How do armed forces best equip their troops for contemporary and future operating environments? This remains one of the most critical questions which must be addressed by governments worldwide and one which ultimately cannot be answered in a simple fashion.
The operational environment continues to evolve and very rarely do armed forces, industry or academia successfully predict where in the world militaries will be next asked to operate, and exactly how they will be employed. This has significant implications for all types of equipment fielded by military formations, ranging from small arms and associated ammunition through to body armour and communications.
Nobody could have predicted how, following US- and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led international asymmetric campaigns in the relatively permissive environments of Afghanistan and Iraq during the last decade, NATO forces would once again be considering action on the Alliances eastern European flanks against the much more conventional threat of Russia. Such considerations have emanated from that country's involvement in the Ukraine civil war from 2014 onwards, and its subsequent annexation of the formerly Ukrainian region of Crimea on the Black Sea on 18 March 2014.
Additionally, few military experts considered the evolution of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgents fighting in northern Iraq and Syria which now employ conventional armour formation manoeuvre tactics to successfully attack and hold entire towns and cities. Furthermore, certainly nobody expected the recent number of 'Lone Wolf' attacks being carried out in the name of ISIS across the globe, the most recent being the attacks by self-confessed ISIS cadre Seifeddine Rezgul Yacoubi in the Tunisian Mediterranean holiday resort of Souse on 26 June, which claimed 77 dead and injured holiday-makers.
Long acquisition processes in countries around the world have also resulted in soldier equipment taking years to achieve acceptance into service with military units, resulting in the risk that the operating environment could have evolved beyond those particular requirements and therefore signalled redundancy of the systems in question before it is even deployed.
Urgent Operational Requirements (UORs), especially those generated by NATO and allied nations operating in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade, provided an interim solution to the short-term variations in the operating environment discussed above, although relatively small in number. Supplies of Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles and heavier calibre weapons during the conflicts in the above-mentioned countries are good examples of this process. However, consideration of the longer-term view remains significant for both industry and governments as they move forward to contemplate future threats.
Special Operations Forces (SOF) have generally benefited from a more flexible acquisition process to enable them to be outfitted rapidly with the tools that they need for the job, allowing the procurement of equipment in smaller volumes in much shorter periods of time than the procurement cycles for conventional forces. This has allowed comparatively smaller SOF units to pass on lessons learned to larger, conventional military formations, providing important information for longer-term acquisition plans. Such a trend continues to prove vital with 'Green Army' units adopting equipment initially trialled and employed by SOF.
One just has to take a look at operations in Afghanistan over the past ten years to see how soldier equipment has evolved in response to changing Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) in countering insurgents. Significant changes were witnessed in terms of lethality, protection, mobility, and Command and Control (C2) technology and this compendium will consider developments in each of these particular areas.
Attempting to identify the current and future character of conflict, senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Ben Barry, described a significant U-turn in the contemporary environment with a return to more conventional operations. As an example, he cited the development of TTPs by ISIS, which he claimed, means that the organisation was capable of performing conventional manoeuvre and mounting mature campaigns using artillery, armoured vehicle and main battle tanks. Mr. Barry also described how ISIS continues to use reconnaissance units to identify gaps in Iraqi Army and Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) lines to enable columns of artillery and armoured vehicles (captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armed forces earlier in the campaign) to exploit and successfully attack urban conurbations.
Speaking at the Soldier Technology conference in London in June, Mr. Barry explained how ISIS had taken control of the central Iraqi town of Ramadi during a sandstorm, with combatants bombarding the area for days beforehand with mortar and artillery Indirect Fires (IDF). This was followed with multiple attacks, supported by joint fires aimed at disabling enemy aircraft on airfields with individual suicide bombers and truck bombs driven by suicide attackers being utilised to breach an entry point before dismounted fighters exploited the breach with small arms attacks.
This, he explained, had signalled a return to the concept of combined arms warfare; a significant shift away from the insurgency tactics employed in Afghanistan and Iraq by assorted Islamist guerillas operating in these theatres towards more conventional land forces tactics; a detailed account of the US-led air campaign against ISIS can be found in Fred Shepherd's 'Up in the Air' article in this issue. All of a sudden NATO and coalition partners combating ISIS both in the air and, to a lesser and more covert extent, on the ground must now consider an entirely different Concept of Operation (CONOP) to counter this latest threat with arguably much of the equipment procured over the last decade for operations in Afghanistan redundant in this particular fight. Mr. Barry highlighted a series of areas where capability gaps required immediate attention: These include protection against IDF; supply of anti-tank guided weapons with the ability to counter Active Vehicle Self Protection Systems (AVSPS); and target acquisition devices capable of accurately operating in populated, urban environments.
Additionally, the future make-up of the lowest fighting formation, the squad or section, will have a significant effect on the future equipping of warriors with the pioneering US Marine Corps (USMC) considering reducing the size of its combat squads from 13 members down to anywhere between eight and ten personnel. In comparison, the British Army operates with an eight-member section, which can be broken down into two four-member fire teams. As Mr. Barry explained, "There needs to be diverse in the infantry squad in relation to size and mix of weapons. With modern infantry fighting vehicles, you have to accept that you're going to fit less personnel in them because of the decreasing size, weight and power of the vehicles and the increasing quantity of equipment carried by the soldiers."
One major trend which has emerged from thoughts relating to the future size of sections and squads is a modular and scalable 'toolkit' or 'golf bag' approach, allowing the smallest force elements and even individual operators in the SOF environment to select from a wide inventory of equipment best suited to the particular mission being undertaken. This could encompass the selection of the most applicable ammunition, size and extent of body armour and C2 sensors.
In the realm of C2 technology, USMC director of Marine Expeditionary Rifle Squad affairs, Mark Richter explained to Armada the growing trends towards procurement of "information dissemination systems, tactical Situational Awareness (SA) and Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)" technology which could be carried by the individual dismounted soldier as well as optimised to assist in the overall identification and classification of targets for a larger formation of troops.
However, Mr. Richter was quick to highlight complications regarding payload capacity with the USMC looking to initiate an "Operational Load Study" in 2016 to consider Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) expectations and limitations moving forward. Such studies will have a significant influence on the future equipping of dismounted soldiers in particular.
Other equipment targets for the USMC include digital interoperability at the squad and multi-national levels, and the integration of equipment into body armour. As he surmised, "We need to respond to emerging needs because everything is constantly changing ... We want to develop an integration tool box and see the dismounted squad as a system with digital interoperability linking ground forces to airborne platforms with regards to image and data as well as mobility platforms."
Also identifying future trends which could help equip the next-generation soldier, the head of business development for Swiss optronics specialists Vectronix, Philipp Conrad described to Armada several "mega-trends" in the market, comprising, "Connectivity, individualisation and urbanisation ... This is how we will maximise the efficiency of tactical operations," he explained while highlighting how connectivity must allow for imagery to be provided to soldiers at the lowest level on a mission in order to provide them with real-time information to support tactical decision-making.
Urbanisation, he continued, focuses on close quarter combat at short range, taking into account target acquisition during homogeneous light conditions. As an example, he described how glass window panes affected thermal imaging while constantly changing urban landscapes as witnessed with the destruction visited on Syria and northern Iraq provide additional complications for SA. "The modern soldier has to have...