are likely to enter is one that will require them to be ready for ground-combat against products produced by themselves, or by their nearpeer competitors in the global arms market. That in turn is sparking a drive to research new designs that can match or beat popular non-Western ones. However, Suttie himself makes it very clear in his remarks that he foresees these coming changes unfolding as a gradual process, rather than a sudden revolution.
He predicts that current systems will change gradually, as subtle moves eventually add up to a paradigm shift away from today’s manned, hydrocarbonpowered fleets, still equipped with conventional missiles or firearms.
For one thing, tomorrow’s military conveyances may well be fitted out with less lethal munitions, to avoid causing excessive collateral and infrastructural damage whenever there is heavy fighting inside residential zones.
Nor will that be the only upcoming change in emphasis according to Suttie. “Concepts for new land-based platforms include smaller, more agile models, featuring ones with skid and all-wheel steering to enable manoeuvre in built-up areas,” he says. “The use of ‘urban specific’ vehicles may not be considered costeffective but future platforms will likely be created to be fitted with special-to-role equipment, such as dozer blades for barrier clearance, to support urban operations, and weapon fits that minimise the eventual collateral damage.”
Take it to the limit
These efforts partially reflect the spatial and ethical limitations engineers face when coming up with machines capable of fighting effectively inside a built-up area. Concern for local causalities aside, the use of heavy firepower inside an urban battlespace creates natural fortresses for an enemy to occupy within the ruins, as well as destroying transport corridors and disrupting daily life for the area’s true inhabitants. Destroying a settlement loses the battle to win the hearts of locals. It also creates the conditions in which groups thrive.
But the plans for new designs reflect how today’s militaries are benefitting from the same technological trends in computing, propulsion, robotics and communication that are revolutionising the capabilities of the civilian world. While this has some immediate implications, others are more long term. What is clear is that in even in the immediate future, there will be much more use being made of remote control and unmanned platforms, and a focus on the automation of individual functions within a vehicle.
Suttie believes that the units most likely to be trialled as first adopters of such technologies are those platforms most concerned with logistics, copying trends elsewhere. He foresees that, as with driver aids and autonomous driving in the civil domain, there will be a push from militaries to use more unmanned delivery systems within the next five to ten years, with greater levels of autonomy being introduced only as the technology advances. “As time goes on, there is likely to be a progression from remote control robotic models to increasing levels of autonomy as technology, and confidence in it, improves,” he says. “But claims of fielding things like ‘robotic soldiers’ are often exaggerated and the timescales involved in these statements are unrealistic.”
Suttie adds that a key factor slowing the rush towards full automisation, apart from its practicality at this early stage of the development process, is the fact that such advanced and ‘smart’ robotic creations would be very expensive. These systems would need a high level of support to function well on the battlefield, ironically negating the very benefits they are meant to give the armed forces interested in building them. “At present therefore, studies for future land combat capabilities are currently assuming a mix of crewed and unmanned platforms working together,” he says. “The drivers for the use of unmanned platforms include reducing risks to personnel and increasing the effective ‘mass’ and ‘reach’ of the force, enabling a deployed force to be more effective and ‘do more with less’. Within the British armed forces, a range of tasks such as route proving, reconnaissance, target detection and designation, and communications, are all currently being considered.”
While future land platforms will definitely have a greater degree of automation and autonomous operability than at present, Suttie warns that the degree to which full AI will be used, rather than more traditional rules or algorithmbased solutions, remains an area of global debate. This is due to the challenges of validating and verifying whether these work well enough to support their eventual certification. For example, neither robotics nor AI are yet considered advanced, reliable or safe enough for the UK’s armed forces to start creating fully autonomous fighting vehicles. The notorious December 2011 hacking of a US RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone by Iranian military cyber warfare experts as it operated near the Iranian city of city of Kashmar, remains a cautionary tale. Scientists are continuing to study such design problems however, and Suttie thinks that progress is slowly being made.
“Our ongoing studies are addressing platforms’ resilience to cyberattack,” he says. “We are conducting research covering solutions to prevent attacks and to recognise and respond autonomously when such attacks occur. Work is being carried out to ensure unmanned systems can continue to operate when GPS and communications are denied to them.”
Nothing but change
One area where change is coming more quickly to land platforms however, is the spread of electrically-powered vehicles (EVs). These EVs are already considered a key future technology. Today’s concepts for the latest cutting edge military ground fleets are mostly based on “electric drive solutions” according to Suttie, who points out that these can now provide the armed forces with significant efficiency and operational benefits over today’s petrol or diesel-powered engines. British studies to date have assessed the mobility, survivability, packaging and efficiency benefits of switching to the new engine technology, and found them to be distinctly positive.
These same investigations have considered the safety issues associated with the use of battery technologies and high voltages in fighting vehicles, and found no issues. The volatility of hydrocarbons has always made their use problematic on the battlefield, and their potential vulnerability to attack in the modern era was highlighted last year. In one incident, a lone drone was used to infiltrate an ammunition dump 60 miles from Ukraine’s border with Russia. It was carrying a single thermite grenade as its payload, the detonation of which set off a series of secondary explosions that killed one person, injured five others, and caused a $1 billion worth of damage. The parallel weaknesses of a large petrol storage site to such a strike are obvious. Moreover, being able to sidestep the logistical nightmare of arranging enough oil tankers to continuously offload huge quantities of fuel for tanks, jets and trucks operating inside a theatre is extremely attractive to mission planners.
The future of mounted combat systems will remain a particular focus for the likes of the EU and US, whose armed forces continue to see action in the Afghan theatre and elsewhere. Producing products that can cope with conditions on the battlefields of the Middle East and Europe, where adversaries have been state-backed, and thus equipped with advanced weaponry, or else elusive non-state actors, remains imperative.
In an age of rapid technological change, this is a strategic priority for Western forces in particular, since these forces have now been continually at war somewhere on the planet since the 9/11 attacks. That exposure has produced a wealth of practical experience about the technical needs an up-to-date land platform will have to have in order to successfully prosecute the next war. Defence companies will soon have to show they can build a product that meets them.